Members of Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamamalakaya ng Pilipinas (Pamalakaya) hold a protest rally on Monday, June 24 in Manila to denounce what they call President Rodrigo Duterte’s “insulting” remarks that the sinking of the Philippine fishing boat by a Chinese trawler at Recto Bank was just a “little maritime incident.” | photo by Earvin Perias

PHILIPPINE President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday, June 24  apologized to the 22 Filipino fishermen involved in the Recto Bank event with a Chinese vessel, but downplayed it as a “maritime incident.”

“Well I’m sorry but that’s how it is. It is a maritime incident. Little in the sense that there was no confrontation, there was no bloody violence,” Duterte told reporters in Mandaluyong City.

The president added that it was not enough to justify sending troops to the scene.

“Di kung gusto mo na gumanti doon…(If you want vengeance). That is not a reason to go to any military exercise there. Pag ginawa mo ‘yan, giyera ‘yan (If you do that, that’s war). So I’m sorry if ‘yun ang feeling nila (that’s what they feel),” he said.

Last week, Duterte responded to those who criticized his soft stance by saying that he was not afraid of China but did not want to enter an armed conflict with the country.

“Hindi ako takot sa China. Takot ako na baka walang kalaban-laban tayo at baka tayo ang maubos (I’m not afraid of China. I am afraid that we might turn out to be helpless and just get wiped out),” he said on Thursday, June 20.

Conflicting stories from both the Philippine and Chinese governments about the June 9 Recto Bank incident have been released. Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said a Chinese vessel hit and eventually sunk the boat carrying 22 Filipino fishermen in the open sea.

Meanwhile, the Chinese Embassy claimed that around seven or eight Filipino fishing boats “besieged” the Chinese vessel, which presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo raised doubts about.

Panelo in an interview with CNN Philippines said, “First of all, how can that be? [That] they will be besieged, when the boat was hit and the Filipino fishermen were clinging onto the almost submerged boat. So it’s unclear – their imagination.”

He continued, “For one, there is only one vessel. But I understand they were 19 boats, 19 fishermen’s boats. There was a mother vessel, but there were 19 spread out there. So, my question is: is that what they were referring to?” he said. Number two, if that’s what you’re saying, is that valid enough [to] justify to leave the fisherman in distress? That’s the next question.”

Citing Article 98 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Panelo pointed out that any fishing vessel should  rescue “a vessel in distress or passengers needing help, and if does not endanger yourselves.”

According to the Palace official, the Chinese vessel’s abandonment of the Filipino fishermen was “condemnable.”

“It’s condemnable. Because human decency should make you help someone in distress. If you hit someone and you’re in the water, why wouldn’t you help them?” Panelo said.

The spokesperson earlier said that Duterte was seeking a joint investigation into the incident.

“A joint and impartial investigation will not only promote the expedient resolution of the issue, it will also be in accordance with international law…which places paramount emphasis on the use of peaceful means to resolve international disputes,” Panelo said. 

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