Duterte pressed to assert rights of Filipino fishers vs Chinese coast guard
Five years since the Philippines won its maritime dispute with China at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, the Netherlands, that victory has remained on paper today as Chinese vessels continued to encroach on the West Philippine Sea and local fisherfolk barred from areas within the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
A newly formed federation of 6,000 fishers from the provinces of Zambales, Bataan, and Pangasinan on Sunday appealed to President Rodrigo Duterte and other officials to assert the country’s right to fish within the EEZ in the West Philippine Sea as strengthened by the July 12, 2016, ruling of the international arbitral court.
Bigkis ng Mangingisda said the Chinese coast guard continued to bar the entry of Filipino fishers in the EEZ even as Chinese fishers have been illegally harvesting marine resources in the area.
Bigkis made the plea in a statement signed by more than 1,000 of its members in Mariveles town in Bataan province; Iba, Palauig, Masinloc, Candelaria and Sta. Cruz towns in Zambales, and Infanta in Pangasinan.
The Scarborough Shoal, which local folk call Bajo de Masinloc, is one of the fishing grounds that could no longer be accessed by Filipinos because of the presence of the Chinese coast guard. Others sail out to the Kalayaan Island Group, only to face the same predicament.
Mr. Duterte has maintained a policy of close economic alliance with China and has avoided provoking hostile reactions from Chinese officials as Beijing has refused to recognize the arbitral ruling.
According to the federation, which was formed last May, the ban to enter and fish on the shoal resumed last January and February this year after China enforced its coast guard law. In one incident early this year, four Chinese-looking men on rubber boats drove the Filipino fishers away, they said.
“The [Chinese coast guard] prohibits large boats to sail out there. It strictly guards the lagoon, which is why our catch has dwindled. Because of these, the hunger and poverty in our families have worsened. We don’t have money for [our] medical, education, housing, clothes and transportation [needs],” a part of the three-page statement read.
Chinese fishers, it added, destroyed coral reefs and harvested endangered giant clams using a large machinery called an “airlift.”
“It is not just that these are happening right in our own nation. We are prohibited from fishing in our own sea and benefiting from the riches of the sea,” Bigkis said.
The fishers said Duterte should now assert the ownership right of the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal and the rest of the West Philippine Sea to allow Filipino fishers to recover their source of livelihood and stop the destruction of the sea.
They challenged the Duterte administration to “do its duty to protect the territory of the country from foreigners.”
Sen. Francis Pangilinan said on Sunday that staking a claim to the West Philippine Sea could also be the key to addressing some of the country’s ills.
“There are the threats of looming brownouts, weekly spiraling oil prices and the hunger plaguing millions of Filipinos. The answers to all these could be found if we harness responsibly the wealth of our waters,” the senator said.
Pangilinan noted that the West Philippine Sea was home to vast marine resources, from oil and gas reserves deep beneath its surface, to the fishes and other seafood that could support the people’s needs as well as provide a source of income to Filipino fishermen.
“The resources of the West Philippine Sea offers hope of alleviating the Filipinos from their woes and this should not be taken away from us,” the senator said.
Pangilinan said the government must not abandon the arbitral ruling as an important legal victory that has the force and effect of a law and was recognized by the international community.
“The international tribunal ruling seals our stake on the disputed waters. But, we have to continue asserting our rights and safeguarding our territory. We have to be united as a nation,” he said.
Vice President Leni Robredo has also reminded the country to use the historic win to assert the Filipinos’ right over the West Philippine Sea.
During her weekly radio show, Robredo said the country’s victory should become an instrument to collaborate with other countries affected by the maritime dispute. China has stood by its claim to most of the waters within its so-called nine-dash line, which is also being contested by Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam.
Robredo said that asserting the country’s claims would protect local fishermen who were most affected by the persistent harassment by the Chinese coast guard.
A stark example of this aggression was the sinking of the Filipino Gem-Ver 1 vessel by a Chinese boat in 2019.
Even now, Robredo said relatives of the 22 fishermen who were left to die at sea during that incident have not received compensation from the Chinese government.
“Their plight is really the face of the problem there,” she noted. “When we talk of sovereignty and encroachment, those who really suffer the most are those who are just trying to earn a living there but are being harassed, scared and chased away out of their fishing grounds.”