Nonviolent action for Pag-asa
Three years ago, I decided to come up with my own version of Time Magazine’s “Man of the Year,” later renamed “Person of the Year.” It was for the purpose of recognizing Filipinos who by their actions in the face of grave physical dangers and uncertainties, and at times, even government resistance and obstruction, continue to prove to our people and the rest of the world that the young people of the nation remain our best hope for the future.
In November 2015, a group of 48 students, members of a volunteer movement known as Kalayaan Atin Ito decided to visit Pag-asa Island, one of several in the Kalayaan group of islands with a thriving Filipino community that makes up a municipality of Palawan province. The objective of the mission was to show the world, including the bullies in the neighborhood that Pag-asa and other areas in the Spratlys belonged to the Philippines. As reported by the Inquirer, the students got “grudging support from the government.” Actually, the head of Western Command in Puerto Princesa at that time denied their request for assistance, saying “their activity was uncalled for, or not timely, given the perils of the sea, at this time of the year.”
In an earlier column on the planned visit, I mentioned that I did not know the names of the students involved, what schools they attended, or what provinces they came from. I knew nothing about their families or their status in the community. Perhaps, because their activities were not covered in the media in the same manner that some social events in this country are given much publicity and attention, we had to assume that the students came from simple, lower-middle-class homes, with almost no connections to the powers that be. In the face of indifference, if not outright resistance of the government practically telling them to go home, the group persisted with their plans to visit Pag-asa Island.
On Dec. 26, the group of student volunteers arrived on the island for a stay of several days. One particular activity that they carried out was to lie down on the beach using their bodies to form the words “China Out,” thus proclaiming to all that Pag-asa was off limits to foreigners. For their actions, the student volunteers won my vote as “Filipinos of the Year.”
Sure enough, the visit drew an angry protest from China’s foreign ministry. A Reuters report said China was “strongly dissatisfied with what the Filipinos had done, reiterating that China has indisputable sovereignty over the Spratlys and we urge the Philippines to refrain from actions detrimental to regional peace and stability…” In addition to the usual diplomatic expressions of anger over the students’ actions, China decided to send two planeloads of assorted travelers and tourists to Kagitingan Reef, posing for the usual souvenir photo ops in front of their aircraft. This was most likely their answer to the photo taken on Pag-asa Island of our students lying down on the beach with their “China Out” formation.
This unusual activity by the students took place more than three years before former foreign secretary Albert del Rosario and former ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales came out with their much-publicized condemnation of Chinese actions in the disputed South China Sea. To date, no sitting president has stepped foot on Pag-asa Island, perhaps concerned about causing heartburn in
Beijing. None of the more than 50 senatorial candidates in the May elections have visited Pag-asa, if only to show support for the same position taken by our students.
As hundreds of Chinese ships crowd the waters surrounding Pag-asa in a show of force meant to assert their dubious claims of sovereignty over the area, perhaps it is time for our students to once again embark on another visit to Pag-asa. And maybe this time, students from elite schools in Metro Manila—Ateneo, San Beda, UP, UST, La Salle, FEU, Adamson, National University and others — may wish to join this new visitation of our own land now under direct threat by foreign elements.
We must show China by action that we intend to defend Pag-asa with or without foreign assistance or intervention. As things stand, the government appears unsure on what to do about the situation surrounding the island. A good start would be to encourage student volunteers to travel to Pag-asa. Understandably, this course of action involves certain risks. But the Chinese tactic of nonviolent encroachment must be met by nonviolent student action. The international community whose support we seek will not take us seriously if, on our own, we refuse to initiate any form of response to counter foreign intimidation. If the government is unwilling to pursue this line of activity for fear of incurring the displeasure of some great power, then perhaps we are truly and effectively, a province of China.
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