Bullied PH fishermen test disputed waters after ruling

Chiara Zambrano, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jul 13 2016 08:55 PM | Updated as of Jul 14 2016 06:03 AM

Fishermen take a break after returning from a fishing trip in the West Philippine Sea, on the shores of Infanta town, Pangasinan province, northwest of Manila. Romeo Ranoco, Reuters

Zambales fishermen who for the past 2 years have been deprived of access to Scarborough Shoal are happy about the ruling of the UN-backed arbitral tribunal, but welcome it with a hint of skepticism, saying they would like to see first if the ruling will actually make a difference at sea.

A fisherman named Cesar, who just returned from his latest attempt at Scarborough, said that about a week before the ruling came out, gray ships or Navy ships which they believe are from China were visible some miles from the shoal, where at least 3 Chinese Coast Guard ships are roving.

He said, however, that a relative of his who was just at Scarborough on Tuesday night did not experience any harassment that was out of the ordinary.

Cesar continues to play cat and mouse with the Chinese Coast Guard because he says it is still the most practical fishing ground to go to. But, he says, the constant movement as he tries to avoid the Coast Guard has been costing them a lot of fuel as well.

"Hindi ko maintindihan sinasabi nila. 'Going, going, Philippine,' sabi nila, tapos bubugawin kami paalis," recounts Cesar of his encounter with Chinese government personnel. 

"Minsan sumesenyas kami na mahangin. Doon kasi kami nagtatago sa loob ng Scarborough pag masama ang panahon. Pero sasabihin nila, 'Three days only.' Tapos hanggang doon lang kami sa labas."

Despite this constant risk, Cesar will again make the trip to Scarborough Shoal on Wednesday night, knowing he will be among the first to experience the effects of the tribunal's ruling on the ground.

SHIP CAPTAINS TURNED TRICYCLE DRIVERS

In Masinloc town, some market vendors are even unconcerned about the ruling nor the progress of the maritime dispute. They say it actually suits them better not to have fish caught from Scarborough in their stalls because these are a lot more expensive and a lot less fresh than the ones they catch from nearer islands. 

Mario, a fish vendor, used to own two boats devoted to Scarborough Shoal voyages, but opted to sell these after he got traumatized by the Chinese Coast Guard's actions there. His former ship captains and crew chose to become tricycle drivers in the meantime. 

"Babalik lang kami kung umalis na yung mga gwardya," Mario said, referring to the China Coast Guard. 

"Grabe yung trauma namin doon, wino-water cannon kami, binubusinahan, pag matigas ka babanggain ka."

The fishermen differ on how they want the Scarborough dispute resolved. Cesar is fine with sharing the fishing grounds with other nationalities. 

"Dati naman ganun eh," he said. "China, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Korea, sama-sama kami laot. Minsan, nagsasama pa kami sa iisang lantsa, manonood ng bala. Basta lahat makapangisda."

Mario is not so magnanimous. "Kung ako ang tatanungin, umalis na sila doon. Atin yun eh, alam naman nating atin yon. Dati tayo lang ang nakakapasok sa Scarborough, yung China kumakaripas ng alis yan kapag nakita na yung Philippine Navy. Aarestuhin daw sila. Nung nawala yung Navy, lumakas na loob nila."

With talks of sovereignty and maritime entitlement abound, all the fishermen really want to do is fish. But those who will be brave enough to approach Scarborough after July 12 will be the unwitting test cases in an international controversy that they did not ask to be part of.