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Palace: Safety, not China, concern for sea protesters

ALTHOUGH it was ignoring warnings by China against excursions to the contested Spratly Islands, Malacañang said Sunday it was nonetheless discouraging a group of young people from going there due to concerns over the safety of sea travel in the area.

Presidential Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. said the Palace was not against the idealism of the youth group, composed mostly of college students from 81 provinces who want to assert the country’s claim to the disputed archipelago in the South China Sea.

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But it expressed concern for the group’s safety due to the “risks of traveling in that area,” citing rough sea conditions, Coloma said.

Coloma asserted that “from the outset and irrespective of China’s pronouncements, the government, through the Armed Forces of the Philippines, has engaged the youth group in a dialogue on their plan to (again) visit Pag-asa island.”

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Continuing dialogue

China earlier advised the Philippines to “exercise restraint” over “relevant parties” after the group of young Filipino protesters said they planned to make a second trip to Pag-asa and other Philippine-held islands in the South China Sea.

In a text message to the Inquirer, Coloma disclosed that a “continuing dialogue is being held (by the AFP) with the group so that its members may duly consider the caution issued by authorities on the risks of traveling in that area.”

The authorities, Coloma added, also proposed to the group to take into consideration “other alternative methods of pursuing their advocacy.”

The Philippines occupies nine islets in the Spratlys, with Pag-asa the largest. Other claimed islands are: Ayungin Shoal, Lawak Island, Parola Island, Patag Island, Kota Island, Rizal Reef, Likas Island and Panata Island.

In December, about 50 Filipino students made a three-day boat trip to Pag-asa, part of Kalayaan town in the island-province of Palawan.

Originally, the group aimed to bring 10,000 youths in a month-long protest late last year on different islands in the Spratlys, but this was cut down due to difficulties mobilizing resources.

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The group later announced their plan to travel to the disputed islands again early this year, prompting Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei to ask Manila to exercise “restraint” over “relevant parties,” so as not to “complicate matters.”

Lei also reiterated that Beijing had “indisputable sovereignty” over the Spratlys, stressing the Philippines’ occupation of some of the islands was “against the law and without effect.”

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