MANILA - Members of the Chinese Coast Guard pick the best catch of Filipino fishermen and leave liquor and a pack of instant noodles in exchange, a fisherman recalled on Sunday, the eve of the fifth anniversary of Manila's arbitral victory on the South China Sea against Beijing.
Ernie Egana, a fisherman from Masinloc, Zambales, said the incident happened in 2018, the same year they were prevented to go inside the inner lagoon of Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, a feature in the West Philippine Sea located off his province.
"Tuwing madaling araw, umaakyat po sila sa bangka namin, hinahalungkay nila ang isdang huli namin. Tapos, lahat ng magagandang isda, kinukuha nila. Pagkatapos, palitan na lang po nila ng isang Maggi at isang boteng alak," he told Vice President Leni Robredo in her weekly radio show.
(Every midnight, they would go to our boat and rummage through our catch. They would get all good fish, and then will give us instant noodles and one bottle of alcoholic drink.)
"Nakarating na po sa kanya (mayor), kaya lang ewan ko po. Pinatawag din kami kay mayor. Parang balewala rin po."
(We've reported it to the mayor. We were summoned to her office but there didn't seem to be anything they could do.)
Two Chinese Coast Guard boats were anchored by the inner lagoon, standing guard, recalled Egana.
"Nagtataka po kami, sa loob na yun, ayaw po nila magpapunta ng mga bangkang maliliit at saka malalaki po. Sa loob po kasi, medyo mababaw po, marami din po sanang isda," he said.
(We wonder what they're hiding inside because they don't allow small and big boats. Inside, the water is shallow, and there would have been many fish to catch.)
"Humina na po ang kuha naming isda kung nasa labas kami manisid. Malakas po ang agos bago maalon, di po kami nakakapormang mangisda sa labas."
(Our catch would be fewer if we fish in the outer waters because of the strong current.)
He said they are scared to go there because of what China might do to them. "Sa kanila, ang sasakyan nila, barko. Ang sa amin, gawa lang sa kahoy."
(They have big ships, while our boats are just made of wood.)
Robredo said her office would send a team to Masinloc town to see what they could offer to help Egana, who, according to her, has been fishing at the Scarborough Shoal since 1994.
"Nakakagalit na nangyayari ito na dapat may karapatan ang mga mangingisda natin maghanapbuhay dahil ito ay traditional fishing ground nila," she said on her Facebook account, echoing the arbitration court's declaration about the shoal as it also invalidated China's sweeping claims over almost the entire South China Sea.
(It's infuriating that this is happening when our fishermen have the right to practice their livelihood there because it is their traditional fishing ground.)
The Liberal Party, in a statement, commemorated the landmark ruling, just a few weeks after its chairman emeritus and former President Benigno Aquino III's death, under whose administration the Philippines challenged China in the arbitral court.
"Idinidiin ng Partido: Hindi natin kailangan ng lideratong magpapalitrato habang humahalik sa bandila; ang kailangan natin, lideratong tunay na magtataguyod sa ating karapatan; lideratong papalag sa pananakop, sa isip, salita, at gawa," it said in a statement.
(The Party emphasizes: We don't need a leader who's photographed while kissing the Philippine flag; what we need is a leader who, in thought, word and deed, will fight for our rights and against encroachers.)
"In this, all Filipinos should be united— and we urge everyone to cast aside differences and remember the conviction that brings us together in times of crisis, and the common horizon that binds us as a nation."
Manila has filed several protests against Beijing due to its illegal presence in the West Philippine Sea, the country's exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea.
China continues to ignore the arbitration court's ruling and has ramped up its militarization in the disputed sea.
Temporarily shelving the award, President Rodrigo Duterte had pursued friendlier ties with China despite its repeated incursions in the West Philippine Sea in exchange for investments, infrastructure funding and most recently, vaccine supply.
But he has since said he would not withdraw Philippine ships from disputed waters after he drew flak over his remark that his campaign promise for fishermen in disputed seas was a joke.
He also called the arbitral award as a mere piece of paper that he will throw in the wastebasket.
"Bukas, July 12, 5th anniversary na ng Arbitral Ruling. Magamit sana natin ang ating pagkapanalo sa pagtatanggol ng mga mangingisda natin tulad ni Ernie," Robredo, a lawyer, said.
(Tomorrow, July 12, is the 5th anniversary of the Arbitral Ruling. Let us use our victory to protect our fishermen like Ernie.)