Can Juan still fish in peace?

Is the West Philippine Sea dispute worth investigating? Asked my mentor over a cup of coffee, five years ago, when I was proposing a topic for my dissertation plan. “Yes, not only that I’m from Palawan, and part of the disputed territory is just closest to our shore, but the issue is also a global concern,” I replied while taking another sip of my coffee.

After getting her nod, I surveyed archival documents, news reports, and scientific articles that were published about the issue. Just as I submitted a copy of the manuscript four months later, the arbitral ruling over the case filed by our government against China’s incursion in our 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) was released in our favor. It was indeed a victory, but not for my paper. “There’s no point investigating it. The issue had been resolved,” my adviser said.

What I was planning to do was to look at the narratives of the South China Sea maritime dispute between the Philippines and the five other claimant countries—China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Brunei. Forgetting my four-month work on the topic was undoubtedly frustrating, but educating myself on the dispute was unquestionably rewarding.

If not for my initial readings, I wouldn’t have known that it was former president Ferdinand Marcos who created the Municipality of Kalayaan by signing Presidential Decree No. 1596 into law on June 11, 1978. I wouldn’t have understood why former President Benigno Aquino III had signed Administrative Order No. 29, which renames South China Sea waters within our EEZ, West Philippine Sea, on September 5, 2016. If not for it, I wouldn’t have had phrased the opening paragraph of my introduction section as:

“On February 05, 2014, the headline of the news article published in an online portal says ‘Benigno Aquino compares China’s leaders to Hitler, New York Times Reports,’ this was a day after the former president’s interview with the New York Times about China’s encroachment in the disputed area in the West Philippine Sea. On the following day, February 06, comes another article from a different online news portal bearing the headline ‘China media brands Philippine president ‘ignorant and amateurish’ after Hitler gibe’, and here comes another one, on February 08, ‘China to Aquino: We fought Hitler in WWII,’ and the news saga continues.”

Today, July 12, 2021, marks the fifth anniversary of the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s decision and our historic victory that invalidates China’s “historical claim” within our declared jurisdiction. But what happened five years after the ruling?

Ironically, instead of leaving our islands, reports have shown that China had already militarized some areas in the West Philippine Sea. There are also records of the massing up of Chinese militia and fishing vessels within our EEZ, not to mention the alleged blockading and shooing away of our Filipino fishermen in their fishing ground despite the series of diplomatic notes lodged by the Department of Foreign Affairs.

To concretize the point, four months ago, a journalist’s team, who was trying to document stories about Filipino fishermen’s life contending with the might of other foreign claimants within our EEZ, was reportedly being chased by missile-carrying China vessels off the coast of our province. No sooner than expected, the journalist was accused of being a thrill-seeker but soon vindicated when the Armed Forces of the Philippines had recognized her courage for doing her job.

Recently, however, the dispute happened offshore and was no longer between the Philippines and China, and other claimant countries. The brawl now appears to between our leaders—the supposed protectors of our sovereign rights. If it’s just a play of whose side is bigger and stronger, then why not stand together and fight for every inch of our land? What had gone wrong five years after our supposed victory? Will there still be someone who would dare to raise our flag in our disputed territory so that our fishermen can once again fish in peace? Anyone?

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