ALMOST 50 young Filipinos are camping on a remote Philippine-held island in the South China Sea in a symbolic stand against China’s claim to most of the waterway, officials said Sunday.
Organizers of the group, calling itself Kalayaan Atin Ito (Kalayaan This Is Ours), said 47 of them arrived Saturday on the island of Pag-asa, also known as Thitu, in the Spratlys chain.
“Kalayaan,” the Filipino word for freedom, is also the name of the township established by the Philippines in the Spratlys to assert its claim to part of the island chain.
The government had opposed the landing, initiated by a former Navy officer, Nick Faeldon. But President Benigno Aquino’s spokesman Herminio Coloma said Sunday it understood the group’s intentions.
“We recognize the patriotism of these youths that made them venture out,” he told reporters.
But he also reiterated that they should seek “alternative ways” to show their support, expressing concern for their safety in traveling the 500 kilometers from Palawan to the tiny island of Pag-asa.
Photographs and messages from the group posted on their website showed them posing on a beach.
A message on a Facebook page also urged Aquino to “inform the people correctly without sugar coating the truth about Chinese invasion of our Exclusive Economic Zone.”
Members of the group had previously accused the government of not doing enough to stand up to China.
A coordinator of the group, Joy Ban-eg, said the 47 men and women had arrived on Saturday on a chartered launch and would depart on Monday.
She said China had not attempted to block them from reaching the island, adding that they would consult the local residents and the military detachment.
But she said their voyage itself was an act of defiance against China, which claims almost all of the South China Sea despite conflicting claims from the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan.
She cited the international arbitration case now pending in The Hague where the Philippines is challenging China’s territorial claims.
China has refused to recognize the proceedings.
Despite having one of the weakest militaries in the region, the Philippines has been the most vocal in challenging China’s claims to the South China Sea.
Over state-run radio dzRB, Coloma said the military had appealed to the group several times to cancel their trip due to the dangers.
“We continue to hope and pray that their trip would be safe. We will continue to monitor their trip and will also help them if the need arises,” Coloma said.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines Western Command said the group was intercepted by the Navy on their way to Pag-Asa Island but Faeldon and his group grew aggressive, forcing authorities to allow them to pass rather than have a skirmish break out at sea.
The AFP said penalties await the owner of the vessel, which took on the group.
A recent survey commissioned by The Standard showed that a majority of Filipinos want a peaceful settlement of the ongoing maritime dispute with China in the West Philippine Sea. But most respondents in the survey by resident pollster Junie Laylo also said it was important to foster “strategic partnerships” with Japan and Vietnam and even approved of joint military exercises with the Japanese.
China’s intrusions in the West Philippine Sea, or South China Sea, remained the Filipinos’ top foreign policy concern, the same survey showed.