The Western Command (WESCOM) denied Wednesday Kalayaan mayor Roberto del Mundo’s account that Filipino fishermen are being driven away by Chinese boats from the sandbars between Subi Reef and Pag-asa Island in the disputed West Philippine Sea (WPS).
Released through Capt. Cherryl Tindog, chief of the WESCOM’s Public Affairs Office (PAO), the statement said that based on reports by the Joint Task Force West (JTFW) covering 2018 to present, the presence of “fishing vessels from various countries, including the Philippines”, have been monitored conducting fishing in the sandbars that Del Mundo mentioned.
“Our group of personnel has also been engaging fishermen in the area to know their concerns and if they are being harassed. So far, up to this date, we have not received any complaint or report from them that they are being harassed or driven away from the area,” the statement said.
READ RELATED NEWS: Chinese boats seen daily near Pagasa scare Pinoy fishermen
WESCOM also presented in the statement an image that provides the data on the arrival and departure of Filipino fishing vessels, as well as their actual location and approximate distance from Pag-asa Island from January 1, 2018, to February 2019.
In a separate phone interview, Tindog said Del Mundo has never gone to the JTFW to report Filipino fishers being driven away from the area, especially Sandbar 3 which is their fishing ground.
“Siya mismo inamin niya na hindi niya na-report sa amin ‘yong mga sinabi niya. Maaaring may basis siya, pero di namin ma-verify kasi inamin din naman niya na hindi niya na-coordinate sa amin. Pero ‘yong sa amin ay verified report from JTFW, at base sa mga nakakausap nila na mga fishermen doon. Sa mga nakakausap nila wala naman daw nagpapaalis sa kanila na mga Chinese boats doon. Otherwise, bibiripikahin namin,” she said to Palawan News.
She said WESCOM has been constantly encouraging local fishermen to continue their fishing ventures in the area and is, in fact, “fully supporting the government’s shelter port project on Pag-asa Island that is being developed to assist them in undertaking their economic activities in the WPS.”
This was reiterated by newly-installed WESCOM commander Vice Admiral Rene Medina during his change of command on March 2, saying it was only the Filipino fishermen who are scared to fish in the WPS.
He said Filipino fishermen have no reason to be fearful or frightened. What they need to do is to get used to the idea of venturing to the common fishing grounds within the Philippine territory.
“On the part of WESCOM, we encourage the fishermen to fish there para masanay din sila. Kasi kung titignan natin, sanay din ‘yong mga sa kabila na nagpupunta doon. Hindi lang talaga nasanay ang mga Filipino fishermen na nagpupunta doon, which we call the… parang common ground among the fishermen,” he said.
He also added they will enhance the presence of the armed forces in the West Philippine Sea by conducting more air and navy patrols.
“We will fill the presence of the armed forces di naman kailangan talaga na dagdagan ang mga tao, pero ang ibig sabihin we will enhance our patrol in the area… air and navy patrols,” he said.
Early in February, Del Mundo said in the Palawan News that the daily presence of over 50 Chinese boats in the waters between Pag-asa Island and Subi Reef has scared them away from the area of the sandbars.
Del Mundo said since December 2018, their daily sightings have always been around the figure and they are unable to determine if the Chinese boats are merely fishing or filled with Chinese undercover agents spying on the construction of the beach ramp on Pag-asa Island.
The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) on February 6 said in a feature titled “Under Pressure: Philippine Construction Provokes Paramilitary Response” that the beach ramp which was supposed to have been completed in 2018, was what provoked China to send in “a large fleet of ships from Subi Reef,” just 12 nautical miles southwest of Pag-asa Island.
The AMTI is an interactive, regularly-updated source for information, analysis, and policy exchange on maritime security issues in Asia.