Apr 182013
As the government awaits developments in its case against China in connection with Beijing’s alleged excessive claim over the South China Sea, a fishing town in the province of Zambales has been feeling the brunt of the territorial dispute.

According to Mayor Desiree Edora of Masinloc town, the local fishermen’s livelihoods have been “paralyzed” as a result of the continued presence of Chinese ships at the Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, a disputed area.

“Actually naga-attempt silang pumunta kaya lang itinataboy sila ng mga Chinese,” Edora said in a recent interview. “Marami na nakapaikot na mga malalaking barko. So itong mga fisherman na ito, ano naman ang kakayahan nila para lumapit nga e nakaharap sa kanila, baril. So ang ginawa nila, umalis na lang sila.”

Mario Forones, a local fisherman, said ever since the standoff at the Panatag Shoal a year ago, he and his companions have to do their fishing in small boats to avoid detection by Chinese vessels.

“Parang nakaw-nakaw na lang sir ang pagpupunta dun. ‘Yung bangka kong malaki lalayo, tapos yung maliliit na bangka na ganyan, [na] hindi gaanong pansinin, yan ang nangingisda doon,” he said.

Edora said they have received complaints that local fishermen were being driven away by Chinese ships stationed at the Panatag Shoal’s lagoon entrance — an allegation that the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) denied as early as last year.

In May last year, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) declared a fishing ban around Panatag Shoal, located about 124 nautical miles off Masinloc town in Zambales, so as not to aggravate the tension between the Philippines and China over the shoal.

The ban was lifted in July and was never extended, according to BFAR director Asis Perez.

Interviewed by GMA News Online, Perez said Filipino fishermen have been fishing at the vicinity of the disputed shoal since the ban was lifted. He, however, declined to confirm that Chinese ships are still stationed at the shoal, saying only the DFA is authorized to speak about the issue.

Foreign Affairs spokesperson Raul Hernandez, however, said he does not have the latest information regarding Panatag Shoal.

“But what is important is that we have brought the case to an arbitral tribunal and that area is included in the nine-dash line claim of China which we believe is excessive and which is also in violation with international law specifically the (United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea),” he said last week.

“At the end of the day, we are hoping that this peaceful and friendly action, initiative by the government, which is based on rules, will be able to settle the dispute in the West Philippine Sea,” he added.

In April last year, Manila and Beijing engaged in a standoff after Philippine security forces were blocked by Chinese ships from arresting suspected Chinese poachers off Panatag Shoal, a triangle of small islands in the West Philippine Sea circling a lagoon of 150 square kilometers. It is part of the Philippines’ 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone, which is mandated by the UNCLOS.

The UNCLOS is a 1982 treaty by 163 countries with the aim of overseeing the use of offshore areas and mandating territorial limits of coastal states.

China and the Philippines are both signatories to the UNCLOS; however, China continues to claim ownership of the shoal, saying it was first discovered in the 13th century during the Yuan Dynasty.

As early as April last year, the Philippines already expressed its intention to bring the Panatag Shoal dispute before an international court.

In January this year, the Philippines initiated an arbitration process under the UNCLOS to try to declare China’s nine-dash claim on the West Philippine Sea as “illegal.” So far, the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) has appointed three members of the arbitral panel that will hear the Philippines’ case against China. Beijing has rejected Manila’s move in getting UN intervention. — KBK/RSJ, GMA News

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