What did Piñol tell the fishermen?
So Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol descends on Wednesday on Barangay San Roque in San Jose, Occidental Mindoro. Inexplicably accompanied by police in antiriot gear, as though he expected a violent welcome in the fishing village, he holds a closed meeting with the captain and crew of Gem-Vir 1. Then he presides over a press conference with the captain and crew, and announces what the fishermen have supposedly agreed on: that they are now unsure if the Chinese trawler that rammed and sank their fishing boat on June 9 did so intentionally or by accident.
What the hell is going on? What transpired during the meeting? More to the point, what did the poobah bearing assorted gifts tell the fishermen, who earlier barely escaped with their lives but lost tons of their catch as well as their livelihood, to make them change their stance?
Pausing in his officious presentation that he was there to see to the fishermen’s welfare, Piñol briefly lets the captain, Junel Insigne, take the mic. (Gaping at the ANC footage, the observer attentive to the twists and turns of this saga is aghast to see that the conference organizers, or indeed the agri chief in his capacity as overlord of the proceedings, did not bother to let the man get out of his sando and into a decent T-shirt as befitting his status as kapitan.) Insigne is glum-faced, wears a resigned look about him, as though realizing that he has steered his boat into a perfect storm and there is no way he can get around it and save himself, his men and his catch.
He says he is now confused about the circumstances and cannot now be sure if the ramming was intentional, in the process negating what he had repeatedly declared: that it was a deliberate act of the Chinese trawlers’ operators on his anchored boat, for which he was seeking restitution, accountability, justice.
The words notwithstanding, the body language is clear and requires no interpreter. It says he is making the statement under duress.
This turn of events is outrageous but hardly surprising, even predictable given the Duterte administration’s long-running obeisance to China. The tenor of the past days, the condescension of Malacañang toward the fishermen, President Duterte’s silence and, when he broke it, cold put-down of the issue as a tempest in a teacup, signaled how developments would play out.
It was fairly easy to take a cue from the Palace mouthpiece Salvador Panelo, or, in this case, Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi, who, when he opened his mouth and offered his theory of the boat-ramming as an accident, else the damage would supposedly have been greater, indicated the administration’s tack early on.
And while Panelo and other talking heads in the government were making noises about an official inquiry, the President pronounced it a “little maritime accident” about which the nation, which all this time had been scrambling to pick up the shards of its self-respect, should not be unduly exercised.
Consider the context of the hit-and-run at sea that Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana first exposed and condemned in the strongest terms, and that he later described as an accident: China’s presence and influence in the Philippines have grown so tremendously that the quip about the nation becoming a province of the behemoth no longer elicits nervous laughter. In Philippine waters, Chinese presence has become so deeply entrenched that Filipino fishermen are in constant risk of being driven from their traditional fishing grounds, or, as happened on June 9 at Recto Bank, of their boat being rammed by a Chinese trawler that then left them to struggle for their lives in the water, in violation of international and moral laws.
The captain and crew of FB Gem-Vir 1 have been dragged through a harrowing life-and-death experience. These simple folk survived by the grace of Vietnamese fishermen, and then were thrust into a sudden limelight in which, along with the sly deconstruction of their narrative, they were pushed and pulled by Philippine authorities in a flurry of photo ops and Duterte salutes. On Thursday, with the ministrations of Piñol and antiriot police, accompanied by the largesse of money, fiberglass boats, sacks of rice and scholarships for their children, the erosion of their dignity appeared complete.
At the end of the ANC report, there was a voiceover of Insigne being asked if he would continue to seek justice for what had happened to him and his men. “Hindi na,” he was heard saying. Not anymore.
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