A Filipino fisherman, recalling an incident three years ago, said members of the Chinese Coast Guard chose the best catch of his fellow fishers and left liquor and a pack of instant noodles in exchange.
Ernie Egana, of Masincloc, Zambales, made the recollection Sunday to ABS-CBN News on the eve of the fifth anniversary of Manila's arbitral victory on the South China Sea against Beijing.
Egana said the incident happened in 2018, the same year they were prevented from going inside the inner lagoon of Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, a feature in the West Philippine Sea located off Zambales.
"Every midnight, they would go to our boat and rummage through our catch. They would get all good fish, and then will give us instant noodles and one bottle of alcoholic drink,” he told Vice President Leni Robredo in her weekly radio show.
Two Chinese Coast Guard boats were anchored by the inner lagoon, standing guard, recalled Egana.
"We wonder what they're hiding inside because they did not allow small and big boats. Inside, the water is shallow, and there would have been many fish to catch,” he said in Tagalog.
He added: “Our catch would be fewer if we fish in the outer waters because of the strong current.”
Egana said they were scared to go there “because of what China might do to them…They have big ships, while our boats were just made of wood.”
Robredo said her office would send a team to Masinloc town to see what they could offer to help Egana, who, according to her, has been fishing at the Scarborough Shoal since 1994.
"It's infuriating that this is happening when our fishermen have the right to practice their livelihood there because it is their traditional fishing ground,” she said in her Facebook account, echoing the arbitration court's declaration about the shoal, as it also invalidated China's sweeping claims over almost the entire South China Sea.
The Liberal Party, in a statement, commemorated the landmark ruling, just a few weeks after the death of its chairman emeritus and former President Benigno Aquino III, under whose administration the Philippines challenged China in the arbitral court.
"The Party emphasizes: We don't need a leader who's photographed while kissing the Philippine flag; what we need is a leader who, in thought, word and deed, will fight for our rights and against encroachers,” it said in its statement.
"In this, all Filipinos should be united — and we urge everyone to cast aside differences and remember the conviction that brings us together in times of crisis, and the common horizon that binds us as a nation."
Manila has filed several protests against Beijing due to its illegal presence in the West Philippine Sea, the country's exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea.
China continues to ignore the arbitration court's ruling and has ramped up its militarization in the disputed sea.
Temporarily shelving the award, President Rodrigo Duterte had pursued friendlier ties with China despite its repeated incursions in the West Philippine Sea in exchange for investments, infrastructure funding and most recently, vaccine supply.
But he has since said he would not withdraw Philippine ships from disputed waters after he drew flak over his remark that his campaign promise for fishermen in disputed seas was a joke.
He also called the arbitral award as a mere piece of paper that he will throw in the wastebasket.
Egana and his fellow fishermen’s experience made headlines when a video of the Chinese Coast Guard getting their catch was featured in a TV documentary. However, he said nothing had changed, even after raising the situation to authorities.
In 2019, the OVP and its Angat Buhay partners extended financial assistance and fishing equipment to the crew of the fishing vessel Gem-Ver, which was rammed then abandoned by a Chinese ship in Reed Bank. (See related story on A3 – Editors).
Robredo had visited the fishermen twice. Two years into the incident, Gem-Ver’s fishing crew and owners are reportedly still waiting for compensation from the owner of the Chinese vessel.
Robredo also reiterated that the Philippines must use its historic arbitration win against China to assert the rights of Filipinos over the West Philippine Sea – in particular for the fishermen who are most affected by the persistent harassment.
Robredo said the fifth anniversary of the landmark ruling was a “reminder” of what was at stake for the country, amid China’s continued encroachment over the Philippines’ territory.
Meanwhile, opposition Senator Francisco Pangilinan said the people must continue to assert their rights over their waters, which is key to addressing hunger, poverty, and high power cost.
The senator pointed out that the waters of the West Philippine Sea were home to vast marine resources, from oil and gas reserves deep beneath its surface, to the fishes and other seafood that could support the people's needs as well as provide a source of income to Filipino fishermen.
"There are the threats of looming brownouts, weekly spiraling oil prices, and the hunger plaguing millions of Filipinos. The answers to all these could be found if we harness responsibly the wealth of our waters," Pangilinan said.
He stressed that the arbitral ruling was an important legal victory that has the force and effect of a law and recognized by the international community,
"The international tribunal ruling seals our stake in the disputed waters. But we have to continue asserting our rights and safeguarding our territory. We have to be united as a nation," he said.
Pangilinan lamented China's continued violation of the arbitral ruling that invalidated its extensive nine-dash claim over the South China Sea.
Over the years, it continues to send fishermen, coast guard ships, and maritime militia ships to the part of the West Philippine Sea that is the critical waterway within the Philippine exclusive economic zone.
He lauded the Philippine Coast Guard and Filipino fishermen patrolling portions of the waters and bravely standing up against the giant ships of China.