MANILA - Sen. Joel Villanueva on Tuesday said the administration appears to be in a “state of confusion” over the incident involving a Chinese vessel and a Filipino fishing boat in the Recto (Reed) Bank in the West Philippine Sea.
In a statement, Villanueva said government officials must provide clarity about the incident, as he noted how administration officials changed their tone in a matter of days.
“At first, some Cabinet members described the case as a collision. A few hours after, the official line became allision. Then later on, it was called a ‘maritime incident.’” he said.
“One thing is clear to our minds. It seems that in this particular case, even the government is in a state of confusion.”
In a statement, Panelo took exception to Villanueva’s remarks, saying government officials only issued “clarifications” as more details about the incident emerged.
“What the members of the Cabinet did was simply to clarify the issue as the circumstances previously unknown surrounding the Recto Bank incident begin to unravel,” Panelo said.
“If after the clarification, the reader cannot still comprehend, then it is his mind which is in a state of confusion as he cannot grasp a simple correction of terminology, or worse, he could be intellectually challenged.”
Panelo has cast doubt on the fishermen's version of the incident, saying there were inconsistencies in the narration of two of them.
Villanueva called for justice for the 22 Filipino fishermen who were left for dead by the Chinese crew who rammed their boat about 12 midnight on June 9.
He said the Chinese crew, who should not be in Philippine waters in the first place, “must be brought here in the Philippines to be held to account and make amends.”
The incident happened in the West Philippine Sea, the country's exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea.
Villanueva called for a unified stand on the matter among Filipinos, otherwise, he warned, such an incident would happen again.
“How many more fishermen should be put in harm's way before we get our acts together?” he said.
“Tuwing pumapalaot sila, tinataya nila ang kanilang kaligtasan upang magkaroon ng disentente hanapbuhay. Huwag po sana natin maliitin ang kanilang masalimuot na karanasan,” said Villanueva, who heads the Senate committee on labor.
(Every time they set sail, they put their lives at stake just so they could have a decent livelihood. Let us not belittle what they experienced.)
Top government officials such as Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr., Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, and Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo, initially issued stinging statements over the incident.
However, after President Rodrigo Duterte called for calm on the matter, administration officials sought to downplay the issue.
At a regular press briefing Tuesday, Panelo said the incident must be investigated thoroughly as recent developments show conflicting details between the narratives of Filipino boat captain Junel Insigne, and its cook Richard Blaza.
Insigne claimed that the Chinese ship rammed their boat while Blaza, according to Agriculture Secretary Manny Piñol, was unsure whether the Chinese ship had intended to do so.
Piñol added that while he considers Blaza the most reliable witness in the incident since he was the only one awake, his claims still need to be investigated and validated by a proper maritime investigating body.
Lorenzana said the conflicting stories now cast doubt over the initial report that the Chinese vessel intentionally rammed the Filipino boat.
Manila has filed a diplomatic protest against Beijing as Duterte aides and critics alike blasted how the Chinese boat left the fishermen in the open sea, contrary to international law.
China has denied the claims, saying the trawler merely "bumped" into the Philippine boat and tried to rescue the fishermen but was "afraid of being besieged by other Filipino fishing boats."