In May, Filipino fishermen looked on helplessly as Chinese Coast Guard personnel boarded their boat in Panatag Shoal and seized part of their catch — the best fish, no less.
GMA-7’s video report on the incident has sparked outrage and prompted calls, notably from acting Chief Justice Antonio Carpio, to lodge a protest against China.
“Ang liit ng tingin nila sa mga Pilipino (They think very little of us Filipinos),” one of the fishermen said. “Tayo na nga nanalo sa kaso… tayo pa ang pinagbabawalan (We may have won the case… but we are the ones banned [from fishing]),” said another. He was referring to the 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague that affirmed the Philippines’ exclusive rights over the West Philippine Sea.
“Para kaming magnanakaw sa sariling karagatan (We are like thieves in our own seas),” Rommel Cejuela, captain of one of the fishing boats, lamented.
Malacañang would subsequently present the fishermen at the Palace in a bid to frame the encounter a different way — not as harassment but “barter.”
Asked about the unequal power relations still present in that “barter,” presidential spokesperson Harry Roque dismissed the notion as “maliit na bagay (it’s inconsequential).”
That belated damage-control spin will not suffice, however. The fishermen were clear they had been fishing in Bajo de Masinloc, also known as Panatag or Scarborough Shoal, which is 124 nautical miles west of Zambales, well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
Their plight, and the implications of such hostile actions by a neighboring country on Philippine sovereignty, have come right about as the country is commemorating the 120th year of its declaration of independence.
The timing triggers an even keener sense of aggravation, and Filipinos are asking pointed questions.
As netizen @gaunia put it on Twitter: “Akala ko ba tayo ay isang bansang malaya? Pero bakit ganun, parang alipin pa rin tayo ng mga dayuhan… Nakakalungkot isipin na ipinaglaban tayo ng ating mga ninuno… binuwis nila ang buhay para ano pa? (Aren’t we a free country? So why does it seem we remain enslaved by foreigners? It’s very disheartening that our ancestors fought for us, died for us—and for what?)”
The Philippines’ freedom from foreign domination was bought with tremendous blood and struggle. Even after the Philippine flag was first unfurled and the declaration of independence read from a window of Emilio Aguinaldo’s house in Kawit, Cavite, on June 12, 1898, the international community at the time continued to consider the Philippines as Spain’s territory.
On Dec. 10, 1898, Spain sold the Philippines for $20 million to the United States. It took until 1946, or almost five decades later, for the Philippines to gain its formal independence.
But as historian and Inquirer columnist Ambeth Ocampo wrote: “We often forget that declaring independence is one thing and actually gaining that independence is […] another.”
The revolution remains virtually unfinished, as the Philippines continues to struggle today with various threats to its sovereignty and wellbeing—China, terrorism, cybersecurity attacks from the outside, and social inequity, historical amnesia, the weakening of democratic institutions from the inside.
China is the gravest external threat to the country since World War II, Carpio has warned.
But, according to Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano, the Philippines has filed “maybe 50 to 100” diplomatic protests against China’s actions since 2016.
If true, no one seems to have heard of these protests. What is more apparent is Malacañang’s chronic inaction in the face of successive Chinese provocations.
To ordinary Filipinos, the way China treats the country reflects the signal failure of this administration to protect and assert the Philippines’ sovereign rights.
While Beijing has trashed the arbitral tribunal ruling and continued its bullying actions, the Duterte administration is playing deferential — and keeping tight-lipped on the West Philippine Sea situation — in exchange for loans and assistance.
Until when will this policy of subservience last?
In the end, will the Philippines find itself simply sold again for today’s equivalent of $20 million?
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