Connecting our fisher folks in the WPS

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva - The Philippine Star

The AtinTo Coalition regatta cum humanitarian mission succeeded reaching and bringing food and fuel to Filipino fisherfolks at the Panatag Shoal. This will surely add a few days longer for our fisher folks to continue their fishing livelihood at the disputed maritime areas at Bajo de Masinloc (BDM). With their trip there announced days ahead, Beijing immediately mobilized a blockade of its Chinese Coast Guard ships and its other militia-crewed vessels to prevent, if not restrict the regatta’s movements into the disputed waters at the BDM.

Thankfully, the regatta went well despite the usual “shadowing” and harassment antics by the Chinese Coast Guard ships that deployed smaller but fast vessels to surround them at the Panatag Shoal. Dubbed as “peace and solidarity regatta,” the publicity days ahead of their trip to BDM have sent Beijing into frenetic attempt to block the 100 or so fishing boats and around 2,000 volunteers who joined the AtinTo convoy at sea.

A week earlier, an election lawyer who turned “cyclo-tourism” advocate decided to set aside his bicycle for now and instead joined a boatful of Filipino fisherfolks going to their usual fishing area at the BDM. Taking on his own “personal journey,” Gregorio “Goyo” Larrazabal sailed with a 12-man fishing boat crew on May 4 out of interest in finding for himself the actual situation of our fisher folks amid the renewed tension on the disputed shoal.

Larrazabal shared last Wednesday in our Kapihan sa Manila Bay his first-hand experience on how our fisher folks at the BDM cope while they could no longer depend on their livelihood largely around the once rich fishing grounds of the Panatag Shoal. The AtinTo regatta sailed around 5 o’clock in the morning that day to distribute 200 bags of relief goods and 1,000 liters of fuel for the fishing boats in the area.

Internationally called as Scarborough Shoal, the contested BDM is located within the 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the Philippines. The shoal – fondly called “Kalburo” by our Filipino fisher folks ­– is among the islands, islets, atolls, shoals, reefs and rocks being claimed by Beijing as part of their “nine-dash line” in the South China Sea. Despite the July 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration that set aside their “nine-dash line” claim, Bejing refused to honor the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) that recognized the 200-EEZ maritime territories in the West Philippine Sea (WPS).

As expected, Beijing resisted this all civilian show of force at the BDM and insisted that the shoal they named as “Huangyan Dao” is theirs, not ours. Beijing’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared anew: “China made a goodwill arrangement in 2016 for Filipino fishermen to fish with a small number of small fishing boats in the adjacent waters of Huangyan Dao while China continues to oversee and monitor relevant activities of the Filipino fishermen in accordance with law.”

These are the same narratives that Beijing kept repeating and reminding the present government of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. But up to now, it could not produce any official signed document to prove it existed, except a lame attempt of alleged wiretapping. This controversial wiretapping attempt has placed the Chinese Embassy in Manila in a tight spot.

Our government authorities led by the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) are now trying to dig into the reported “wiretapping” of telephone conversations between supposedly an Embassy personnel with Western Command chief who purportedly agreed to implement the Manila-Beijing “special arrangement” at the WPS.

Jocel de Guzman, creator of ScamWatch Pilipinas, suspected this could be another artificial intelligence (AI) production, or “deep fake” as high-tech experts call it. Joining us in our Kapihan sa Manila Bay news forum, De Guzman disclosed that a number of illegal “POGO” (Philippine Online Gaming Operators) hubs raided by law enforcement authorities were found with high technology communication equipment capable of “deep fake” activities. De Guzman does not discount the possible use of these equipment for “spying” activities.

Bureau of Immigration (BI) spokesperson Dana Sandoval who joined us at the same Kapihan sa Manila Bay news forum clarified that the Philippine government is tightening the current visa rules and guidelines “on all foreign nationals and not just from China.” As the State agency in charge of visa processing for foreigners entering the Philippines, Sandoval stressed, the BI implements the policy directions of the national government.

“We are not targeting Chinese nationals. We are not Sinophobic but we just base it on our own changing relationship with China,” Sandoval pointed out.

In the meantime, Larrazabal could only commiserate with the plight of our Filipino fisher folks. He echoed the laments poured out to him by our fisher folks during his three days and two nights in the middle of the waters of BDM. He quoted them telling him: “Gone are the days when their boats will be full with bountiful catch in just two days and nights of fishing.” Given the present state of the shoal, they rued, even a week of staying at the BDM could only load their boats with what little volume of fish they can catch.

With their main livelihood continuing to be caught in the middle of the maritime territorial dispute, he found very satisfying seeing the delighted feelings of the fisherfolks when he shared with them his internet signals using the DFNN Starlink. He narrated how excited the fisher folks to send text messages and even able to talk face-time with their loved ones while they are in the middle of the sea.

Himself a technology-savvy, Larrazabal highlighted the benefits of better communication links to our fisher folks wherever they are at the WPS. He posted in his Facebook account the pictures and drone shots they took around the scenic fishing grounds.

When a powerful neighbor like China flexes its military might, how can our Filipino fisher folks survive?

Armed only with just mobile phones, internet connectivity can also empower our fisherfolks at the WPS.

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