Filipino civilian-led West Philippine Sea supply mission defies Chinese blockade

The Atin Ito! coalition, in a historic mission on December 10, 2023, is the first civilian-led humanitarian convoy bearing daily necessities and Christmas gifts to the Filipino fisherfolk who were harassed and prevented from fishing by China in the disputed West Philippine Sea. West Philippine Sea is the official designation by the government of the Philippines to parts of the South China Sea that includes the country’s exclusive economic zone. China claims almost the whole of South China Sea.

The Atin Ito! coalition is a diverse gathering of citizens coming from all walks of life, including activists, fisherfolk, artists, church leaders and entrepreneurs. The coalition also includes groups like Akbayan Citizens’ Action Party, Akbayan Youth, Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement, the Center for Agrarian Reform for Empowerment and Transformation, Pambansang Katipunan ng mga Samahan sa Kanayunan, Pambansang Kilusan ng mga Samahang Magsasaka, and Team Manila Lifestyle.

Rafaela David (in pink shirt), head of mission of the Atin Ito! coalition and president of the Akbayan Party.

In an interview with Maritime Fairtrade, Rafaela David, head of mission of the Atin Ito! coalition and president of the political party, Akbayan Party, said: “The campaign was initiated after a series of meetings among convening organizations who believed that citizens should have an active involvement in defending the West Philippine Sea and standing up to China’s bullying.”

Due to the risky situation in bringing the volunteers to pursue this advocacy, the coalition coordinated with the National Taskforce of the West Philippine Sea on their planned mission to ensure safety and that security measures were in place before proceeding.

At the dawn of December 10, civilian vessel M/V Kapitan Felix Oca with Captain Jorge dela Cruz and 200 volunteers, departed from Manila’s San Fernando Port for El Nido in Palawan, accompanied by supply boat M/L Chowee and 40 fishing boats. The Philippine Coast Guard vessel, BRP Melchora Aquino (MRRV-9702), escorted the fleet as they carefully threaded through the vast ocean of the West Philippine Sea. However, while en route to the destination, the convoy was blocked by Chinese vessels.

Filipino fishing boats make up part of the supply convoy.

“Later in the day, while the participants were holding mass on the deck of the ship, at least three Chinese vessels, including Chinese destroyer Changsha (173) and Chinese Coast Guard vessel 5305, started shadowing the mothership,” said David.

“One of the most dangerous moments occurred when a fast-moving Chinese Coast Guard ship reportedly intersected with the Philippine Coast Guard vessel, BRP Melchora Aquino, which was escorting the convoy. The captain of MV Kapitan Felix Oca, based on his expertise and experience as a veteran civilian captain, deemed the situation unsafe and decided to turn the mothership around.”

The volunteers were forced to cut short their journey and had to return to El Nido. But at the last moment, ML Chowee managed to slip past the Chinese barricade and arrived at Lawak Island on December 11 at 5 am and delivered the supplies to communities living on Lawak and Patag Islands.

“ML Chowee, the supply boat for the convoy, sailed a different route from Kapitan Felix. While the mothership headed for the vicinity of the Ayungin Shoal, the smaller (vessel) was tasked to take a shorter and more direct route to Lawak Islands, with the primary goal of delivering the Christmas gifts and essential goods to the frontliners stationed there. ML Chowee successfully evaded the harassment of Chinese vessels,” said David.

Filipino fishing boat.

Weeks after the Christmas mission, the local government of Kalayaan, the Western Command of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, and the Philippine Coast Guard helped the coalition to distribute the supplies to Pag-asa, Likas, Parola, Kota, and Panata islands.

David said the frontliners and fishing communities in Lawak and Patag Islands deserved to receive donations during the holidays as they were doing a heroic act to protect the islands. Donations were also delivered during the Christmas break to fisherfolk communities in other provinces in the Philippines such as Zambales, Subic, and Bataan. The coalition also organized a Christmas concert donation drive involving several renowned Filipino artists.

The Atin Ito! coalition.

Christmas Mass led by Fr. Robert Reyes on board the MV Kapitan Felix Oca.

A Chinese vessel spotted in the West Philippine Sea.

Impact of China’s aggression on Filipino fisherfolks

David said China’s presence in the West Philippine Sea deprived Filipino fisherfolk of their livelihood since they were restricted from accessing the area. She shared how Chinese coast guards recently ordered locals to return their catch to the sea. They were filmed grabbing and preventing the Filipinos from leaving until they complied with the order. 

Chinese vessels also poached and harvested corals, which drastically affected the ecosystem. Around 2,000 hectares of corals were destroyed due to their activities in the disputed territory, according to David.

Philippine Statistics Authority’s data showed that fisheries production has dropped to 275,872 metric tons of fish in 2022, compared to 295,332 metric tons in 2021. The Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources’ spokesman Nazario Briguera said last year in an article published in the Philippine Star that fisheries production declined by seven percent between 2021 and 2022.

“This has a negative impact on the country’s food supply, raising importation of seafood, driving up prices in the market, and compromising the food security and sustainability of natural resources for future generations,” explained David.

How the mission all began

Given the escalating tension arising in the West Philippine Sea, David said the Atin Ito! coalition found common ground with government stakeholders. They all knew the risk they had to take and officials initially cautioned them from pushing through with the civilian-led supply mission. 

Nonetheless, David had a series of constructive dialogues with the officials, including with members of the National Taskforce for the West Philippine Sea, and came to an agreement to put the plan into action, including using the relatively safer sea route passing by Ayungin Shoal. David said this route “guarantees provisions for our fisherfolk and frontliners, and upholds Filipinos’ right to peaceful travel within our territory.”

“Atin Ito!, in facilitating constructive collaboration among government and civil society groups, provides a concrete example of a whole-of-nation approach in asserting and defending our sovereignty and territorial integrity, where citizens are at the forefront of building solidarity among their fellow Filipinos,” shared David.

Volunteers with supplies for the fishing communities.

What the future holds for Atin Ito! coalition

David said Atin Ito! hopes they can regularize and normalize civilian voyages to the disputed territory. She added that this kind of mission they are doing should not be deemed as controversial.

“We assert our right to free movement in our waters, and ordinary citizens should have regular access to our seas, without the threat of bullying from China. The coalition therefore hopes to conduct regular civilian-led supply missions, not just to the BRP Sierra Madre, but also in Scarborough Shoal and other contested areas,” said David.

She said their mission has also pushed the boundaries of media coverage for the West Philippine Sea. Local and international media were allowed for the first time to have live coverage in the disputed territory. 

Atin Ito! aims to further bring awareness among civilians and urges young people, professionals, artists, church leaders, and sectoral groups to have the courage to stand up against China’s bullying.

This is not the first and last activity for the coalition as they plan to hold more projects in the future, including school forum caravans, community dialogues, and creative actions together with artists and musicians. Atin Ito! also plans to invite international media, observers, and stakeholders to future activities, “to provide a global spotlight to Chinese aggression in the region”, said David.

All photos credit: Adia Lim for Akbayan Party / Atin Ito!

Top photo: Rafaela David, head of mission of the Atin Ito! coalition and president of the Akbayan Party, gives a talk to volunteers. 

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