Gov't plants flag in Philippine Rise on Independence Day

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, June 13) — It was like the Apollo 11 space mission planting the American flag on the Moon nearly half a century ago.

But instead of the endless vacuum of space, over 30 Philippine military and civilian divers faced the dark underbelly of the sea as they plunged the height of a 20-storey building to reach the bottom of Philippine Rise, a 13-million-hectare underwater plateau some 217 kilometers off the coast of Aurora.

Read: Benham Rise is now Philippine Rise

Formerly called Benham Rise, the Philippine Rise — which is largely untapped and is believed to be rich in marine resources, natural gas, oil and minerals — was recognized as part of the country's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) by the United Nations (UN) in a 2012 ruling.

Read: Gov’t eyes to tap Benham Rise resources

Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol said last May the government is mulling over building either a wharf or a fishing station at the shallowest part of Philippine Rise to encourage fishermen to go there and establish their presence.

200 feet down

Bearing a fiberglass Philippine flag was Army Major Christopher Constantino, who was tasked with putting it up as the rest of the country raised flags, from Metro Manila's highways to Marawi's war zone, to celebrate Independence Day.

Read: Amid fighting, PH flag hoisted in Marawi on Independence Day

Awaiting Constantino and the divers around 200 feet deep: a three-ton base and flagpole, which had been installed a day before.

But the powerful current posed numerous challenges for the divers. For instance, it swept the flagpole some six car lengths away from the base.

"Actually, we can see the base, but malayo ang base at ang pole," Constantino said. "Sa diving career ko, 'yun yung pinakamahirap na ginawa ko: dragging yung pole na ganun kabigat sa ganung current."

[Translation: Actually, we can see the base, but the base is far from the pole. In my diving career, that was the most difficult thing I've ever done: dragging a pole that heavy against such a strong current.]

And besides the undersea turbulence, they did not have much time as their oxygen tanks only held 20 minutes of air.

The harsh conditions were too much for most of the divers.

"There were two of us left there because we encountered some emergencies underwater, some divers need to abort," Constantino said.

Mission accomplished

But with a minute of oxygen to spare, the Army Major successfully set the flag.

"The flag was installed in the base without the pole," Constantino said. "I can say that we have shown them that the Philippines will always do its best to show the leadership and the patriotic feelings of the Filipino people."

Simultaneously, a flag-raising ceremony was done aboard the ship, with all of the over 400 crew members proudly waving their Philippine flags for the historic ceremony.

"As part of our territorial defense operations, we have to show our flag," said Armed Forces of the Philippines North Luzon Command Chief Major Gen. Romeo Tanalgo. "This is part of our sovereignty patrol."

Red, white and blue over contested waters

That same day, a group advocating modern heroism hoisted the Philippine flag near a body of water, albeit one that is far more contentious.

As the sun rose, members of Dakila had a flag-raising ceremony at the West Philippine Sea, which China is claiming almost entirely as part of its territory.


However, an arbitral tribunal established by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea awarded in July 2016 the exclusive, sovereign rights to the Philippines over the West Philippine Sea.

Read: PH wins maritime arbitration case vs. China

This nullified China's "nine-dashed line," which ate up around 85 percent of the South China Sea.

Dakila said in a June 12 press statement that the flag-raising was a culmination of its Kamp Kalayaan, a three-day event that included activities like mural painting, spoken word, acoustic performances, film screenings, coastal clean-ups, climate talks and discussion sessions on pressing issues about freedom and human rights in the Philippines.

After the flag was raised, the group paddled it out and let it float on the West Philippine Sea.

"This symbolic gesture is an expression of our nationalism and our pledge in the continuous struggle for freedom," Dakila Executive Director Micheline Rama said.

"Today, when many in our nation are still living in abject poverty, caught in the crossfire in conflict zones, immersed in a culture of hate and violence, and deprived of their civil liberties and human rights, can Filipinos still claim true freedom?" she added.

The West Philippine Sea issue today

China has refused to acknowledge the 2016 arbitral ruling, although President Rodrigo Duterte has sought to have warmer ties with China, including holding off discussions on the matter.

Read: DFA: Arbitral ruling will not be raised at bilateral talks with China

Duterte said in a May 20 speech that Chinese premier Xi Jinping told him that China would go to war with the Philippines if the latter were to drill oil at Reed Bank, which is located in the disputed waters, but is part of the Philippines' EEZ.

Read: Duterte: Xi told me China to go to war if PH drills oil in SCS

"He told me, 'We do not want to quarrel with you. We would want to maintain the present warm relationship. But if you force the issue, we will go to war,'" Duterte said.

When sought to verify the claim, China downplayed the issue, saying Xi agreed to "strengthen communication" on important bilateral issues.

The President's claim came two days after China and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations completed a framework for a Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea, where Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan also have claims.

Read: China, ASEAN agree on South China Sea code framework

The completion of the draft framework marked a significant development in the 15-year process of drafting a legally binding code for claimants in the disputed waters.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said on May 22 there was no need to file a diplomatic protest against China' statement, despite calls by lawmakers and a Supreme Court justice to do so.

Read: Cayetano: China did not bully PH with threat