MANILA (UPDATE) – President Rodrigo Duterte on Wednesday led a send-off for Vietnamese fishermen caught poaching in Philippine waters earlier this year.
The send-off, held in Sual Wharf in Pangasinan, was in fulfillment of Duterte's promise to Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang on the sidelines of the 25th Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit held in Da Nang, Vietnam earlier this month.
In his speech, Duterte said the impoverished Vietnamese fishermen should not be punished heavily for encroaching on Philippine waters. He said his decision to order their release was to demonstrate friendly ties between Vietnam and the Philippines under his administration.
“The job of the President is to maintain the balance of friendship and power in the region,” he said.
“And it was also their promise to do the same, that we treat our poor citizens who happen just to intrude somewhere with understanding, with love. For after all, hindi naman ito mga mayaman.”
The five Vietnamese fishermen, identified by the Palace as Phan Lam, Phan Net, Nguyen Uan Trong, Nguyen Than Chi, and Pham To, were caught fishing off Bolinao, Pangasinan on September 22 by the Philippine Navy.
The incident saw the killing of two Vietnamese fishermen, identified as Le Van Liem and Le Van Reo, by state troops.
The military's Northern Luzon Command earlier said state troops chased the Vietnamese fishermen after they tried to evade arrest when caught poaching in Philippine waters. The foreigners also allegedly fought naval authorities, prompting the Filipino soldiers to fire back.
Undersecretary Eduardo Gongona, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) Director, said the five fishermen were found to be administratively guilty of violating the Philippines anti-poaching law, but that the Philippine government no longer demanded the collection of fines imposed on them due to their indigent status.
He said the BFAR also ordered the release of the fishermen and their vessel last November 20.
Vietnam Ambassador to the Philippines Ly Quoc Tuan, meanwhile, thanked the Philippine government for the release of the fishermen, saying this would bring happiness to their respective families who are hoping they would be home in time for the lunar new year in January 2018.
“I believe that those fishermen will forever cherish the kindness and warm-hearted treatment shown by your excellency and Philippine authorities,” Tan said.
“Today’s send-off ceremony is a vivid representation of the friendship between Vietnam and the Philippines,” he added.
Duterte made the promise to release the Vietnamese fishermen during his bilateral meeting with Quang as he expressed hope that the two Southeast Asian neighbors would be able to peacefully resolve disputes over the South China Sea, resource-rich waters also being claimed almost entirely by China.
This was not the first time Duterte ordered the release of Vietnamese nationals caught poaching in Philippine waters.
In November last year, Duterte also led the send-off for 17 Vietnamese nationals caught poaching by Philippine authorities in September 2016.