Deeper reef probe set
Aurea Calica, Jaime Laude (The Philippine Star) - April 14, 2013 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - While it may initially have appeared as a case of a fishing vessel straying into Philippine waters and running aground in the protected Tubbataha Reef, Malacañang is now considering the possibility that there may be more to the grounding of the Chinese vessel Min Long Yu.

In the light of reports that the alleged fishing vessel had nets but no facilities for fish storage and the 12-man crew had pale, “flawless skin” and did not look at all like fishermen who spend long periods at sea, Malacañang said the government has to dig deeper into the possibility that they are spies.

“The intelligence community is already looking into such report. That’s why we are conducting an investigation so we will see what really are the circumstances surrounding the grounding of this particular fishing boat,” deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said yesterday.

Valte, however, said there was no confirmation so far that what occurred last Monday at Tubbataha, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was anything more than an accident.

Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said Friday they would check if the grounding of the Chinese fishing vessel F/V Min Long Yu and the US Navy minesweeper USS Guardian Tubbataha was just a coincidence, noting the two incidents occurred within less than three months.

He also confirmed an investigation is underway to determine if the 12 Chinese are indeed fishermen.

Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Office Secretary Ricky Carandang on Thursday quelled concerns that the Chinese vessel stuck in Tubbataha could indicate a case of espionage in relation to the territorial dispute between the two countries.

Carandang said the authorities were treating the incident “the way it looks” and “the way it looks is it’s a Chinese fishing vessel not government-owned, and that they ran aground by accident. At this point, we have no reason to believe otherwise. Unless we get an indication that there’s something more to it, then we will leave it at that with the current actions that we have taken.”

The 12 Chinese of the Min Long Yu are facing charges of poaching, illegal entry and attempted bribery. They are presently detained at the Palawan provincial jail in Puerto Princesa City.

Smooth hands, flawless skin

Judging from their features, the 12 Chinese do not look like fishermen at all, according to Palawan provincial jail warden Ramon Espina.

Espina said he has taken into custody hundreds of Chinese fishermen arrested for poaching and illegal entry. But the 12 Chinese crewmembers of the Min Long Yu are entirely different.

“They don’t have the features of a fisherman. I myself was surprised to find out that all their hands were smooth and soft when I shook hands with them. If they are really fishermen, they should have rough hands,” Espina said.

Espina also noted that their faces were pale and smooth, without any scars or marks, and not weather beaten as would be expected of fishermen who spend long periods at sea.

On allegations that the 12 Chinese were not fishermen but spies, Espina said he is not in a position to say so.

He suggested that the Department of Foreign Affairs should send its own people to see for themselves and to determine the true identities of the 12 fishermen.

“It’s already beyond my job to determine who they really are. It’s the function of other government agencies,” he said.

Except for one, the Chinese detainees could not or would not communicate in English, Espina said.

“All we got for an answer each time we tried to communicate to any of them is ‘don’t speak English,’ so we had to ask for the services of a Filipino-Chinese businessman to talk to them for us to know their concerns and needs,” he said.

Espina added a Chinese embassy official has tried to secure special treatment for the 12.

Espina said he got call from the Chinese consul the other day asking him to move and detain the 12 Chinese fishermen in a separate facility.

“I don’t know where he got my number. But we are treating them just like any other detainees here,” said Espina, adding that he politely declined the request of the Chinese official, whom he did not identify.

Senior security officials as well as other concerned government agencies are looking into the possibility of filing additional charges against the 12 Chinese, who were photographed flying the Philippine flag when they were arrested.

One senior military official said there appears to be a deliberate attempt on the part of the 12 to deceive the country’s maritime patrollers by making it appear that their fishing vessel is Filipino-owned.

“If they themselves hoisted our flag on their vessel, there’s already an element of deception. This is now up to our leaders to look into,” he said.

Different circumstances

Valte said that unlike the earlier incident involving the USS Guardian – where the US Navy was asked to pay P58 million in fines – the 12 Chinese fishermen could face imprisonment of between six and 12 years and fines of between P100,000 to $100,000.

This has sparked criticism that the government has been quicker to act against the Chinese poachers, compared to how it treated the American navy crew.

Valte clarified that the owner of the fishing vessel, not the Chinese government based on current information that they are fishermen, would be held responsible for the grounding.

“The information that is coming out now is that this is a private fishing boat,” Valte said. “We don’t see any evidence to the contrary, that’s why we are waiting for the result of the investigation.”

Carandang also said Thursday that the Guardian had permission to enter Philippine waters, unlike the Chinese vessel.

Valte said the circumstances were different and would have to be dealt with based on available information.

Re-floating

The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), on the other hand, is working on re-floating the Chinese vessel off the reef.

The PCG’s BRP Corregidor would act as the primary ship in the re-floating of the Ming Long Yu. The ship was expected to arrive at the site yesterday to commence the re-floating operations.

Some 80,000 liters of diesel fuel would be removed and the water from its cargo hold would be siphoned off to lighten the ship for re-floating.

The Chinese fishing boat got stuck late Monday some 50 meters from the edge of the atoll.

The presence of the Chinese boat in Tubbataha, an area outside of the hotly contested Spratlys region, bolstered earlier reports that Chinese fishing boats have been going in and out of the country’s maritime domain.

Military intelligence reports revealed Chinese defense and military leaderships have been sending their fishing vessels to Philippine waters as decoys to spy on the ongoing development of the Philippine gas field project, specifically within the Malampaya gas field off Palawan.

Asked earlier why a Chinese fishing vessel was able to find its way into Tubbataha without being detected by the PCG, its spokesman Lt. Commander Armand Balilo said the reef is beyond their jurisdiction since it is guarded by rangers of the Tubbataha Management Office.

This prompted Aurora Rep. Juan to call for the return of the Coast Guard to the jurisdiction of the Philippine Navy to make it more effective in patrolling the country’s territorial waters.

Angara said the PCG was stripped of its military functions and was attached to the Department of Transportation and Communications under Republic Act 9993.

Angara, however, said this was before the breakout of the disputes with China in the West Philippine Sea, which is more of a security issue.

Angara said the PCG in its current state would have trouble performing its mandate.

“The facts have changed and Congress has to review the purely civilian functions of the PCG,” he said.

He said the old setup of the PCG integrated within the Philippine Navy would be preferable in light of the current tension in the West Philippine Sea. – With Evelyn Macairan, Marvin Sy

ANGARA CHINESE ESPINA FISHERMEN FISHING MIN LONG YU PHILIPPINE TUBBATAHA VALTE VESSEL
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