COLOGNE, Germany - Twenty-one Vietnamese fishermen who were captured by Chinese naval police in the Paracel Archipelago in March 2012 are now detained in a dark, hot jail without windows in an island called Phú Lam.
André Menras, a French filmmaker who holds a Vietnamese citizenship, presented his documentary film "Hoang Sa Viet Nam: Noi dau mat mat" (Hoang Sa Vietnam: the pain of loss) to Vietnamese and German viewers here.
It is a rare glimpse into the lives of widows, children and parents left behind by Vietnamese men who disappeared and died while fishing near Hoang Sa or Paracel Islands, an archipelago in the South China Sea that is being claimed by both the Chinese and Vietnamese governments.
Phú lam, otherwise known as Woody Island, is part of the Paracel Archipelago. Stories about Phú Lam and the Vietnamese fishermen detained in the island by the Chinese naval police have been related to him by people he interviewed for his film, said Menras.
He interviewed fishermen in the island of Ly Son and in Binh Chau village in Central Vietnam in 2011.
“I checked all the stories and they are the same, they describe the same room and the same way they are treated. All the fishermen who were captured many times relate the same stories,” he added.
Pain of loss
In Menras’ film, Tiêu Viet Là narrates how he and other Vietnamese fishers from the village of Binh Chau, were detained for a month in Phú Lam in 2009.
“We were brutally beaten up before we were released,” he recalls, adding that until now, he still suffers from pains and ailments that resulted from the torture that was inflicted on him by his captors. These ailments prevent him from working again.
Tiêu Viet Là also reveals that all his fishing equipments were impounded and that he was only released after paying a ransom of 70,000 Yuan or 8,500 euros. Until now, he still has to pay off his debts from the bank and from neighbors who lent money for his ransom.
In another interview, Nguyen Viet relates that his 29-year-old son Nguyen Thanh Biên was also detained in Phú Lam for 22 days in 2009. His family also had to pay a huge amount for his release. Until now, he has to pay off debts that his family incurred to raise the ransom money for his son’s release.
The film shows widows grieving for the men they lost -- women like Truong Thi Nhi, who recounts how her husband was killed in 1996. She recalls that he was in his boat when his killers came in a ship and shot him. She was then three months pregnant.
Assault at sea
Menras points out that the stories presented in his film depict situations that have been repeated many times since the past ten years.
The Vietnamese keep on fishing in the Paracel Archipelago because it is their traditional fishing ground, he said.
"All their ancestors went there and their government says it belongs to the sovereignty of Vietnam so they go there and the military of China who occupies all the archipelago attacks them, beat them, they put to the sea all their catch and shoot them."
The practice of detaining Vietnamese fishermen and demanding huge amounts of ransom money for their release has been going on for many years, said Menras. In his film, he explains that the fishermen “are always brutally beaten before they are arrested and they are released only after paying horrendous sums of ransom money, the consequence of which is often economic ruin."
In a document entitled “Chronology of Assaults by the Chinese Navy and Patrol Boats Against Fishermen from Central Vietnam in 2002- 2012," Menras asserts that around 1200 Vietnamese fishermen have been attacked by the Chinese in the areas around the Paracel islands in the past ten years.
Menras gathered most information for this report from official sources: from accounts of the Vietnamese coastal police and the People’s Committee of the District of Ly Son. Some data come from official Vietnamese newspapers (Tuoi Tre, Thanh Nien, Vietnam net, Phap luat, Dan tri, Saigon Tiep Thi).
One of the incidents cited in Menras’ report occurred one stormy night in 2009: Chinese guards fired warning shots to prevent 16 Vietnamese ships with 200 men from seeking refuge in one of the islands of the Paracel Archipelago. Eventually forced to dock, the fishermen were arrested and robbed of their possessions.
Menras says that he was able to make his film because he got the support of former Vietnam president Nguyen Minh Triet, under whose government he received his Vietnamese citizenship in 2009.
The present government, however, bans him from showing his film in Vietnam.
Observers note that the Vietnamese government does not want to offend China because it is a major trade ally.
“It is also an important strategic and ideological partner,” says one of the Vietnamese viewers who attended the screening of Menras’ film in Cologne. Government authorities’ fear of provoking the growing protest movement against China also explains the move to ban Menras’ film in Vietnam, he added.
However, reports say that Vietnamese authorities now demand the unconditional release of the 21 fishermen captured in the Paracel Archipelago last March.
Vietnam reportedly claims that the fishermen were captured in its own territories and advises their families not to pay the ransom being imposed by China.
China reportedly demands 70,000 yuan or more than 11,000 US dollars for the fishermen’s release. In a press conference cited by Shanghai Daily on March 23, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said that the “actions by Chinese authorities are completely proper law enforcement actions. We hope that Vietnam takes effective measures to earnestly manage and educate its fishermen and stop invasive fishing."
Hong Lei stressed that China has irrefutable sovereignty over the Paracel Archipelago and that “there is no dispute over this."
Menras and the Vietnamese community in Cologne do not accept China’s territorial claims and believe that the dispute can only be resolved through multilateral dialogues with other concerned countries and international agencies and through instruments such as those provided by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which was signed by both China and Vietnam.
Human rights organizations should look into the situation of the Vietnamese fishermen detained in Phú Lam, said Menras.