Shooting of Vietnamese fisherman remains a mystery

RFA staff
Shooting of Vietnamese fisherman remains a mystery An Indonesian soldier stands guard near detained Vietnamese fishermen onboard an Indonesian warship off the Natuna Sea in Anambas, Kepulauan Riau province, Dec. 5, 2014.

One month after a Vietnamese fisherman was seriously injured in a shooting incident near the Spratly islands, authorities have yet to identify the attackers with some sources pointing to a possible piracy attack.

Vietnamese analysts, meanwhile, are calling for a clear demarcation of maritime boundaries in the South China Sea, as well as a better cooperation mechanism in overlapping, disputed areas to avoid potential conflicts.

The fishing boat from Quang Ngai province with 12 crew on board was attacked by a group of armed foreign men on Sept. 9, about 40 nautical miles (74 km) southeast of Pigeon Reef, a Vietnamese outpost in the Spratly islands.

In the brief shooting that followed, one fisherman, Vo Minh Quan, 52, was hit in the leg and could be forced to retire from fishing.

As the incident’s location was not far from Malaysia’s Sabah state, as well as the Philippines’ Palawan island, and easily accessible from a rock occupied by China in the Spratlys, “it’s impossible to say where the attackers came from,” said Vu Thanh Ca, a former senior government official turned maritime analyst. 

“They might even be pirates,” Ca told Radio Free Asia (RFA), an online news affiliate of BenarNews, in an earlier exchange.

A Malaysian analyst seconded the suggestion, saying that, as the injured fisherman “was not brought back to Malaysian shores, it was unlikely that the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) was involved.”

“In every case when the MMEA initiated shooting, it must be for self-defense and if the target is injured or dead they would be brought back to the Malaysian side,” said the analyst who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the issue.

An MMEA spokesman told BenarNews that there were no Vietnamese or Chinese fishing boats spotted on that date in the Malaysian waters in the South China Sea.

“No reports or no incident as such. It happened outside Malaysian waters,” said the spokesman who cannot be named as he did not get clearance to speak to the media.

In another incident two years ago near Malaysia’s Kelantan state, a Vietnamese fisherman died after being shot by the MMEA. His body was brought to shore with other crew members who were detained by Malaysia for illegal fishing, illegal entry and attempted murder over allegations they resisted authorities’ efforts to inspect their boat.

Kelantan Maritime director Capt. Muhd Nur Syam Asmawie Yaacob points to a Vietnamese boat that was held by the Malaysian Coast Guard, Aug. 17, 2020. [AFP]

Armed robbery with military involvement?

In a separate development, the Malaysian Home Ministry said 20 people, including military personnel, have been arrested for piracy in the waters off Sabah state.

Malaysian media quoted Home Minister Hamzah Zainudin as saying that the detained were accused of two cases of armed robbery near Pulau Si Amil on Sabah’s eastern coast on Aug. 15 and 18.

They have been released on bail as the investigation continues, Hamza was quoted as saying. The crime of gang robbery can carry prison sentences of up to 20 years as well as whipping.

Piracy and sea robbery have been a problem in the waters around the Spratly islands. In March 2017, a fisherman from Quang Ngai province was shot dead by unknown assailants, probably pirates, in the area.

“Fishing is a hard job and a very unstable income source,” the fisherman injured in the Sept. 9 incident, Vo Minh Quan, told local media.

“It has been getting more difficult to catch fish in recent years,” Quan said, adding: “We’re also facing greater risks of being attacked by unknown vessels.”

Vietnamese fishermen operating in the South China Sea have also been chased and detained by law enforcement agencies from neighboring countries which hold overlapping, sometimes conflicting claims with Vietnam over certain areas of the sea.

Malaysia detained more than 400 Vietnamese fishermen in 2021. More recently, Malaysia detained 42 Vietnamese fishermen in June and released them after three months.

In 2021, Indonesia seized 42 Vietnamese fishing boats, sank some of them and detained more than 270 Vietnamese fishermen. 

Unclear maritime borders

The European Commission issued a “yellow card” warning against Vietnam’s illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing in 2017 and, despite the government’s efforts to eradicate illegal fishing, the results are far from desirable.

In the first quarter of this year, 19 fishing boats with 131 fishermen from seven provinces in Vietnam were caught by authorities from neighboring countries, detained and fined, according to the Vietnamese Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.

One of the main problems, according to Tran Cong Truc, a leading maritime analyst and former head of Vietnam’s Border Committee, is that the boundaries between waters and continental shelves in certain areas in the South China Sea including between Vietnam and Indonesia, as well as between Vietnam and Malaysia in the south of the Spratlys, are not clearly defined. 

“In some cases, they are set unilaterally by a single claimant therefore are not being considered legitimate and respected by others,” Truc told RFA. Fluid borders cause grave misunderstandings, sometimes conflicts, between neighboring countries. 

In the similarly named chapter of his book “The Outlaw Ocean,” journalist Ian Urbina described a confrontation involving both Vietnamese and Indonesian law enforcement ships that he witnessed in 2017.

“In the days after the confrontation, I emailed James Kraska, an international law professor at the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island and an expert on the South China Sea. I sent him the coordinates of where the clash occurred and asked him whose waters those were. ‘Impossible to say,’ he replied.”

“Countries have to agree on where to draw these lines, he said. In the South China Sea, Indonesia and Vietnam have never come to such an agreement, he explained,” reads an excerpt of the book. 

Foreign boats are destroyed near an Indonesian island after being accused of fishing illegally in its waters in this undated photo. [Reuters]

Vietnamese fishermen and law enforcement agencies all need to “learn thoroughly and in detail” about existing maritime boundaries in the South China Sea, including the unilateral and disputed ones, said Tran Cong Truc.

“The government should instruct relevant agencies to come up with different scenarios and regulations, to which fishermen should abide,” he said.

“Most urgently, we need to accelerate negotiations with other countries to either work out a final set of demarcations or a temporary joint development cooperation.”

The main goals are not only to ensure a deal that is fair for every country but also to protect the natural resources of the South China Sea, the Vietnamese expert said. 

This report was produced by Radio Free Asia with contributions by Nisha David for BenarNews from Kuala Lumpur .


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