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Panatag off limits to Filipino fishers

Scarborough Shoal

MANILA, Philippines – The municipal government of Masinloc, Zambales, is standing by local fishermen’s claim that they are being barred from fishing in the lagoon of the Panatag Shoal in the face of Malacañang’s denial Wednesday that Chinese vessels were preventing the fishermen from entering the disputed territory.

Citing reports from the Philippine Coast Guard, presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said that while there was a Chinese vessel in the Philippine-claimed shoal, the Chinese have not been driving away Filipino fishermen trying to fish there.

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“There is no attempt on the part of the Chinese to prevent the Filipino fishermen from fishing in Panatag Shoal. That’s very clear according to [PCG Chief] Edmund Tan,” Lacierda said.

‘Just perception’

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“Perhaps, it’s because of the perception brought about by a Chinese vessel in front of the shoal, Filipinos thought they are being prevented,” he told a Palace briefing.

To this, Arjay Bautista, the secretary of Masinloc Mayor Desiree Edora, retorted that the Coast Guard is apparently not in touch with the fishermen.

“What I told you is based on the report of our fishermen. That is not our opinion,” Bautista told reporters in a phone interview.

“Now if the Coast Guard has another report because they claim to be in the area, that’s another thing. Because if you ask our fishermen, the Coast Guard is far from where they are,” he added.

He said local fishermen reported the situation to the local government unit (LGU) after they did not get any response from the local Coast Guard.

“The problem is that the Coast Guard does not cooperate,” Bautista said.

On the other hand, local military personnel are regularly in touch with the fishermen and are therefore aware of the latest reports from the fishermen, he said.

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The Panatag Shoal—which locals call Bajo de Masinloc, and is internationally referred to as Scarborough Shoal—area is under the jurisdiction of the Naval Forces Northern Luzon, which is under the operational jurisdiction of the Armed Forces’ Northern Luzon Command (Nolcom).

Lacierda denial

Lacierda also denied that there are now more than 30 Chinese vessels in the Panatag Shoal, a chain of reefs and rocks off Zambales whose ownership is being disputed by the Philippines and China.

Vessels from the two countries have been on a stand-off at the shoal since April 10 following the discovery by a Philippine Navy vessel of illegally obtained turtles, baby sharks, giant clams and corals on board eight Chinese fishing vessels on April 8. The Navy dispatched a warship to the area but before the BRP Gregorio del Pilar could tow the poachers to the nearest police state, two Chinese maritime ships arrived and blocked their arrest.

The military has since reported that there has been a build-up of Chinese vessels in the area which have now increased to 33 from 14 last week.

Lacierda said this was not true, again quoting from Tan.

“There was a statement that there were about 33? I clarified it with Commodore Edmund Tan of the Philippine Coast Guard. There are only seven fishing vessels and two FLEC and two maritime vessels, so they’re 11,” he said.

“The 33 that was reported are not really vessels but rubber boats. So it’s not 33—those rubber boats are part of the fishing vessels,” he said.

Gazmin denial

Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin also denied the report that Filipino fishermen are being barred from the lagoon, also quoting Tan.

He also played down the reported massing of Chinese maritime ships and fishing vessels in the Panatag Shoal.

“There are times they have more fishermen. There are times we have more fishermen,” he claimed.

“But their maritime surveillance ships are always there. We’re no match for them,” Gazmin said.

Only the Coast Guard’s BRP Edsa II and a Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) vessel stand guard in the Panatag Shoal.

DFA spokesperson Raul Hernandez yesterday said the DFA is set to undertake a “new diplomatic initiative” aimed at defusing tensions between the Philippines and China over the Panatag Shoal.

However, the foreign office is “not prepared to discuss this as of this time,” Hernandez said.

Grabbing the place

Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile yesterday warned that the presence of 33 Chinese vessels in the disputed Panatag Shoal means that China is bent on taking it from the Philippines.

Enrile said  reports that the number of Chinese vessels in Panatag had increased 10-fold since tensions began a month ago “is already an indication that China is grabbing the place from us.”

“We must prepare. We better buy war equipment. We better buy our weapons, our means of defense,” the senator said.  With Jerry Esplanada

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TAGS: Bajo de Masingloc, China, Department of Foreign Affairs, Diplomacy, Foreign affairs, geopolitics, International relations, Masinloc, Panatag Shoal, Philippines, Raul Hernandez, Recto Bank, Scarborough Shoal, Spratly Islands, Spratlys, territorial disputes, Territories, West Philippine Sea, Zambales
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