47 young Filipinos head to disputed island in South China Sea in symbolic stand against China

Forty-seven members of a Filipino group calling itself Kalayaan Atin Ito arrived on Pagasa island, in the Spratly island chain, on Dec 26, 2015.
Forty-seven members of a Filipino group calling itself Kalayaan Atin Ito arrived on Pagasa island, in the Spratly island chain, on Dec 26, 2015.PHOTO: REUTERS

MANILA (AFP) - 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 on Sunday (Dec 27).

Organisers of the group, calling itself Kalayaan Atin Ito (Kalayaan This Is Ours), said 47 of them arrived on Saturday on the island of Pagasa, 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. But President Benigno Aquino's spokesman Herminio Coloma said on Sunday it understood the group's intentions.

"We recognise 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 travelling the 500km from the western Philippine island of Palawan to the tiny island of Pagasa.

Photographs and messages from the group posted on their website showed them posing on a beach.

A message on a Facebook page also urged Mr 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, Ms Joy Baneg, told Agence France-Presse that 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 stressed that 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 recognise 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.