Doing right

Plucky 54-year-old Filipino fisherman Arnel Satam best characterizes where we should be following last week’s significant incidents at a disputed atoll variously called Scarborough Shoal, Bajo de Masinloc and Panatag Shoal.

Bucking a tense standoff between Filipino and Chinese government vessels at the shoal’s southeast last 22 September, Satam, aboard a tiny wooden light blue “bangka” (outrigger boat), sped towards the shallow, fish-rich waters of the atoll’s inner lagoon. He just wanted to fish.

Responding speedboat-riding Chinese coast guardsmen hotly pursued Satam for several thrilling minutes before Satam willingly turned back.

But Satam, whose daring act was caught on video, had already made his indelible mark in one of the tensest areas in the South China Sea.

Hindi ako natatakot (I wasn’t scared),” said Satam, who told reporters he often baits the Chinese to chase him. “Pinagtatawan-tawanan ko lang sila. Inaasar ko lang sila eh (I just laugh at them. I only pique them).”

Earlier that same Friday, the China Coast Guard was caught in the act of installing a 300-meter floating barrier around Panatag’s inner lagoon by a Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources boat on routine patrol.

Like Satam, Filipino coast guard divers the following Monday afternoon did the unthinkable, vividly executing a first-ever underwater operation, also dramatically captured on video, against Chinese bullying in the West Philippine Sea.

Using only knives, the divers cut the rope connecting the buoys that held up the barrier and hauled up an anchor holding the floating barrier in place.

Filipino fishermen said the Chinese frequently put up barriers to keep them from Panatag, a traditional rich fishing ground of fishermen mostly sailing out of Zambales.

Some 50 Filipino fishing boats, in fact, were near the shoal when the Chinese installed the floating barrier.

Filipino fishermen could only fish outside the shoal because Chinese vessels had blocked the inner lagoon since the 2012 standoff between the Philippines and China over the shoal.

After the successful “special operation,” authorized by President Marcos himself, the PCG reported that China Coast Guard vessels, probably awed by the Filipinos’ audacity, were seen calmly picking up pieces of the torn barrier.

Still, that same calm demeanor could also mean the Chinese “might still return the floating barrier,” said PCG spokesperson Jay Tarriela, particularly since last Tuesday China tersely warned the Philippines not “to provoke and cause trouble.”

But the PCG and the military establishment have vowed to make the Filipino presence felt at the shoal, even permanently, with Tarriela expressly saying, “We have shown the world the Filipino people will not back down, and we’re still going to consistently carry out whatever is necessary for us to maintain our presence.”

Emphasizing our “presence” at Panatag is a crucial and careful distinction. The 2016 arbitral award ruled that Chinese, Vietnamese, and Filipino fishermen had traditional fishing rights at Panatag Shoal.

Our maritime authorities, therefore, are in the right insofar as asserting that Filipino fishermen have the same rights as the Chinese to safely navigate around Panatag to fish, and that China has no right whatsoever to drive them away or bar them.

Frustratingly, however, some imprudent Filipinos toe China’s self-interested and false sovereignty claims despite the due care with which Filipino maritime authorities qualify their actions.

Oddly enough, too, these same imprudent Filipinos quickly blame the victims of China’s abusive actions. It is as if these imprudent Filipinos are so invested in their fear of China that they are now losing their willingness to defend Filipino fishermen and their livelihood bit by bit, without even noticing.

We cannot be like them. We must all finally realize that to assert ourselves in the world; we must bravely stand up to any form of bullying against fellow Filipinos. We individually need to be an Arnel Satam.

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