Momentous Christmas mission stirs Filipinos’ outrage over Chinese aggression

Kapitan Felix Oca
PEACE, NOT CONFLICT By embarking on a three-day mission to bring holiday cheer to Filipino troops and settlers in different outposts in the West Philippine Sea, the “Atin Ito (This is Ours)” coalition is hoping to foster peace in the region, Fr. Robert Reyes says. —CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Everyone on board the MV Kapitan Felix Oca—including youth and student leaders, fishers, indigenous peoples, activists, members of civil organizations—knew that the three-day mission to Lawak Island in the Spratlys was fraught with danger. But they signed up, anyway.

So that when the first civilian-led mission aimed at bringing Christmas cheer to Filipino troops and settlers at outposts in the West Philippine Sea was called off, most were despondent. It felt worse than being water-cannoned, according to activist priest Fr. Robert Reyes.

Still, they were able to deliver their message, said Reyes, one of two priests aboard the Kapitan Felix Oca. He added that by now, the Chinese military would have realized that not only the Philippine government but also ordinary Filipinos are raising a hue and cry over China’s increasing aggression in the West Philippine Sea. 

“The Filipino people are beginning to raise their voices,” Reyes told “The voices of ordinary citizens can now be heard by China: that we’re not going to allow infringement on our sovereignty.” 

‘This is Ours’ 

In the wee hours of Dec. 10, the Kapitan Felix Oca carrying members of the multisector “Atin Ito (This is Ours)” coalition set sail for Lawak from El Nido, Palawan. Only hours earlier three Philippine supply vessels en route to Ayungin Shoal, where Philippine troops are stationed on the BRP Sierra Madre, were water-cannoned by a Chinese Coast Guard ship. 

The plan was to unload the Atin Ito cargo of Christmas gifts and other provisions at Lawak for eventual delivery to troops and settlers on remote Philippine outposts, such as Pagasa Island and Ayungin Shoal. 

Throughout the journey, the water was calm, but the heat was stifling. When the temperature eased by late afternoon, most of the passengers gathered on the deck for the Sunday Mass.  

As Reyes was delivering his homily at around 4 p.m., a Chinese Coast Guard ship came into view, changed its course and appeared to sail straight at the Kapitan Felix Oca, a 5,000-ton, 14-meter training ship owned by the Maritime Academy of Asia and the Pacific.  

Fear fell over the crew and passengers. Reyes called for an intermission, and advised the “agitated” crowd to go to the sides of the ship and resume their prayers.   

“We were being shadowed. They were just there,” Reyes narrated. “And having said that, it was difficult for me to continue with my homily.”

It turned out that the Kapitan Felix Oca was being shadowed by four Chinese vessels. 

At past 5 p.m., the ship’s captain, Jorge dela Cruz, announced that he had decided to call off the mission and return to the port of El Nido, for everyone’s safety.

Fear and sadness

As the ship was making a U-turn, a Chinese vessel speeding at 21 knots crossed its path, ratcheting up agitation among the passengers, Reyes said.  

“You can sense that there was a very strong atmosphere of fear, of sadness, because we were turning back. Because, you know, people were saying after the Mass, ‘We all signed a waiver’,” the priest said, referring to a form signed by the volunteers clearing the organizers and shipowner of any liability in case of injury or death. 

“We were ready to face any kind of eventuality, whether we were doused by water cannons,” he said, recalling the volunteers’ outrage at the decision. “But even if you were ready to face the fear, there’s a consequence.”

According to news reports, the Atin Ito vessel was almost halfway in its voyage when at 3:40 p.m. it encountered a People’s Liberation Army Navy warship coming from the opposite direction, some 24 kilometers from Ayungin. 

Another Chinese warship appeared a few minutes later and was followed by CCG 5303, which closed in at 4.6 kilometers toward the Kapitan Felix Oca. 

When he resumed the celebration of the Mass after 20 minutes, Reyes called for sharers from among the assembly. Three volunteers rose, still shaken by the experience.  

“What was essential about the sharing is that you saw how these three people were very determined to take the supreme risk of losing their lives perhaps,” Reyes told CoverStory. “Because it was important that they showed their love for country, their love for the smaller fisherfolk, their love and appreciation for our soldiers who were assigned to the BRP Sierra Madre. They wanted to have accomplished that.”

At the same time, they were disappointed that the mission was called off to avoid conflict with the Chinese ships, Reyes said, adding: “There was a very strong sense that we abandoned the cause.”

In the end, a debriefing helped to restore calm on the ship. The Chinese vessels made sure that the Kapitan Felix Oca didn’t attempt to resume its voyage to Lawak, shadowing it until 4:30 a.m. on Monday. It reached the El Nido port around 2 p.m.

Successful delivery

But another vessel, the ML Chowee, managed to make it to Lawak at 5 a.m. on Monday, delivering the Christmas gifts to the delighted Philippine Navy and Coast Guard personnel on the island. 

On that same day, as many as 11 Chinese maritime militia vessels were observed inside Ayungin Shoal, while dozens more were clustered on its periphery. The Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation called it “a calculated show of force by Beijing,” per an Inquirer report. 

The BRP Sierra Madre, a dilapidated World War II-era warship, was intentionally grounded on Ayungin by the government in 1999 to serve as a military outpost. The shoal lies within the Philippines’ 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone.

Much has happened since the Atin Ito Christmas mission was aborted. Chinese Ambassador to Manila Huang Xilian has been summoned by the Department of Foreign Affairs over the latest incidents of Chinese harassment in the waters off Zambales on Saturday and in Ayungin Shoal on Sunday. 

In that same meeting, the Chinese ambassador lodged Beijing’s “strong protests” against Manila’s “infringement” on “Chinese territory.”

Reyes said the matter required the attention of a greater number of citizens: “More and more Filipinos, individuals, groups should lend their voices to the call to protect our territorial waters, our territory. That sovereignty is not a political issue. It is an issue of survival.”

Read more: Cat and mouse at Ayungin Shoal (or China’s ‘very aggressive’ presence in the West Philippine Sea)

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