Convoy to disputed Scarborough Shoal an effort to boost Philippine civilian


The coalition leading the convoy was dubbed “Atin Ito”, Tagalog for “This is Ours”.

Scarborough Shoal is located about 124 nautical miles (230km) west of Zambales province in the Philippines’ main island of Luzon, making the reefs well within the Philippines’ EEZ – the 200-nautical mile area from a country’s territorial sea.

The nearest major Chinese land mass to the resource-rich shoal is Hainan, at nearly 900km away.

Advocates said the expedition was part of efforts to assert the Philippines’ rights and boost civilian stakeholdership amid China’s militarisation of the disputed region.

“China has militarised our EEZ. Atin Ito’s action is civilianising it and bringing it back to where it belongs… This is for our fishermen,” said retired Philippine Navy Rear Admiral Rommel Jude Ong.

The convoy was led by four traditional wooden fishing trawlers, with about 60 fishermen on board. Over 300 volunteers were part of the organising team, both onshore and offshore.

A Philippine Coast Guard vessel served as a safety escort. Local and foreign journalists – including CNA – joined the voyage to witness the coalition’s activities.


Ahead of the trip, friends, family and supporters cheered on the group from the shore, waving Philippine flags and holding banners of encouragement. 

“Long live Filipino fisherfolk!” they chanted in unison at the port.

Fishermen on more than 100 small wooden boats accompanied the fleet to some 20km from shore, until their small boats could not bear the ocean’s waves.

“It’s the first time we fishermen are all together here. We fish at different times but now we’re here together for this,” said one participant.

On the way, organisers released orange buoys imprinted with the phrase “Atin Ito”, in a symbolic gesture to send the message that Filipinos should be free to fish where international law allows.

They were uniting against a threat to such freedom. The inner lagoon – which is teeming with rich marine life – has been controlled by China since Beijing seized it from Manila in 2012.

Fewer and fewer Filipino fishermen have been venturing out to Scarborough Shoal in fear of confrontation with the Chinese.

The prized shoal was ruled in international arbitration as a common fishing ground for artisanal fisherfolk of claimant-states including China, Vietnam, and the Philippines.

However, China asserts it has indisputable sovereignty over much of the South China Sea, including Scarborough Shoal, despite an international ruling invalidating China’s claims and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea designating a nation’s maritime zones, including the belt of sea a country can claim based on distance from its coast.


At about 75km from the Philippines’ shore, two China Coast Guard vessels appeared and started shadowing the convoy.

One of the boat’s team leaders Robert Garcia watched the Chinese ships with a sigh. He admitted that the power struggles of today require new forms of creative resistance.

“China is now the Goliath of the South China Sea – or the West Philippine Sea – but we smaller people, smaller country, continue to engage them,” said Mr Garcia, an author and human rights advocate who used to be a guerrilla fighter.

“China is a superpower. They are wealthier, with more resources and more advanced technology. That’s probably the reason why they have become bolder. They easily use brute force because they can do it. Just like a typical bully – bigger, stronger and preying on the weaker ones.”

He added that while the Philippines cannot match China in terms of military might, there are other avenues regular Filipinos like him can do to stand their ground.

“There are other arenas of struggle that we can enter like what we are doing now. Pushing civilian stakeholdership and mobilising volunteers. Civilianising is now being militarised,” he said.


The main convoy, comprising the four larger wooden fishing boats, had aimed to reach Scarborough Shoal.

A Chinese navy ship and multiple China Coast Guard vessels tailed the convoy as it sailed towards the reefs. After day and a half at sea, the convoy reached almost 75km from Scarborough Shoal, after sailing about 155km from shore.

There, Mr Garcia announced the convoy would return to land without sailing any closer to the shoal, after hearing news that fishermen near the reefs have been dispersed by Chinese vessels.

Still, organisers declared “mission accomplished” as a smaller boat, carrying an advance team led by rights activist Mark Figueras, reached even closer to the reef.
It thwarted China’s main blockade and managed to distribute supplies to fishermen there, even as a Chinese military ship and helicopter circled the boat.

They closed in some 20km from Scarborough’s fish-rich inner lagoon, where Mr Figueras said only the boldest of Filipino fishermen dare enter, often in a cat-and-mouse chase with Chinese vessels.

“The bravery of Filipino fisherfolk who get chased there comes from the heart and mind,” he said. “That bravery is for their future. They’re fighting for their way of life. I hope our government can match their bravery.”

On the way back to shore, the convoy’s fishing crew continued to give out food and fuel to fisherfolk they met.

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