MANILA -- Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol on Thursday said it was unfair to accuse the government of intimidating fishermen to change their initial account of how a Chinese vessel sank their boat in the West Philippine Sea.
Piñol said he "did not make any security arrangement" on Wednesday when he visited the fishermen's hometown in San Jose, Occidental Mindoro, where policemen in full riot gear were deployed to the house of boat captain Junel Insigne.
"Let me just correct the impression that there was any attempt on the part of the government or this administration to intimidate the fishermen to change their story or come up with a lie that is favorable to government," he told radio DZMM.
"That is unfair to well-meaning people in government right now," he added.
Insigne initially said the Chinese trawler deliberately rammed their boat that was anchored near Recto (Reed) Bank last June 10, causing it to sink and abandoning 22 crew members.
The Filipino captain, however, "wavered" Wednesday and said he was not sure if the incident was intentional because only the boat's cook was awake before the sinking, according to Piñol.
"Intentional ba o accidental: that is something we have to determine... The best solution to this controversy -- tulad ng declaration nila (fishermen) kahapon -- humihingi sila ng maritime inquiry," he said.
(Was it intentional or accidental: that is something we have to determine. The best solution to this controversy is a maritime inquiry, as called for by the fishermen.)
"But I join them... sa panawagan nila sa Pangulo na dapat panagutin ang kapitan ng Chinese vessel at ang crew (in their request for the President to hold accountable the captain of the Chinese vessel) for abandoning them when they were in distress, which is a violation of maritime laws," he said.
The fishermen were given a dozen 30-footer fiber glass boats that can venture 5 to 6 kilometers from shoreline, but are not designed for fishing off the West Philippine Sea, Piñol said.
The group also received P45,000 in cash each, he said. Out of the total amount, P25,000 is a loan that can be paid without interest for the next 3 years, he said.
Duterte on Monday said the sinking of their boat was "just a collision."
"'Wag kayong maniwala diyan sa mga politiko, bobo, gusto papuntahin 'yung Navy... Banggaan lang ng barko 'yan. Do not make it worse," he said.
(Do not believe those stupid politicians. They want to send the Navy. That is just a collision of boats.)
Duterte has largely set aside the Philippines' row with Beijing over the key waterway to court trade and investments, but also occasionally criticized China's actions there.
Insigne on Wednesday apologized to Duterte Wednesday after his comments made it appear he backed out of a supposed meeting with the chief executive.
The Chinese embassy in Manila, meanwhile, said the captain of the Chinese ship tried to save the Filipinos but was "afraid of being besieged by other Filipino fishing boats."
The incident occurred within the Philippines' 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone and far from China's nearest major landmass.