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REFLECTIONS: Atin Ito Christmas Convoy to Ayungin: My Personal Chronicle

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GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews / 19 December) — During our journey to the West Philippine Sea (WPS), I wrote four running articles online, published short notes with pictures, and also took video footages to mark where we were and the things we were exactly doing. 

This article chronicles our entire journey, to immortalize our historic voyage to the Ayungin Shoal in the WPS. This is historic because, for the first time, a civilian-initiated resupply mission was undertaken for our frontliners and fisherfolk there. 

Various events in the country prodded me to participate in a voyage to Ayungin Shoal. My obsession to go there developed when then President Rodrigo Duterte adopted his policy of submission to China in shameless vulgarity.

I was so angry and so ashamed at how the President was painting the image of a Filipino on the global stage: coward, unpatriotic and traitor to his country. 

I really wanted to go to Ayungin then to prove to the world that Duterte does not represent the wondrous virtues of a Filipino who is intrinsically gallant, patriotic and willing to offer a great sacrifice at the altar of freedom and dignity.

While my fervor to go to Ayungin kept burning in my heart, I simply did not have the financial and logistical capacity to make that voyage. So I wrote some of my comrades and friends in Manila to come to my aid. 

My plan then was to go back to my hometown in Patnongon, Antique and recruit my relatives, marginalized fisherfolk who have been battling the hostile seas all their lives. They are sailors in their own right. Their savvy in the sea can awe even the pirates of the Caribbean. 

Expectedly, no one came to my aid, and I knew exactly what my comrades and friends were thinking of me then, that I must have lost my sanity. 

I was forced to give up my plan. But something within me was revolting. Eventually, I accepted certain realities of life.  But my soul remained restless.

Christmas cheers

Recently, I accidentally watched on YouTube the press conference of Atin Ito Coalition where Senator Risa Hontiveros discussed the plan of the coalition to bring Christmas cheers to our frontliners and fisherfolk in the WPS. 

The Atin Ito Coalition is composed of Akbayan, Akbayan Youth, the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement (PRRM),  Center for Agrarian Reform for Empowerment and Transformation (CARET), Pambansang Katipunan ng mga Mamamayan sa Kanayunan (PKSK); Pambansang Kalipunan ng mga Samahang Magsasaka (PAKISAMA); Team Manila Lifestyle and Concerned Artists. 

Some participants out of 202 who joined the Atin Ito Christmas Convoy to Ayungin pose for posterity before members of national and international media at the Port of San Fernando in El Nido, Palawan, before proceeding to Ayungin Shoal. Photo by BEN SUMOG-OY

That plan, as has been articulated during the press conference, was to conduct a Christmas Convoy to Ayungin Shoal for three major purposes: to honor our frontliners who are members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines stationed in BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal and Lawak Island; to distribute food supplies and other essential items to these frontliners, including the fisherfolk there; and to assert the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the WPS.

Former Secretary Ronald Llamas, Presidential Political Adviser under then President Benignon Simeon Aquino III, sent through Messenger pictures of the billboards of Senator Risa Hontiveros and of Senator Manny Pacquiao, among others, calling good-spirited citizens to extend support to this civilian-initiated historic journey to Ayungin. 

My long impending desire to go to Ayungin was given a light of hope. My obsession was revived. I lost no time in chatting with former Secretary Llamas, strongly urging him to allow me to participate in the Christmas Convoy, and that he must make it possible for me. He relented. He told me to hammer out details with Ning Belandres, a member of the Akbayan staff. 

However, my participation to the Christmas Convoy almost went kaput. I was supposed to leave General Santos City for Puerto Princesa, Palawan, on December 8, two days before the start of the scheduled voyage on December 10, 2023. So, I designated December 7 as the time for me to purchase my essential needs for the voyage: medicines, emergency medical kits, power bank, dry bags, among others. 

Bound for El Nido, Palawan 

However, at exactly 10 in the evening of December 6, 2023, Ning Belandres called me to say that I am no longer flying to Puerto Princesa, and that I must take the flight early morning the next day, December 7, to catch up with the boat in the Port of Manila that will bring me to El Nido, Palawan. This sudden change in schedule of my travel almost put my participation in the Christmas Convoy in jeopardy.

