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‘TO FIND A PROPER SOLUTION’

China proposes joint probe of PH boat sinking

/ 05:36 AM June 21, 2019

China on Thursday proposed a joint marine inquiry with the Philippines to look into the sinking of a Philippine fishing boat after being hit by a Chinese trawler in the heavily disputed South China Sea nearly two weeks ago.

Beijing’s proposal came a week after Manila filed a diplomatic protest over the abandonment of the Filipino fishermen in the open sea by the crew of the Chinese vessel that hit the anchored Gem-Vir 1 at Recto Bank around midnight on June 9.

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‘Hit-and-run’

The Philippine military has called the incident a “hit-and-run,” with the Filipino defense chief, Delfin Lorenzana, denouncing the crew of the Chinese vessel for their “cowardly action.”

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“To find a proper solution, we suggest a joint investigation at an early date so the two sides can exchange respective initial findings and properly handle the matter through friendly consultations based on mutually recognized investigation results,” Lu Kang, a spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry, said in a statement released by the Chinese Embassy in Manila on Thursday.

Lu reiterated the Chinese government’s concern for the 22 Filipino fishermen, who struggled in the water for hours before being rescued by a Vietnamese vessel.

“Once again, I would like to offer sympathy to the Filipino fishermen who were in distress after the accidental collision of a Chinese and a Filipino fishing vessel in Liyue Tan, Nansha,” Lu said, using the Chinese names for Recto Bank and the Spratly archipelago in the middle of the South China Sea.

Malacañang welcomed China’s proposal, which came after Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra proposed a joint marine inquiry during a Cabinet cluster meeting on Monday.

“The President welcomes a joint investigation and an early resolution of the case,” presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo said in a text message.

President Duterte dismissed the incident on Monday as just “a little maritime accident,” intensifying public anger over the behavior of the Chinese vessel’s crew.

Earlier Thursday, Guevarra said he preferred to wait for the results of a marine inquiry into the incident before deciding whether to take legal action.

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The Maritime Industry Authority, Philippine Coast Guard, Philippine National Police Maritime Group and International Maritime Organization have been tipped to form a board of marine inquiry to find out what really happened at Recto Bank—an accidental collision or a hit-and-run, as initially reported by the crew of the Gem-Vir 1.

Their story has changed since they met with Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol, who visited them in San Jose, Occidental Mindoro, on Wednesday to give them aid, including boats, food and cash.

No longer sure

Junel Insigne, skipper of the Gem-Vir 1, earlier said the Chinese vessel intentionally hit his boat.

After the closed meeting of the fishermen with Piñol, however, Insigne said he was no longer sure whether the hit on his boat was intentional.

Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate on Thursday said he believed the fishermen had been “pressured” and “threatened” into changing their stand by the Duterte administration.

“It’s not surprising that the statement of the fishermen has changed. There was really pressure, they were bombarded with so much misinformation. Perhaps they have been threatened and bribed,” Zarate told a news conference.

Foreign offenders first

The Philippine National Police denied intimidating the fishermen, saying the deployment of riot police to the meeting place was a local initiative, happening whenever ranking government officials visited San Jose.

Gabriela Rep. Arlene Brosas raised the fishermen’s original demand of holding the Chinese vessel’s crew accountable.

“We are challenging the Duterte administration to work for accountability and do justice to the fishermen,” Brosas said.

Opposition senators slammed the Duterte administration for “prioritizing the interest of foreign offenders” over the rights of the Filipino fishermen.

Sen. Francis Pangilinan said the fishermen’s dignity and rights “have been crushed anew” after Piñol, quoting a member of the Gem-Vir 1 crew, said the incident was not intentional.

“The second time is worse because those who should have been standing by our fishermen are defending the other side, deliberately causing confusion and brazenly dismissing the hardship and suffering experienced by our own countrymen in the hands of foreigners,” Pangilinan said in a statement.

“Heartless are those behind this spectacle. Prioritizing the interest of foreign offenders while brushing off what happened to our fishermen, victims of lying foreigners,” he said.

Detained Sen. Leila de Lima noted that “helpless abandonment” and “the shock of blatant betrayal” were “etched on the faces” of the fishermen as they were “lined up like criminals” by Piñol after the meeting in San Jose.

“Treason is one thing. Forcing the fishermen to toe the line of the traitors is another,” De Lima said in a statement.

Strongest position

Sen. Richard Gordon said government officials should stick to the strongest position that the crew of the Chinese vessel abandoned the Filipino fishermen in the open sea.

The Chinese, he said, should apologize for their action.

Sen. Panfilo Lacson said it was “understandable” that the fishermen retracted their statement, but the issue at hand was the abandonment of the Gem-Vir 1’s crew by the Chinese.

“The dominant issue here is the criminal act of abandoning the distressed at sea,” Lacson said in a radio interview. “Intentional or not, the act of abandonment is certain. The boat sank and yet they were left behind.” —REPORTS FROM JEROME ANING, JULIE M. AURELIO, JEANNETTE I. ANDRADE AND PATHRICIA ANN V. ROXAS

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