The English translation “This is ours!” doesn’t quite specify the addressee. But the original Tagalog “Atin Ito!” does—it is addressed to Filipinos. As Edicio dela Torre, one of the leaders of the new advocacy group “Atin Ito Coalition” makes clear, this is a call to deepen Filipinos’ awareness of the contentious issues surrounding that portion of the South China Sea (SCS) we call the West Philippine Sea (WPS). China claims “indisputable sovereignty” over almost the entire SCS, including many features that are several hundred miles away from the Chinese mainland.
With growing awareness and understanding of what is at stake in that body of water we regard as part of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ), the hope is that a new generation of Filipinos will learn to value their country’s patrimony and play a more active role in shaping and protecting the nation’s future. This is a goal that cannot be overstated, especially in a society that has tended to cultivate greater loyalty to family and clan than to the abstract entity called the Filipino nation. Not surprisingly, Akbayan is the lead convenor of this new movement, for active citizenship has always been its core advocacy.
In many ways, the coalition breaks fresh ground. It is the first time since the Japanese Occupation that a Filipino nationalist movement is directed not against the United States or its puppet regime but against an Asian power. Atin Ito! actively supports the Marcos government’s opposition to Chinese aggression. More significantly, it shows that it can work closely with the country’s defense establishment in the pursuit of a shared goal—the assertion and protection of the country’s maritime rights in the SCS.
No other progressive group that has been a mainstay in anti-government protest movements has dared to take such a move. Working with state forces even on a limited basis has never been in the DNA of Filipino social movements. Doing so is fraught with risks, not the least of which is how to maintain the movement’s autonomy and credibility while pursuing effective areas of cooperation and resistance in the face of a bullying foreign power.
This is an improbable relationship that has been forged on the anvil of many ironies. The spokesman of the new coalition, the former radical priest Ed dela Torre, once headed the Christians for National Liberation, an underground organization that had links with the Maoist Communist Party of the Philippines. He was detained for six years in the jails of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, the father of the current president.
Many leaders of Atin Ito! cut their activist teeth in the historic movement to kick the American bases out of the country, culminating in the 1991 Senate vote to reject a new bases treaty with the United States. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, no activist seriously believed the claim that the Philippines needed the American bases in Subic and Clark as a deterrent to Chinese aggression in the SCS. That was a different time. Given its own internal problems, China then was in no position to be an aggressor. In contrast, the US bases had been the main driver of American intervention in Philippine affairs and a source of unceasing irritants between the Philippines and its former colonial master.
Following the departure of US troops from Philippine soil, the country’s defense now became its own responsibility. Yet, notwithstanding President Fidel V. Ramos’ program to allot to military modernization the bigger portion of the wealth unlocked by the bases’ conversion to civilian use, there was no urgency to upgrade the country’s defense capabilities. Our military’s dependence on US assistance was so chronic that new agreements had to be devised to allow American troops to return to the country without violating the letter of the Constitution. With that intent were the Visiting Forces Agreement and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreements conceived.
All that changed when Xi Jinping became the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and concurrently the chair of the Central Military Commission in 2012, and China‘s seventh president in 2013. It is perhaps no coincidence that the Scarborough Shoal standoff, the first serious confrontation between the Philippines and China, happened in April 2012, soon after Xi became China’s “paramount leader.”
The Atin Ito! coalition acknowledges the futility of engaging China in the military arena. But, by providing the Filipino youth concrete opportunities and occasions to reach out to and manifest their solidarity with fisherfolk and frontliners in the WPS, the movement aims to raise a generation that values peace but does not cower in fear before a foreign bully.