After the call, I literally ran to look for open stores in the city during that wee hour of the night. Fortunately, I succeeded in purchasing almost everything I need for the voyage. Thanks to the Paskuhan sa GenSan Festival, so many stores are open for business until dawn to accommodate a swarm of revelers. 

Minutes after I arrived home with my stuff, Blenda Rodriguez, Secretary-General of Akbayan, called to ask: “Nong Ben, Kumusta ang health mo? Kaya mo ba talaga sumama? Malalaki ang alon sa WPS.” After taking a deep breath, I told her. “Yes, kaya ko pa.” Then, she said: “Sige po, Nong Ben. Good luck na lang po.”

Under normal situation, the phrase “Good luck na lang po” is not a phrase of double entendre. But, at that time, the phrase can be construed as either sending good wishes or a show of surrender – surrender that I cannot be prevented anymore from joining the Christmas Convoy. I went to sleep that night quite amused about Blenda’s worries.

Shortly after dusk of December 7, I arrived at the Akbayan Office in UP Village, Quezon City, which temporarily served as the main headquarters of the Atin Ito Coalition. There, I witnessed how the volunteers, young and old alike but mostly young, were working to ensure the success of the resupply mission. 

I saw these young people, both boys and girls, carrying loads after loads of food supplies and other essential items, among others, towards the waiting transport vehicles. 

Candidly, my heart pounded for them as I was whisked to a waiting van that brought me to the Port of Manila where the M/V Kapitan Felix Oca was docked.

I also saw there Ruperto “Ka Uper” Alerosa, president of the Pambansang Kalipunan ng mga Samahan sa Kanayunan (PKSK) and vice chairperson for the basic sector of the National Anti-Poverty Commission (NAPC), bringing with him his entire “pharmacy.” Ka Uper, 70 years of age, has plenty of health issues, among them an impaired vision. But he still decided to join the voyage to Ayungin.  


We were already aboard M/V Kapitan Felix Oca at about 9 in the evening of December 7, 2023 but the boat began to sail towards El Nido at 7 in the morning of the following day, December 8, 2023. Our first night on the boat was full of fun and laughter. 

It was during this time when we had get-to-know activities. Orientation about the safety rules of the boat and the rules of the coalition was conducted at the lecture hall. M/V Kapitan Felix Oca also serves as training boat for future seafearers. 

There were 52 of us in the boat, together with the reporter of ABS-CBN and the members of his crew. Other participants, including national and international print and broadcast journalists, were to join us as soon as we reach El Nido.

During our second night on M/V Kapitan Felix Oca, we again gathered at the lecture hall of the boat for preliminary assessments and sharing of individual thoughts and feelings as we started our voyage to Ayungin. I heard no complaint from any participant.

Argee Esquejo and Jomar Modesto, all of Akbayan, facilitated the process.

What I only heard from all of them were words expressing their excitement and their wishes for the success of the voyage. They also expressed their gratitude to the Atin Ito Coalition for giving them the opportunity to serve the interest of the country in a rare, challenging and meaningful way. 

It was also during this occasion where I was made to deliver a lecture on International Law, with focus on our rights over the WPS. I did not have time to prepare for the lecture. I relied solely on my stored knowledge of International Law. My sense was that, based on their reactions, my discussions were received positively by my co-participants. 

The author delivers an impromptu lecture on international law and UNCLOS vis-a-vis the West Philippine Sea at the lecture hall of MV/Kapitan Felix Oca.

Soc Banzuela, the chief of staff of Pakisama, also delivered a lecture on the same topic. But he focused more on why all Filipinos must fight for our territorial integrity and sovereignty in the WPS. 

For four consecutive meals, while we were sailing from the Port of Manila to El Nido, we were served canned goods and cup noodles. But no one was complaining. Everybody was so focused on the success of the voyage. The food provided for by the Atin Ito Coalition even added to the patriotic fervor of the participants. 

