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Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

As Inquirer headlined recently, foreign vessels have been poaching in our rich waters for marine resources, leaving our marginalized fishermen to fish in nearby shores. Over the years, vital AFP resources have been marshaled to combat communist insurgency and rebellion in the South. Result: a Philippine Coast Guard frightfully ill-equipped to handle piracy in PH waters.

One month after the "allision" between the Filipino fishing boat and the Chinese trawler in the West Philippine Sea, controversies continue to hound both sides. In fact the central issue---the right or the absence of it of the Chinese trawler to fish in PH's 370-km EEZ---continues to be debated. Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. raised the issue in the United Nations in New York City, but as the Chinese side put it, the allision happened as the Filipino fishing boat had no lights while parked in the sea.


Of course the fact of the Chinese boat fishing in PH waters was our  supervening argument, but this fact of the PH boat without lights puts us on the defensive and considerably weakens our claim for damages. This is a small detail but it should be a great lesson for Filipino fishing crew---you need perimeter lights around our boats if another collision is to be avoided at sea. 

The Philippine Coast Guard should be alert in enforcing proper safeguards on PH vessels such as ensuring their being well-lighted. The fact, however, is that many of our fishing boats come from marginalized regions in PH and are operating under-budget---so that perhaps perimeter lights would be the least of most Filipino  fishermen's concerns. But it has now become an absolute must.

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Still and all,  the central issue that continues to jar Filipino sensibilities---six weeks after the allision---is that the Chinese crew of the colliding trawler quickly abandoned the scene of the crime, and did not bother to help save the 22 Filipinos thrown in the sea.  The Chinese crew's excuse was that they were afraid of being mauled---given that, according to their spokesperson in that colliding boat, there were around five other Filipino boats in the vicinity of the allision. 

The implication is that because there were other Filipino boats in the area, the Chinese crew was afraid to come to the rescue of the imperilled Pinoys. This palusot cannot be credible, for if there were a good number of Filipino boats in the area, then there would have been no need to make a distress signal to a passing Vietnamese vessel. It was the Vietnamese boat that rescued our fisher folk, who struggled to survive for nearly four hours in the water. Thank God no one perished.

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But a bigger reality has surfaced, as bannered by the Inquirer yesterday, Friday, July 5, 2019. This is the fact that as PDI put it , "thousands of foreign fishing vessels encroach on Philippine waters and their activities, if left unchecked, could result in a devastating depletion of the country's marine resources." PDI published seismic maps in the West Philippine Sea over a three-year period in the Recto Bank in the Kalayaan Group and the Panatag Shoal, that showed whole areas shaded in red, indicating innumerable foreign vessels in the WPS.  

According to the PDI account, since April 2012, an average of 11, 261 foreign vessels have been invading those waters rich in marine resources and high-value fish in the WPS. The legitimate fear here is that if this continues unchecked, the Philippines stands to suffer from depletion of high-value marine resources and Filipino fishing communities would be deprived of meaningful livelihood. 

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I think that we all have exhausted this allision tragedy in our EEZ to the hilt and the thing is to learn some truly expensive lessons from it. Our fishing boats must be well equipped--- and lighted well enough, so as to avoid collision at sea, which could be most hazardous to the Pinoy crew.

Politically the sea accident has exhausted the adverse consequences to the Duterte administration. To many Filipinos, it was irritating to see  President Duterte sounding quite subservient to the Chinese powers. This perception actually commenced when he began allowing tens of thousands of undocumented Chinese to enter the country and compete with Filipino labor. In many people's perception, this seeming deference of Mr. Duterte to the Chinese---Premier Xi Jing Ping is his very good friend---has lost him quite a lot of political mileage, as far as his countrymen are concerned.

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Our country faces a terrible problem in our West Philippine Sea due to the seemingly unimpeded and limitless access of foreign vessels in our part of the world.  This was highlighted with the allision that happened last month when the Chinese trawler smashed into the smaller fishing boat operated by Filipinos in Recto Bank, and then scooted away without coming to the rescue of the Filipinos scattered in the sea. 

But as things turn out now, that allision accident was just the smaller problem. The bigger headache is how to enforce our sovereignty in our waters, to prevent the Chinese, Taiwanese and Vietnamese vessels from poaching in our waters and thereby seriously depleting our marine resources. 

The foreign encroachments of superior vessels of our wealthier neighbors have gravely affected the livelihood of our own fishermen, who cannot afford to go into deeper areas because of the lack of sophistication of their boats. In turn, this has serious impacted on the welfare of their fishing communities and ultimately on the country that's highly dependent on marine resources. 

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The biggest problem at the moment, however, is the fact that through the years, the Philippine Coast Guard---a vital enforcement organ of the Philippine Navy---which has the duty of protecting our seas from foreign encroachment, is the least developed of our various armed services. 

Over the many decades that our armed forces have been battling local insurgency as well as the secessionist movement in the South, it's the Philippine Army that has cornered the biggest chunk of  resource allocations. As a result of this, of the three major services, the Philippine Navy became the least endowed, despite the fact that we are an island nation.

 Now we see how this reality has crippled the Coast Guard that should have the sophisticated boats to drive away encroaching foreign fishing vessels---but which it doesn't have. 

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