MARIVELES, Bataan — On Saturday, April 22, Magdalo Representative Gary Alejano met with the local fishermen of Sisiman here regarding the incident that happened in Union Banks.
Union Banks is a large drowned atoll in the center of Spratly Islands in West Philippine Sea, 230 kilometers west of the Philippine coast, containing islands and reefs whose ownership remains disputed and controversial.
“According to the initial reports, it was the Chinese Coast Guard that was involved in the Union Bank incident. However, in our meeting with the fishermen themselves, we were able to know that it was actually a Chinese Navy ship,” Rep. Alejano told I-Orbit News.
Rep. Alejano expressed his concern on this revealing information. “The function of the Coast Guard (white vessel) is to enforce maritime law, and to conduct search and rescue, while the Navy (gray ship) is warfighting. The aggressive act of the Chinese Navy could trigger the Mutual Defense Treaty and there is a danger that the situation may escalate”, Rep. Alejano stressed.
Congressman Alejano relayed the following events that happened in Union Banks and thereafter based on the testimonies of the fishermen:
The fishermen of Princess Johanna, a fishing boat with crew of 25, left Mariveles on March 27 and arrived at Union Banks on April 5. They usually visit the Union Bank fishing ground every year or when their catch is scarce in their traditional fishing ground such as the Commodore Reef in the Spratlys.
When they arrived, the fishermen noticed that there were already erected concrete building structures which were not present last year.
Thirty minutes after dropping anchor, a gray speed boat with crew of 7 in camouflage uniform (resembles that of PLA Navy, as confirmed by the fishermen when a picture was shown) approached them and immediately fired shots into the air. This made the crew scampered and hid in the boat. They stayed on the opposite side of the boat from where the gray speed boat was. They remained at the opposite direction whenever the gray speed boat goes around.
The fishermen noticed the crew of the gray speed boat as Chinese-looking people who were speaking in a language not understandable them. They also noticed that a big gray ship was nearby watching over. The gray ship was confirmed when pictures were shown to them.
Because of fear, instead of hauling in the anchor, the fishermen cut it off and sailed right away. They were chased down by the gray Chinese speed boat while firing shots into the air. They noticed that the shots were fired near the “katig” of the boat.
The fishermen travelled back to Mariveles and kept the issue to themselves as they do not know what to do. They were even afraid to go out in the open for fear that the Chinese would get back at them. However, one of the members of their boat owners’ association knows a local media whom he told the story to. That was then the story went out to the public.
The story eventually reached the attention of the government. Apparently, they were unaware of the issue. When asked by media about the incident, concerned government agencies said they will investigate the incident. Personnel of the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) went to Mariveles to investigate and found out about the story. The fishermen were chided by them and were asked by them why they told the media first before the Coast Guard. The fishermen told them that they do not know what to do.
Boat Princess Johanna left on Wednesday, April 19, to fish. The activity usually last for about a month before they get back to the shore. However, this time, 2 fishermen decided to stay behind because of the trauma from the harassment. They do not want to experience it again.
During their conversation, Rep. Alejano was told by the fishermen that there were also other instances in the past when some members of their association experienced harassment in Scarborough Shoal and 1st Thomas Shoal by Chinese Coast Guard using water cannon and firing warning shots in the air.
“When the fishermen were asked if there was any instance where they were met by local government agencies to discuss the issue of competing claims in the West Philippine Sea, their role in the issue, and what to do in case they encounter any form of harassment from other claimant states, their answer is “none””, Rep. Alejano said.
The fishermen also shared to Rep. Alejano that their only communication with a government agency is with PAG-ASA which provides timely weather updates. They could not contact the PCG because it only uses short-distance radio communication.
“The fishermen even bragged that they are much advance than PCG because they have a marine band that connects them internationally. This observation by the fishermen reveals the shortcomings of the PCG that needs to be addressed, most especially in light of the present maritime dispute”, Rep. Alejano noted.
Aside from instances of harassment, the fishermen also noted the environmental impact of the activities conducted by the Chinese in the sea. The fishermen told Rep. Alejano that many of the coral reefs have already been destroyed due to sea activities made by the Chinese.
During the meeting of Rep. Alejano with the fishermen, it was discussed how the local government could show solidarity to their fishermen in view of the Union Banks incident.
The solon suggested that concerned LGUs could file resolution condemning the actions of the Chinese Navy, demand apology and explanation, and at the same time urge the Philippine government to file a diplomatic protest. — MHIKE R. CIGARAL