It was almost midnight of Dec. 9, a Saturday, when I boarded the training ship TS Kapitan Felix Oca in San Fernando, El Nido in Palawan to join civilian volunteers and journalists in a Christmas caravan to Lawak Island in the West Philippine Sea to bring Christmas cheers to troops guarding the disputed island.
This trip was organized by Atin Ito, an advocacy group that aims to deepen Filipinos’ awareness of the conflict in the South China Sea.
TS Kapitan Felix Oca was part of a convoy of three vessels including a motor launch, M/L Chowee and a Philippine Coast Guard ship, BRP Melchora Aquino, that started in El Nido. The plan was for us to meet up with fishing boats in Sabina Shoal, 193 nautical miles from El Nido, pass by the vicinity of Ayungin Shoal where BRP Sierra Madre is grounded, then proceed to Lawak Island. We were prepared for a long trip, expecting to reach Lawak the next day.
I was with 10 other volunteers from the group Palawan Patriots for Peace and Progress. Two priests were with us: Fr. Robert Reyes and Fr. Alfredo Raymund Camacho.
Lawak Island, also known as Nanshan, is about 222 nautical miles from El Nido.
Philippine Navy reports say Lawak Island’s area is 7.39 hectares. That’s about the size of three Araneta Coliseums combined.
A large portion of the island has been designated as a protected area by the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development Staff because it is a sanctuary to six bird species, three of them threatened or likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future. It has also been identified as a green sea turtle nesting site.
Vegetation is minimal on the island except for grasses and coconut trees with occasional talisay trees on the coast. There is no fresh water source aside from the rain.
A combined team of Navy and Coast Guard personnel are protecting the island from invaders.
I took the opportunity to catch up with sleep as we sailed through a choppy sea. For this trip, I left Palawan’s capital city, Puerto Princesa, where I am based at 5 a.m. and took a shuttle van to El Nido.
After almost 15 hours into the vast West Philippine Sea, Fr. Reyes and Fr. Camacho presided over a Holy Mass. As Fr. Reyes was underscoring the significance of the Atin Ito Christmas activity, Capt. Jorge Dela Cruz of TS Kapitan Felix Oca said they have sighted a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) vessel with bow No. 173 about 13 nautical miles (NM)from Ayungin Shoal, traveling at 21 knots.
A few minutes later, another Chinese Navy ship came into view about five nautical miles away.
Then, a China Coast Guard (CCG) vessel appeared and looked like it was heading toward our direction. It came close to about 2.5 NM away.
The captain of BRP Melchora Aquino advised the caravan organizers to turn around and return to El Nido for safety reasons.
Dela Cruz said he decided to turn around after assessing the situation so as not to compromise the safety of the group.
He said the moves of the CCG vessel were concerning because it did not communicate when it appeared.
“We did not receive any radio challenge or announcement of its intentions, but their actions were not normal maneuvering,” he said, adding he did not want to further escalate the tension considering recent incidents in Scarborough Shoal and M/L Kalayaan near Ayungin Shoal.
“For the safety of everyone, I decided to turn around,” he said.
Rafaela David of Akbayan Party and a member of the Atin Ito Movement said, “We are erring on the side of caution and kasi nga medyo marami ‘yung nakita natin at pinalibutan tayo at in coordination with our Coast Guard and the decision of our boat captain, we are going back.”
However, M/L Chowee, managed to slip past the Chinese attempted block and made it to Lawak Island and delivered the Christmas presents on Dec. 11.
Lawak Island is the eighth largest natural island of the Spratly Islands, and the fourth largest of the Philippine-occupied islands.
We got back to El Nido at past 10 a.m on Dec. 11. The planned meet-up with about 20 fishing boats in Sabina Shoal did not push through.
I was a bit disappointed with the decision to turn back. So were the other volunteers. But the incident all the more strengthened their commitment to defend the country’s territory in the West Philippine Sea.
Fr. Reyes admitted, “The disappointment is there.” But then, he added, “Something very important was opened up, and that something is what we should talk about.”
Fr. Camacho said joining the mission itself is already an important action for the participants. He said that while the group was not able to reach its destination, God had other plans.
“He will make things beautiful in his time. We are not warriors; we do not have the weapons, but this move is already a sign that we, as Filipinos, can be united as one,” he added.
First but won’t be the last
David highlighted the significance of the supply mission as a series of “firsts” in Philippine history by pioneering a civil society initiative in the West Philippine Sea. Definitely, it will not be the last.
“For the first time in our history, civil society is taking the lead in a civilian supply mission to the West Philippine Sea. We are all proud pioneers of this effort, laying the blueprint for more civilian missions in the future. “
Joaquin Ortega of the Palawan Patriots for Peace and Progress (P4) that joined the convoy said Palaweños must be more involved and concerned of the WPS situation especially the activities of the Chinese government.
“Kasi in the first place, tayo ‘yung maaapektuhan nito e. Masasabi natin na baka magkaroon ng food shortage pagdating sa pangisdaan, so magkakaroon ng chain reaction. I think magandang mas maging involved tayo,” Ortega said.
Fr. Reyes said there should be more efforts to raise the awareness of Filipinos, particularly to those in the urban centers and are far from the area, regarding issues in the WPS.
“Ang isyu ng WPS ay para bang napakalayo sa mga taga-syudad – sa Maynila, sa mga urban centers. Para bang nasaan ba ‘yang Kalayaan, ‘yang Spratlys, parang alien e. Kaya napakahalaga na puntahan hindi lang ng mga coast guard at mga sundalo kundi ng mga karaniwang mamamayan na hindi taga-Palawan.”
(The WPS issue seems off the consciousness of city people – in Manila, in urban centers. It’s like, where is Kalayaan, the Spratlys, they are alien to them. That’s why it’s important for us to go there, not only the Coast Guard and soldiers, but [also the] civilians who are not from Palawan.)
Vice Admiral Alberto Carlos, chief of the Western Command in Palawan, expressed his gratitude to the Atin Ito coalition, acknowledging that apart from delivering aid, the civilian-led voyage to the WPS drew international attention to the territorial issues and the hostile activities of China in the area.
David said the aborted trip underscored: “There remains a single narrative: West Philippine Sea, Atin ito! As Filipinos, we are united in the fight for what is rightfully ours. Let’s not lose sight of the true threat within our territory. As China intensifies its aggression within our territory, we should also scale up our unity.”
(This special report was produced under VERA Files’ project on enhancing the media’s capability to raise public awareness of the situation in the South China Sea, funded by the Government of Canada through its Canada Fund for Local Initiatives. #CanadaFundPH
Gerald Thicke is a reporter of Palawan News.)