47 young Filipinos land in Spratlys 'to defy Beijing'

MANILA • Nearly 50 young Filipinos are camping on a remote Philippine-held island in the South China Sea, making a symbolic stand against China's claims to most of the area.

Organisers of the group, which calls itself Kalayaan Atin Ito (Kalayaan This Is Ours), said 47 of them arrived on 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 Philippine government had opposed the landing, initiated by a former navy officer. However, President Benigno Aquino's spokesman, Mr Herminio Coloma, said yesterday that they understood the group's intentions.

"We recognise the patriotism of these youths that made them venture out," he told reporters.

Even so, he also stressed 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 Pag-asa.

Photographs and messages from the group that were 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 Philippine government of not doing enough to stand up to China.

A coordinator of the group, Ms Joy Ban-eg, said the 47 men and women arrived on Saturday aboard a chartered launch and would depart today.

She said China had not attempted to block them from reaching the island, adding that they would consult local residents and the military detachment. She stressed that their voyage 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 at the Hague, where the Philippines is challenging China's territorial claims. China has refused to recognise the proceedings.

Despite having one of the weakest military forces in the region, the Philippines has been the most vocal in challenging China's claims to the South China Sea.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 28, 2015, with the headline '47 young Filipinos land in Spratlys 'to defy Beijing''. Print Edition | Subscribe