Fishermen won’t join sea militia
SUBIC, Zambales—Fishermen in this coastal town are rejecting the idea of being deputized to form a National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea, saying it is the government’s responsibility to protect them from China’s intrusion.
Fisherman Reynaldo Bico, 48, who has frequented the disputed Scarborough Shoal with his crew, said the Philippine Navy and the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) must instead take the role of securing the country’s territorial waters to spare the fisherfolk from China’s aggression.
The shoal, also called Panatag Shoal or Bajo de Masinloc, is well within the Philippines’ 370-km exclusive economic zone (EEZ). It is part of the South China Sea that Manila calls West Philippine Sea.
“We’re out in the sea to make a living and not to patrol our territorial waters,” Bico told the Inquirer on Monday.
Bico, captain of the fishing boat Anna Marie, said the task force had not consulted them about the plan but he was certain other local fishermen would turn it down.
“We are not capable of fighting off the Chinese coast guards. We’re not trained to do that and that’s not our job,” he said.
Bico is one of the Filipino fishermen who complained about aggressive action from the Chinese patrols, which included ramming their boats.
Lt. Gen. Romeo Tanalago, chief of the Northern Luzon Command, announced at a press briefing in Tarlac province on June 24 that the newly created national task force would put the fishermen from Zambales on the front lines as the Philippines asserts its rights over the contested shoal.
The plan comes days before the United Nations issues its ruling on the Philippine maritime row with China.
China seized the Scarborough Shoal in 2012 after a two-month standoff with the Navy and PCG. It has since added the shoal to a string of reefs it is developing into artificial islands.
China has been asserting its claims over almost all of the South China Sea. The Philippines filed a complaint against China in the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in 2013.
“We should be able to take actions in order to protect our fisherfolk,” Tanalago said.
He said the lack of vessels had been hampering the Navy and the Coast Guard to patrol around the shoal. “We don’t have the appropriate vessels to continuously monitor the area,” he said.
Tanalago, who also heads the task force’s Area Task Force-North, said the fishermen would not be armed. “The main stakeholders here are the fisherfolk. We should be able to organize and mobilize them so that they could exercise their rights,” he said.
Jim Amora, 42, another fisherman from this town, said the government’s plan to train them as maritime militia would put their lives in peril.
“We understand the concern of our military but we can’t afford to take on the roles that some of our government agencies should be doing,” Amora said.
Even without being prodded by the government, Filipino fishermen have been coordinating and relaying information to Navy and Coast Guard authorities as they face the Chinese coast guards around the shoal, he said.
“We’re worried that China will turn more aggressive if they see us as maritime patrols. We would be better off as ordinary fishermen,” he said.