“Nasa rebolusyon tayo kaya hindi tayo dapat magreklamo,” Ka Uper quipped.

To prevent myself from vomiting, I took the “hinanggop”(cooked rice, poured with hot water and sprinkled with little amount of salt), for my last two meals as we navigated towards El Nido. Those who saw me even burst into laughter as I was profusely sipping the “hinanggop.”

When we arrived at El Nido at 7 in the morning of December 9, 2023, M/V Kapitan Felix Oca could not dock at the shallow San Fernando Port in El Nido so we were transferred to a wooden mini cargo boat named M/V Showee which took us to the port. 

From there, we took a bus to Lantikan Beach Resort at the tourist spot of El Nido for a brief rest. 

While at Lantikan, we were served a cup of rice and a small amount of corned beef laced with finely sliced potato. We were amused because for four consecutive meals, we were served the same kind of food while aboard M/V Kapitan Felix Oca. Only a few of us touched the food, to the wonderment of resort workers.

At 11:30 a.m., we proceeded to the nearby S Hotel and Resort for final orientation.

It was during the orientation that we were informed that there were 202 individuals who would join the Christmas Convoy to Ayungin. This includes members of national and international media. It was also announced that Rafael “Paeng” David, president of Akbayan, will be leading us in this voyage. 

During the orientation, I saw Secretary Llamas; “Running Priest” Fr. Robert Reyes; former ambassador Atty. Victoria Bataclan, Edicio dela Torre, Bobby Garcia, print and broadcast journalists representing various national and international media networks, and some Navy and Coast Guard officials, among others.

Secretary Llamas was his usual: profuse conversationalist, master humorist, typical “alaskador” and proud. He showered me with left-handed compliments for delivering a lecture on international law while on board M/V Kapitan Felix Oca.


Ed Dela Torre had abandoned priesthood when, like Fr. Condrado Balweg and Fr. Luis Jalandoni, he joined the underground movement during the height of repression perpetrated by the rapacious regime of the deposed dictator, Ferdinand E. Marcos. 

After he was freed from prison, dela Torre authored the book, “Fertile Grounds, Taking Roots,” which details the objective conditions on which the communist movement in the country was drawing its strength. 

On the other hand, Bobby Garcia was a victim of purging by the Communisty Party of the Philippines / New People’s Army (CPP/NPA), where officials of the CPP/NPA decimated en masse their own comrades on suspicion that they were military infiltrators. Bobby was tortured in a most savage way and narrowly escaped death. 

He later wrote a book entitled “To Suffer Thy Comrades” where he describes in vivid details how the elements of the CPP/NPA tortured him and his other comrades and how they were eventually killed. His book also contains psychiatric analysis on how a human being can virtually turn into a beast. 

Paeng David,  and Emman Hizon, a young intellectual who is a member of the Political Council of Akbayan and said to be the principal keeper of the party’s narratives, presided the final orientation for the participants.

One of the concerns discussed during the orientation was that the Philippine Coast Guard has the sole authority to determine the existence of danger to security that would necessitate the ending of the expedition.    

Danger to security 

During the open forum, I asked Emman twice as to circumstances that would constitute danger to security. I insisted that the mere presence of Chinese vessels must not be construed as constituting danger to security. 

There should be, at least, the use of force upon us or upon the boat. I insisted that we should, at the minimum, engage Chinese vessels in a stand-off before deciding for a pivot back to the home port. But Emman, without engaging in scenario building, insisted that all matters of security are left to the full discretion of the Philippine Coast Guard. He added a caveat: “That is final.”

How that undefined “danger to security” and the lack of scenario building, meant to point out certain circumstances that would constitute danger to security, finally played a role in the processes of decision-making during the voyage is now fait accompli. 

At 6 in the evening of December 9, we attended a send-off party hosted for us at High Tides Resto, still in El Nido. In that party, I saw one familiar face who later on turned out to be Gretchen Ho of TV 5. 

I was in deep reflection during the party which I likened to the Last Supper of Jesus Christ, with his twelve apostles. 

