Questions and rumors sprouted on social media on the incident between Chinese and Filipino vessels in the West Philippine Sea earlier this month.
On June 9, an anchored Filipino fishing boat F/B GEM-VIR1 carry 22 resting crewmembers was hit by a Chinese vessel. The boat later sank. While the Filipino crew survived, the Chinese boat fled the scene without providing rescue. A Vietnamese vessel eventually rescued the Filipino crew.
The Department of Defense released the report on June 12, citing high likelihood that it was a Chinese vessel behind the misdeed. Malacañang issued condemnations, but later on doubted the erring vessel was Chinese.
The China’s Foreign Ministry maintained that it was an “ordinary” incident at sea, despite the larger context that the shipwrecked crew were left behind in the high seas claimed by China but is actually within Philippine sovereignty. Malacañang then nearly echoed China’s alibi and insisted that the issue be not politicized.
Social media muddling details
Some staunch supporters of President Rodrigo Duterte and the Chinese embassy itself are casting doubt on the details provided by the fishermen and authorities.
They shared theories and dubious stories online, among which falsely claim that the perpetrators could possibly from Vietnam or the the Philippines.
habang pinakikinggan ko iyong mga mangingisda at kapitan ng bagkang pamgisda, lalong gumugulo ang kuwento sa recto bank…
Mean while sa mundong ginagalawan ni @srsasot na hindi convinced sa official statements ng mga mangingisda. At nagawa pa talagang pagisipan na maaring yung mga Vietnamese na tumulong ang bumangga sa bangka ng mga kapwa pilipino natin. pic.twitter.com/Z03pC7Ekxs
— Anthony Neil (@Talases) June 14, 2019
It was Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana who released initial information of it on June 12 and was almost certain that the boat that rammed into the Filipino fishing boat was Chinese-flagged.
Palace spokesperson Salvador Panelo even called on Chinese authorities on June 13 to investigate and impose sanctions on the Chinese crew responsible.
However, Lorenzana suddenly became unsure of his earlier statement.
“We were only basing our report to the media, on the statement of the fishermen, kasi hatinggabi nangyari (because it happened at midnight),” Lorenzana said.
The Philippine Coast Guard also noted the possibility that the offending party could be Vietnamese even if the rescuers were also of that nationality.
Meanwhile, Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi insisted on the “accident” narrative when he went to Occidental Mindoro to talk to the fishermen much to their dismay.
Cusi said the damage could have been worse if the ramming were intentional.
Boat identified by the victims
The crew members who were victims of the incident clearly identified it as a Chinese ship and insisted it was no accident.
The fishermen said in an interview that their ship has lights on that night as they slept. Moreover, the ship was stationary off Reed Bank and was hard to miss in the wide sea.
Crew captain Junel Insigne specifically cited the “big superlights” as the recognizable feature of the Chinese ship.
“Nakita nila kaming lubog na, naglalanguyan na. Akala ko tutulungan kami. Tinakbuhan pa kami,” Insigne recalled.
Fortunately, they saw another vessel about five miles away.
Insigne asked some of his men to go there aboard a small boat or banca. It later turned out to be manned by Vietnamese fishermen who immediately came to their aid.
Insigne knew of their nationality because one of the members of the other watercraft said: “Vietnam? Philippines? Friends.”
“Pinaakyat po kaming lahat. Doon kami pinakain, doon kami pinagpahinga muna, pinainom ng tubig. Sila nagtulong sa amin,” Insigne added.
As of press time, there’s still no confirmation on China’s part. China’s Foreign Ministry even took down remarks published on the website which attempted to provide another account on the incident.
Chinese envoy’s attempt to spin
The Chinese Embassy in Manila admitted that the ship involved was Chinese-flagged Gem-Vir 1 but stated that it was the victim of a light purse seine operation against seven or eight other Filipino ships.
This statement was posted on the embassy’s official Facebook page on June 14 but was immediately deleted.
“The Chinese captain tried to rescue the Filipino fishermen, but was afraid of being besieged by other Filipino fishing boats. Therefore, having confirmed the fishermen from the Filipino boat were rescued on board of other Filipino fishing boats, 42212 sailed away from the scene,” part of the statement claimed.
As of writing, no other pronouncements have been confirmed on the part of China.
Opposition lawmakers, meanwhile, branded China’s account as “ridiculous.”
The president’s perceived silence
Duterte’s unusual silence on a matter of national security was noticed by his critics.
They expressed online their frustration on this perceived absence.
The deafening silence of President Duterte on the Chinese militia vessel that rammed a Philippine fishing boat grows day by day, and by this we also get a message. A powerful one.
The President does not care for us.
— Miss Maggie (@MiaMagdalena) June 16, 2019
Panelo defended him and said that Duterte was just being “cautious.”
“The president is a very cautious man. If you noticed, he makes calibrated responses. Depending on the incidents. When the President speaks, they are intentional to get some desired effects or sometimes as he calls it, he shakes the tree for reactions,” he said.
Panelo also denounced the Chinese crew but only for their failure to rescue the Filipino fishermen and not against the act of crashing against the Filipino ship in the first place.
“What we are focusing on is on the act of abandoning, not the collision itself, because collisions happen in the high seas. But the act of abandoning is in violation of the UNCLOS,” Panelo said.
Duterte planned a meeting with Insigne to discuss the event. However, the latter reportedly backed out and remained in his home in Occidental Mindoro.