Thank you, Vietnam
Between friends, words can sometimes be superfluous.
When two Filipino fishermen reached a Vietnamese fishing boat to seek help after being abandoned in open sea by a Chinese vessel that had rammed and sunk their boat shortly before midnight on June 9, gestures were enough to get through the language barrier. The Filipinos asked for help and pointed toward Recto (Reed) Bank, where the rest of the crew of the capsized Gem-Vir 1 fishing vessel was.
Vietnamese boat captain Nguyen Thanh Tam and his men hauled the shivering pair onboard, then set sail toward the site some 9 kilometers away, where they found 20 other Filipino fishers—“tired, hungry and cold”—trying to keep afloat with life vests amid the debris of their sunken vessel. When the Filipinos were finally safe aboard the Vietnamese boat, given food, kept warm and made to rest, a reassuring mutual sentiment emerged among the men from two different countries: “Vietnam. Philippines. Friends.”
The most basic response the Philippines could have offered the Vietnamese for their compassionate gesture was a simple “Thank you.” How hard is it for the Duterte administration to do that—to reach out to the Vietnamese government and, through it, to formally thank the Vietnamese seafarers who saved our fishermen from their ordeal?
Instead, in a bizarre, contemptible turn of events, Agriculture Secretary Manny Piñol made a big to-do about the Vietnamese being in the area illegally, poaching inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ), and so whatever thanks they deserved had to given begrudgingly: “Salamat sa mga Vietnamese sa pagtulong pero you are not supposed to be there but thank God you were there. That was an illegal act that was actually providential.”
What appalling ungraciousness, and a most shameful stain on a country that, until lately, prided itself on its friendliness and sense of goodwill toward other nations. But apparently Piñol has no trouble smearing the Philippines this way, because he, and the administration he represents, has a grander design in mind—to deflect attention from the true culprit in this issue. As Singapore-based maritime expert Collin Koh keenly noted: “The level of ridiculousness has reached absurd levels when you realized that the focus has shifted strangely from the perpetrator to the savior.”
The perpetrator, of course, was the Chinese vessel that, according to the Filipino fishermen’s straightforward initial accounts, rammed their boat while they were anchored in Recto Bank for the night, and then abandoned them in the waters. That firm and clear story began wavering, however, after the Duterte administration unembarrassedly lined up behind the Chinese Embassy’s dismissive characterization of the incident as an “ordinary maritime accident”—a line President Duterte himself parroted and rephrased into “a little maritime accident.”
And to enforce that official narrative, Piñol, backed up by a police contingent in full riot gear, marched into boat captain Junel Insigne’s home for a closed-door meeting and emerged later with the fishermen stammering out a hazier version of their ordeal, unsure now whether the Chinese vessel had indeed targeted them intentionally. At the end of the Soviet-style abject show they were made to do before the cameras by Piñol, they had to do the Duterte fist-bump salute—but of course.
The fishermen’s humiliation was complete. The Vietnamese were called out for their poaching in Philippine waters—but the Chinese, who were trespassing as much inside the Philippine EEZ and, worse, had engaged in reprehensible behavior (perhaps even criminal under international law), were, for all intents and purposes, free from reproach.
Duterte partisans have had a field day trying to discredit the story of the Filipino fishermen with outré conspiracy theories, chiefly that the assault against them was supposedly staged to embarrass the President. But the Vietnamese crewmen’s account of the rescue perfectly corroborated the Filipinos’ story, thus pulling the rug out from under the profoundly revolting, unpatriotic attempt to brutalize the 22 fishermen a second time just to save the hide of this administration.
Those Vietnamese seafarers are not, and presumably have no wish to be, party to byzantine Philippine politics. In the hour of distress of their Filipino counterparts, they simply did their duty as human beings, which was to help save lives. Even as the Philippine government is flagrantly unwilling to stand by its traumatized citizens, the Vietnamese—whose own vessels have suffered repeated aggression by China—offered friendship, solidarity, a humanitarian hand. For that, from a grateful Filipino people: Thank you, Vietnam. Cảm ơn bạn.
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