‘Spratly 5’ go swimming in Pag-asa
Despite protests from China, a contingent of lawmakers on Wednesday proceeded with its “peace” mission to the disputed Spratly Islands, landing on what the local military commander described as the Philippines’ “unsinkable aircraft carrier.”
Flying on two chartered 15-seat planes, Representatives Walden Bello and Kaka Bag-ao (Akbayan), Teddy Brawner Baguilat (Ifugao) and Ben Evardone (Eastern Samar) landed on Pag-asa Island to assert Philippine sovereignty over the area and to urge all claimant-countries to resolve territorial disputes peacefully in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
A military plane joined the trip from Puerto Princesa.
Part of the delegation were journalists, Kalayaan Mayor Eugenio Bito-onon, Palawan Gov. Baham Mitra and the head of the military’s Western Command, Lt. Gen. Juancho Sabban.
The peace mission included R&R (rest and relaxation) for some of the visitors.
Baguilat said the delegation was not carrying cannons or bringing in jet fighters. “We’re just here as meaningful tourists,” he said in jest.
“We’re tourists but we don’t need to have (foreign visas here),” added Bag-ao, who, with Baguilat and Mitra swam in the island’s clear waters.
At 37 hectares, Pag-asa is the biggest island controlled by the Philippines. It has a civilian population of about 40 people, mostly workers of the Kalayaan municipal government.
“Let there be no doubt that this is Philippine territory. There’s no doubt that these are Philippine grounds, and the Filipino people are prepared to defend their soil,” Bello said after landing.
“But this is a peaceful mission. There’s no intention to be an aggressor,” he said.
Bello brought two new Philippine flags (one as reserve) for the island to replace the tattered tricolor on Pag-asa.
He and the others sang the national anthem and recited the Panatang Makabayan during a flag-raising ceremony in front of a small one-story town hall on the island, which also has a military camp.
It was the first time that members of the House of Representatives and the governor of Palawan visited the island.
The Chinese embassy in Manila on Tuesday denounced the visit, saying it would only destabilize peace in the region and “sabotage” China-Philippines relations.
Tensions between the Philippines and China have risen recently because of incidents like the Chinese allegedly firing on Filipino fishermen, Chinese vessels harassing a Filipino oil exploration ship, and the building of structures in unoccupied islets claimed by the Philippines.
So far this year, the military has recorded nine incidents like these, all of them involving the Chinese, the last one being the discovery of a “floating wharf” in Sabina Reef during the first week of July.
China refers to the disputed waters as the South China Sea.
Bello said the delegation wanted to emphasize the need to resolve the dispute multilaterally in the community of nations.
He said the visit would also serve as a data-gathering opportunity on how to help develop the Philippine infrastructure and community in the area.
“We are here for peace. I’m wondering why China has taken that posture? It’s unfair. We should not be frightened,” said Evardone.
The island lies 480 kilometers west of Palawan and 34 hours away by boat from the province’s Rizal town.
“We really should develop this. Pag-asa is an unsinkable aircraft carrier. We are the one (claimant) with an airstrip in the middle (of the Spratlys),” Sabban said.
With the Philippine military planning to set aside P70 billion in the next three years to modernize its forces, Sabban expressed the hope that the country would finally be able to buy jet fighters, build more naval stations in Palawan and develop a wharf in Pag-asa.
Currently, a ship has to drop anchor 4 km from Pag-asa and use rubber boats to deploy or fetch military personnel to or from the island, with waves reaching up to about 3 meters in rough weather.
“Of course, we will also fight,” Ensign Conrado Arcellana, the island commander, replied when asked what would happen if foreign invaders attacked.
The island has three 20-millimeter antiaircraft guns, three 40-millimeter antiaircraft guns and bunkers, Arcellana said.
“Duty calls. We were assigned here so we will do our job,” he said.
For recreation, the soldiers play billiards, ping-pong and basketball. With generators, the island community has electricity from 6 a.m. to 12 p.m. and from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. so they can watch DVDs on television.
“We have plenty of seafood from lapu-lapu to lobster. We also have gin. We only have hard drinks here. Nothing light,” Arcellana said.
Grass-cutter Arcel Belidan said he and his wife Aiza came to Pag-asa because he found it hard to land a job in the mainland (Palawan).
His wife gave birth to a baby girl on March 15. The couple named her Chinalyn Lee Belidan.
“That was the name my husband thought of before we came here,” Aiza said.
She said three women helped her give birth because there was no nurse or doctor at the island’s health center.
“We’re OK here. This is where my husband works so this is where we are,” Aiza said.
Apart from a contingent of seven Coast Guard men, two policemen are assigned to the island but there have been no crime reported in years, locals said.
Doctor or nurse
Kalayaan residents and the soldiers asked the legislators to provide them a wharf, a doctor or a nurse, a specialist who could operate the desalination plant donated by the US military (the locals get their water from a filtration system), and a machine to cut the grass on the runway.
Before leaving, the lawmakers also posed for photographs with locals, who waved Philippine flags, and a banner that read: West Philippine Sea.
Besides staying at Pag-asa for more than four hours, the visitors also flew by at least seven other islets and reefs occupied by the Philippines.
52 islands, reefs
Besides the Philippines and China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei are claiming wholly or partly the Spratly group of islands.
Out of around 52 islands and reefs in the Spratlys, the Philippines controls five islets, two sandbars and two reefs, Mayor Bito-onon said.
On Ajungin shoal, the military had to put a wreck of a ship as a sign of the Philippine claim but the wreck needs replacement as it is too old.
According to the Western Command, Vietnam controls 22 isles and reefs; China, six; and Taiwan, one.
The Air Force has 12 patrol routes in the area, making sure that landmarks are visited at least “twice a month.” The military also relies on Filipino fishermen for information.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.