Zambales fishers plead for protection after China threatens to arrest 'trespassers'

Cristina Chi - Philstar.com
Zambales fishers plead for protection after China threatens to arrest 'trespassers'
This photo taken on September 20, 2023 shows fishermen aboard their wooden boats passing on a bag of food supplied by the Philippine Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources ship Datu Bankaw, near the Chinese-controlled Scarborough Shoal in disputed waters of the South China Sea.
AFP / Ted Aljibe

 MANILA, Philippines — Fisherfolk from Zambales on Friday sought answers from visiting lawmakers about whether the government can ensure their safety and protection while fishing in the West Philippine Sea following China’s directive to arrest “trespassers” in waters they claim as theirs.

During House lawmakers' public consultation and inquiry on the alleged "gentleman's agreement" between former President Rodrigo Duterte and China in Masinloc, Zambales, representatives of fisher groups asked whether the government would protect them from possible arrest.

Fisherfolk's fresh plea for urgent government action comes after China granted its Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) the authority to detain foreigners it suspects of "trespassing" its borders — including disputed areas in the South China Sea that it claims to be its territorial waters — for up to 60 days without trial.

The directive is housed under regulations rolled out by the CCG that will take effect on June 15, according to Chinese state-run news agency China News Service. 

Coincidentally, the House joint panels' public consultation took place around the same time the Chinese Coast Guard's largest vessel with bow number 5901 was spotted by the Philippine Navy around 50 nautical miles from Bajo de Masinloc on Friday morning.

"Gusto namin malaman anong seguridad ang puwede naming makuha. Sabi nila June 15 manghuhuli sila, eh paano kami na laging nangingisda sa Bajo de Masinloc?" said Jeoffrey Elad, president of the Tropical Fish Gatherer Association in Barangay San Salvador, Masinloc, Zambales.

(We want to know what security we can get. They said they will start arresting on June 15, but what about us who always fish in Bajo de Masinloc?)

 "Wala tayong kakayahan na labanan sila (We can't fight them)," he added.

The fisherfolk leader said that they want the government to assure them that despite China's directive, Filipino fishermen can complete their fishing trips at Bajo de Masinloc, as they have done for decades. "Kahit nandoon ang China ok lang, pero ang hulihin kami ay masakit sa aming kalooban (Even if China is just there, it's okay. But it's painful to think of us being arrested)."

Elad had to repeat his question twice after he did not receive a direct answer from lawmakers the first time, with Rep. Johnny Pimentel (Surigao del Sur, 2nd District) saying that the panel is probing the alleged secret deal to understand how it might have led increased activities from Chinese vessels in the area.

"Wina-water cannon kami palagi. Kahit pag kukuha ng ayuda sa BFAR (Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources). Hindi talaga kami makalapit. Ngayon, tinatanong namin, huhulihin ba kami? Kaming mga taga-Masinloc, 'yun lang ang gusto naming tanungin sainyo," Elad said.

(We are always being water-cannoned. Even when we are just getting assistance from BFAR (Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources). We really can't get close. Now, we are asking, will we be arrested? Us from Masinloc, that's the only thing we want to ask you.) 

Pimentel said that lawmakers will ask House Speaker Martin Romualdez and the president to include fisherfolk from Masinloc and the broader Zambales area in the government's financial aid program.

"Ipaabot natin kay Speaker Romualdez at Presidente Marcos na masali naman sa ayuda mga fisherfolks dito sa bayan ng Masinloc, o mga mangingisda na naapektuhan din sa Zambales. May programa tayo diyan at ang nagli-lead diyan si President Marcos," Pimentel said.

(We will ask Speaker Romualdez and President Marcos to include fisherfolk in Masinloc and other affected areas in Zambales. We have a program for that being led by the president.)

Early on during the public consultation, however, one spokesperson for a fisher group in Zambales said one-time cash aids fall short of addressing the long-term impact of Chinese vessels' "bullying" in the West Philippine Sea.

Noli delos Santos said cash assistance from the government is like "band aid" or "first aid" that disappears quickly with the steep prices of basic goods and their increasing inability to fish without being harassed.

"Pagdating sa mga buyer, maraming huli, kaunti ang benta, dahil sa utang. Maraming kita, mahal namang ang babayarin: bigas, kuryente, tubig," Delos Santos said.

(When it comes to buyers, we catch a lot, but sell little, because of debts. There may be earnings, but the expenses are high: rice, electricity, water.)

"Dinadaan ko na lang sa luha. Ramdam niyo naman siguro ang kahirapan namin (I just let it all out in tears. Surely, you can feel our hardship)," he added.

On Friday, Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro called China's new detention policy "a provocation and a violation to me of the United Nations charter."

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. last week vowed to "take whatever measures" to protect Filipino citizens following China's directive. — with reports by Gaea Katreena Cabico

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