Jubilation, relief, and a little disappointment on the West Philippine Sea

Jubilation, relief, and a little disappointment on the West Philippine Sea
Atin Ito fishing boat finds itself between a Chinese Coast Guard ship and the Philippine Coast Guard. —ALL PHOTOS BY EDWIN BACASMAS

Jubilant, relieved, but a bit disappointed at not coming close to Bajo de Masinloc, also known as Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal.

That was how some people felt at the end of last week’s small flotilla of the “Atin Ito” coalition that had for its mission to supply food and fuel to fishermen at Bajo de Masinloc and to assert Philippine sovereign rights over its exclusive economic zone in the West Philippine Sea (WPS).

West Philippine Sea
A flotilla of small motorized fishing bancas accompany the Atin Ito convoy in a show of solidarity.

The excitement among the 160-odd Atin Ito volunteers, journalists, foreign observers and boat crews was palpable. There were interminable selfies and groufies all around even as the first boat started to sail out of a private port in the town of Masinloc in Zambales.

West Philippine Sea
Send-off at a private port in Masinloc with a strong message to China

Others who stayed behind for one reason or another formed a cheery send-off crowd, hugging their friends, comrades and colleagues to bid bon voyage.

Members of one enthusiastic group of supporters from Bunyog Pagkakaisa partylist waved small Philippine flags and displayed a banner with the message “Atin ang Pinas, China layas!” (The Philippines is ours, China scram!) as they chanted, “West Philippine Sea, Atin ito!” (West Philippine Sea is ours!)

Five fishing boats initially comprised the main convoy, four of them looking like giant bancas that had large outriggers. Powered by jeepney diesel engines, these boats called “pangulong” are normally used for net fishing in the high seas.

About 100 small bancas with one or two men on board served as the escorts of the main convoy for the first leg of the planned voyage to Bajo de Masinloc, about 230 kilometers west of Masinloc, which began around 7:30 a.m. on May 15.

Objectives achieved

On the West Philippine Sea
Philippine Coast Guard maneuvers to protect fishing boats from a Chinese Coast Guard ship.

At noon of Day One and some 14 nautical miles (26 km) from Zambales, the Atin Ito coalition declared that it had already achieved its three main objectives, including the launch of the “peace and solidarity” convoy into the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. 

Symbolic buoys to assert sovereign rights are planted outside the municipal waters of Masinloc, Zambales.

The coalition also deployed symbolic buoys to mark the country’s sovereign rights over the West Philippine Sea, and completed the first round of distribution of supplies to the municipal fishermen who escorted the five boats beyond the edge of Zambales’ 12-nm (22-km) territorial waters.

The fifth boat, FB Limbos, returned to Zambales with the small fishermen, leaving the four others—the lead boat Bing Bing, and Paty, John and Aguian—to continue the voyage.

Pakistani priest Father Moon leads the Mass on the FB Aguian.

At around 6 p.m., the convoy sighted a China Coast Guard (CCG) ship for the first time since it left Masinloc. CCG 4108 was sailing in the opposite direction on the right side of the boats. 

Meanwhile, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) patrol boat BRP Bagacay, which had been keeping the convoy company since around 10 a.m., positioned itself between the boats and the much bigger CCG ship.

CCG 4108 then made a sharp turn behind the Aguian, the tail of the convoy, and steamed away at a fast clip along the boat’s left side before disappearing in the day’s fading light. 

The PCG reported that the CCG vessel continued to shadow the convoy from about 1.6 km away.

Secret ‘advance party’

Early Thursday morning, May 16, the organizers of the all-civilian mission triumphantly announced “mission accomplished.” They said the boats would be heading back to the port of Subic after a 10-member team formed in secret was able to reach 20 nm (37 km) off Bajo de Masinloc.

Filipino fishermen receive fuel from the humanitarian mission.

It turned out that the “advance party” left Subic incognito a day ahead of the main convoy and distributed food supplies and fuel to the fishermen early dawn of Thursday.

The change in plans was part of a “contingency” the Atin Ito leadership had decided, according to Robert Francis Garcia, the volunteer team leader on the Aguian.

Rafaela David, coconvener of Atin Ito, said a small group had breached China’s “massive and illegal blockade” of Bajo de Masinloc.

The action was a “testament to the ingenuity, resourcefulness and bravery of the Filipino spirit amidst formidable challenges,” David, who happened to celebrate her 36th birthday on that day, said in a statement.

By then, the convoy was about 50 nm (93 km) from the shoal.

