Philippines, Taiwan, South China Sea, sea dispute, Jofelle Tesorio

Filipino officials said charges will be filed against the coast guards who recently shot dead a Taiwanese fisherman during a sea patrol.

The incident took place last month in the South China Sea, in a disputed area claimed by many countries, including the Philippines and Taiwan.

The killing caused outrage in Taiwan, and was described by its president as “cold-blooded murder”. And Taiwan has refused to accept an apology from the Philippines, saying it lacked sincerity.

Palawan is at the centre of the territorial disputes due to its proximity to the South China Sea. And its prison there is full of detained Chinese and Vietnamese fishermen.

We couldn’t get access to talk to them... they don’t speak English and would only talk to their lawyers.

Jail warden Ramon Espina says many foreign fishermen come and go.

“We have 12 Vietnamese and 12 Chinese fishermen detained at the Palawan provincial jail. The Vietnamese were detained since 2012 while the Chinese are detained since this year, 2013.”

The Chinese ship was caught inside a marine national park with tons of dead and skinned pangolins - considered a protected species in the Philippines, while the Vietnamese were caught just outside the UNESCO-listed marine site.

Jail warden Espina says they have broken the law in the Philippines.

“Usually the violations of these foreign nationals in our waters is Section 87 which is poaching, section 97 which is catching endangered species or marine products without proper permit… All foreign nationals who were caught in our waters – cases are filed against them and the NCIE or the National Committee Illegal Entrants does not release them without filing appropriate charges.”

Palawan is at the centre of the territorial disputes due to its proximity to the South China Sea. Many countries claim the waters – China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.

And there are many cases of foreign fishermen crossing borders illegally and fishing without a permit.

The Philippines Coast Guard is on the frontline... but they have to be cautious when enforcing the law, says its’ Palawan spokesperson Lt. Greanata Jude.

“Basically, in the rules of engagement we practice extreme caution and tolerance. In that rules of engagement, we only use arms if necessary like if there’s a threat on the life of personnel onboard our vessel and of course if there’s a threat to the security of our own ship.”

In the recent case of the shooting of the Taiwanese fisherman, the Philippines Coast Guard maintains that it was an accident.

Local fisherman Wilfredo Anadeo believes that the guards were just defending the country’s territory.

“I don’t think the authorities had any choice but to fire at them to prevent them from entering our territory because it’s ours. It’s like when  thieves enter your own house.”

But under heavy pressure from Taiwan, Filipino investigators recommended that charges be made against the coast guards who were involved in the shooting, says Lt Greanata Jude.

“We will still ensure that the morale of our personnel is still intact regardless what happens outside. As long as it is within our mandate, we have to maintain the morale of our personnel and so we can perform our duties well.”

Since 1995, Palawan authorities have caught more than 1,000 foreign fishermen within Palawan’s territorial waters.

Angelique Songco, Director of Tubbataha Marine Park says they’re attracted by the abundant marine life. And with depleting ocean resources, fishermen from neighbouring countries are prepared to take the risk of crossing territorial boundaries.

“With these recent issues, challenges are emerging, making us rethink our position. And I still believe we can. If we put a little more resources, I think we will be able to protect the park. We have been able to protect it for a decade.”

The Taiwanese government is now pushing for a fishing agreement with the Philippines in the disputed territories. Many believe this is part of the concession after the shooting incident.

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