It was also in that party when the Atin Ito Coalition turned over food supplies and other essential items to our frontliners in Pag-asa Island. The donations were personally received by Mayor Eduardo del Mundo, Mayor of the Municipality of Pag-asa.

At about 8 in the evening of December 9, we assembled inside the compound of the St. Francis of Assisi Parish Church in El Nido while waiting for buses that would bring us back to the Port of San Fernando. There I saw Ed Lingao and Gretchen Ho, together with other members of national and international media. The participants from Palawan also joined us in the assembly area.

I approached Ed and reminded him that he was one of our lecturers during a forum of Mindanao journalists in GenSan about two decades ago. He easily remembered it. He told me that he is planning to visit GenSan “one of these days.”

I approached Gretchen and asked her if I could have my picture taken with her. Before she could reply, Ed grabbed my phone, and took my picture with Gretchen. 

I immediately published the picture on my FB wall. This earned some positive reviews from netizens, some telling me that I was fortunate enough to have a picture with Gretchen. However, there was a comment which was an accolade for Gretchen only: “Beauty and the beast.”

M/V Showee

Upon arriving at the Port of San Fernando, we went aboard M/V Showee, a small wooden boat that brought us back to M/V Kapitan Felix Oca, which anchored on deeper waters in El Nido. 

When we were already aboard M/V Kapitan Oca, Akbayan’s youth volunteers, boys and girls alike, transferred the food supplies and other essential items from the Mother Boat to M/V Showee, which was also a part of the December Convoy to Ayungin.

Seeing our young volunteers carrying loads of food supplies and other essential items from our boat to M/V Showee, I felt a great moment of pride for the sense of duty and self-sacrifice of a Filipino towards his/her Motherland.

At about 11 in the evening of December 9, 2023, M/V Kapitan Felix Oca started its final voyage to Ayungin Shoal and, later on, to Lawak Island, which we expected to reach after sailing for about 36 hours. 

While aboard the ship, we noticed that the Atin Ito Coalition had upgraded our foodstuff. We still had continuous supply of canned goods and cup noodles for meals but this time, we had boiled camote and native banana (saba) as alternatives. 

Most of the time, I sustained myself with camote and saba as sardines and cup noodles were already becoming repulsive to my taste. 


We slept well from midnight of December 9 up to late dawn of December 10, 2023, fully knowing that it would still take us about 30 hours to reach Ayungin. We expected, then, that it is there where confrontations with Chinese Navy and Coast Guard vessels were to take place. 

I spent my time reflecting on the things to come which are uncertain. In my mind, I was trying to build different scenarios about all possible things that could happen during such confrontations. I also mapped out my appropriate response to every given scenario.

The devil in me entertained a notion for me to act provocatively in a manner that will cause violent responses from the Chinese. In this way, China shall become the center of derision on the global stage, thus, plunging this rogue nation deeper into an irreversible crisis of credibility all throughout the world. But I immediately abandoned that idea as it would endanger all of us aboard. Instead, I prepared myself against any unprovoked inflictions that the Chinese military and Chinese militia might do on us.  

While waiting for things uncertain, I conversed and exchanged banters with other participants. I also watched Gretchen Ho and Bobby Garcia jamming with Akbayan Youth volunteers, taking turns in strumming the guitar to make the singing more delightful. Both Gretchen and Bobby are good guitarists.

Harassment on Human Rights Day 

At about 3:30 in the afternoon of December 10, 2023, International Human Rights Day, we attended the celebration of the Holy Mass, with Fr. Robert Reyes, as the main celebrant.

A few minutes after the mass started, China’s warships and Coast Guard vessels emerged from a distance, until our ships were literally surrounded by a total of four Chinese vessels. 

Fr. Robert Reyes (in black) prepares for the celebration of the Holy Mass at the MV/Kapitan Felix Oca just minutes before Chinese warships and Coast Guard surrounded the boat. Photo by BEN SUMOG-OY

Despite the ensuing commotion, Fr. Robert Reyes finished the celebration of the Holy Mass.

One armed Chinese vessel sailing at the speed of 28 knots was in collision course with MV/Kapitam Felix Oca, which was sailing only at 12 knots. 

