Filipino fishermen sought protection from the Philippine government Monday after a widely circulated TV video caught members of the Chinese coast guard confiscating their catch near a disputed shoal within Manila’s exclusive economic zone.
The fishermen talked to reporters in Manila as the government appeared to move to minimize the fallout from the incident that was first broadcast by GMA-7 television.
Romel Cejuela, one of the fishermen who appeared in the video, said Scarborough Shoal was a traditional fishing ground but the Chinese coast guard “started blocking our path and then completely prevented us from fishing,” beginning in 2012.
“We can only fish in the perimeter. We’ve tried going in (but) you’ve heard that they water canon the boats. They chase us with big boats,” Cejuela said. “Since then, we don’t dare go in.”
But since President Rodrigo Duterte made peace overtures with China, Cejuela said the Chinese had allowed Filipino fishermen to venture near the area.
“The only problem is the Chinese coast guard comes and asks us for fish,” Cejuela said. “What we want is for government to limit them from coming near us, asking for fish.”
He said the Chinese would go up to their boats “and pick the best fish.”
“We can’t do anything. We can’t stop them because they have big boats,” he said, adding that their last trip to Scarborough Shoal was last month.
“They have power there now. They are there. They guard the place,” Cejuela said.
In 2012, a Chinese incursion into the area led to an impasse between Beijing and Manila, with China standing its ground and stationing coast guard ships around Scarborough Shoal. The following year, Manila filed an arbitration case against China, arguing that the triangular shoal in the South China Sea had long been a fishing ground for Filipinos and was well within the Philippine exclusive economic zone.
In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in favor of the Philippines, but China ignored the ruling.
President Duterte welcomed the court’s decision during that same year but said he would not actively enforce it because the country was powerless against China. He instead sought to appease China, which has appeared to return the courtesy by granting millions in aid pledges.
Duterte’s spokesman, Harry Roque, who earlier said that he believed the Filipino fishermen were not bullied, on Monday took a firmer stand.
He said that the foreign office had already communicated with China’s envoy here, because Manila would not be “taking this sitting down.”
“Since we already have an arrangement, they shouldn’t be taking one kilo of fish,” Roque said.
“They should do something because President Xi promised President Duterte that they will allow Filipino fishermen there,” Roque said, referring to Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
However, he said, the incident should not be called “harassment.”
“The Duterte government didn’t lose Scarborough,” he said, as he sought to shift the blame to Duterte’s predecessor, President Benigno Aquino III.
Felipe Villamor from Manila contributed to this report.