“China may possess larger and more vessels, and wield strong water cannons, but we possess a secret weapon: our ‘diskarteng Pinoy,’ which, when coupled with determination and love for fellow citizens and country, can surmount even the most daunting adversity,” she said.

West Philippine Sea
Filipinos harvest fish from a “payao” (artificial reef) in the West Philippine Sea.

Mark Figueras, who led the secret operation, later told reporters that they were disguised as fishermen when they took off from Subic at 7 a.m. on May 14. By 11 p.m. the same day, they were within 20 nm (37 km) of the shoal and had latched on to a “payao,” an indigenous artificial reef, where they rested until early the next morning.

At around 4 a.m. on Wednesday, they radioed the fishermen in the vicinity that they would be distributing food and fuel. 

Not long after, several CCG ships surrounded them without warning. A People’s Liberation Army-Navy ship appeared and a helicopter flew overhead, prompting them to pull back about 10 nm (18.5 km) farther away from Bajo de Masinloc.

“Actually, the advance team planned that—not to enter [the shoal]. Our decision really was to distribute aid,” Figueras said. “But in truth, we were prepared [to go in]. If I were able to come closer, I would have planted a tarp. That’s what makes me feel bad.”

As a result of the advance team’s action, the Filipino fishermen were shooed farther away from the shoal by the Chinese, he said.

Understandable decision

West Philippine Sea
Atin Ito volunteers and journalists aboard the Aguian

The reporter Marcos Shiang, 39, who covers military and foreign affairs for Taiwan’s SET TV, said that despite being unable to get close to Bajo de Masinloc, he was impressed by the way the convoy was planned and organized. He was on the Aguian.

Although the convoy was unable to get close to the shoal, “at least we could see” how the CCG vessels and even a warship blocked the way to the shoal in an aggressive way, he said.

“I thought that we could get closer to Scarborough … so I am a little bit disappointed. But I can understand why they had this kind of decision,” said Shiang, who has covered Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. If the convoy had pushed on, “something out of our control” might happen, he added.

Journalists “definitely wish to watch the big-scale confrontation,” Shiang said, but he did not want to belittle the Atin Ito leadership’s reasons for turning back.

“I also want to emphasize that we Taiwanese are harassed by Chinese fighters and ships every day. We know how it feels, and Taiwan and the Philippines are on the same boat. I hope to enhance the relationship between our two countries and people,” he said.

Oppression and bullying

Atin Ito, West Philippine Sea
Coverstory.ph team composed of Edwin Bacasmas (left), Jun Bandayrel (third from left, front row) and Oliver Teves (fifth) joins the convoy with other media practitioners and volunteers

The Aguian’s volunteer logistics officer, student leader Jenny Jabon, said she was happy that one group was able to make it through the blockade even if she and the others were unable to.

“In our experience during our almost two days on the open sea, we saw the kind of oppression and bullying by China. This is not normal,” Jabon, 21, said. “This is something that has now become a kind of burden for me—how I can tell this story to my community and the youth in our school, and how I can make them experience or immerse them in what I had gone through during these two days of our mission.”

“This is what victory is for me—the hope and courage to be able to tell this story to the community and what we are fighting for,” she added. 

Jabon is a senior public administration student at City College of San Jose del Monte in Bulacan and the president of the Junior Association of Local Colleges and Universities that groups 50 student council presidents nationwide.

She said she felt both angry and scared when the CCG ship came close and fast toward her boat and imagined a scene in her mind of a water-cannon attack. “I tried to calm myself then,” she said. “After our debriefing after the event, that was when I said, Oh my gosh, I’m still alive!”

No regrets

Sangguniang Kabataan Councilor Frank dela Torre, the youngest of the volunteers at 18, said he, too, had no regrets that the convoy did not come close to the shoal. But he admitted that his curiosity about this “speck” on the planet remains.

“We didn’t need to push ourselves to reach Bajo de Masinloc,” said Dela Torre, a freshman at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines and a member of the Akbayan Youth. “What was important was we achieved the objective of the mission. For me, it was enough that we were in the waters [of the West Philippine Sea] and we became part of the mission. For me, that was so fulfilling and overwhelming.”

Dela Torre said he felt no fear when he saw the CCG ship heading toward the Aguian, and only thought about reporting what he was seeing and coordinating actions as the boat’s management officer.

He said he felt more empowered when he learned that he was the youngest in the Atin Ito coalition.

“That’s something that also surprised me—that I had an additional bandwidth of strength,” he said.

Is he joining the next voyage?

“For sure!” Dela Torre declared.

Read more: ‘Atin Ito’ sets new mission to Scarborough Shoal to assert Filipinos’ fishing rights

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