This was considered by our Boat Captain, Jorge Dela Cruz, as a dangerous maneuver, prompting him to change course back to the Port of San Fernando in El Nido.

The decision of the boat captain to return to El Nido earned mixed reactions from the participants to the Christmas Convoy, including members of the national and international press. 

All of us wanted to proceed to Ayungin Shoal, despite the harassments done by the Chinese vessels. Even Gretchen Ho of TV 5 and Jervis Manahan of ABS-CBN articulated their frustrations and that of the Atin Ito participants in their succeeding news reports and social media posts.

Due to frustration, some cried, others expressed their anger, and most of the participants just sat in silence. On my part, I toyed with the idea of directing the boat captain to pedal back to Ayungin, under duress.


A dialogue between the participants, including members of the press, and Captain Jorge Dela Cruz, ensued after his decision to abort the mission. Paeng David, who worked in close coordination with him, facilitated the dialogue. 

All of us were not convinced of the explanation of the boat captain, considering that even the officials of the Philippine Coast Guard on board our escort boat, BRP/Melchora Aquino, had signaled him to proceed with the voyage. 

However, in the end, it is the boat captain that has the last say. To disobey him is tantamount to commission of an unbailable capital offense of mutiny.  

Finally, as I prepared to sleep that night, I remembered that there was a bird that looked like an eagle, but its smaller version, flying parallel with M/V Kapitan Felix Oca. The bird had disappeared when we pivoted back to El Nido.

Right there and then, one of our superstitious beliefs as Antiquenos dawned on me.  The import of this superstitious belief is that when one journeys into the wilderness and a bird follows him or her, that signals an impending danger ahead. Thus, he/she must not proceed with journey. This eased out my anger and frustrations for the decision of the boat captain not to proceed with the journey.

All this happened while we were still at the Kayumanggi Bank, 75 nautical miles northwest of Puerto Princesa, Palawan and 13 nautical miles to Ayungin Shoal.      

Still a success

However, while our boat turned back, M/V Showee, which carried the food supplies and other essential items for our frontliners and fisherfolk, reached Lawak Island and the Ayungin Shoal, and successfully delivered the goods.

This was because M/V Showee could sail on shallow waters, and the Chinese vessels focused all their attention on M/V Kapitan Felix Oca. 

We did not fail, after all. Our resupply mission succeeded because the goods were actually delivered to the intended beneficiaries. 

The most painful part in this whole affair is that we were harassed by Chinese vessels inside our territorial waters (within 100 nautical miles from the baseline). They bullied us not in our Exclusive Economic Zone (100 NM from the end-point of territorial waters) where we have jurisdiction over natural resources. We were harassed inside our territorial waters, where we have sovereignty and jurisdiction over everything. 

It is my view that we were bullied even outside the area covered by China’s 10-dash-line claim. This also means that China does not have any iota of respect for our country’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. It does not respect us as a people. 

This is probably because amongst us are modern-day Makapilis that allow themselves to be used to advance the cause of China in the WPS and also as China’s pipeline information to influence our national consciousness into supporting China, to our perdition and jeopardy.

Again, while M/V Kapitan Felix Oca was turned back, we still succeeded to bring Christmas cheers to our frontliners in Lawak Islands and Ayungin Shoal. But, we achieved much more than this.

With this journey, we are actually enforcing the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague that sustained the position that the WPS is ours. Ang WPS ay atin!

We returned home with a solemn promise that the exercise of our rights under the 1987 Constitution and under the United Nation Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), wherein China is a signatory, MUST CONTINUE until China acts in accordance with its international commitments, or until it is declared a rogue state by the international community; thereby isolating itself from the global economic stage — or until kingdom come.

Afterall, the WPS is ours. Ang WPS ay atin! Philippines, My Philipines, the country of the brave.

(Ben Sumog-oy is a retired human rights and labor rights activist. He now works as a KBP-accredited broadcaster of RPN DXDX-General Santos where he shares his experiences and the precious lessons he derived from these experiences to the successor-generations.)

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