Gem-Ver boat owner to Duterte gov’t: Whose side are you on?

Rambo Talabong
Gem-Ver boat owner to Duterte gov’t: Whose side are you on?
'Ipilit man po natin sa kanila ang katotohanan, mismo sila ang gumagawa ng lusot para maging mali kami. Bulag at bingi sila pagdating sa ating mga Pilipino,' says F/B Gem-Ver owner Fe dela Torre

MANILA, Philippines – One of the owners of the fishing boat sunk by a Chinese vessel in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) has become increasingly frustrated with the Duterte administration’s statements on the incident that nearly cost the lives of her crew members.

In phone conversations and text replies to Rappler on Tuesday, June 18, Fe dela Torre said the government’s statements showed  it was”blind and deaf” to the plight of its own countrymen.

Ipilit [man] po natin sa kanila ang katotohanan, mismo sila ang gumagawa ng lusot para maging mali kami. Bulag at bingi sila pagdating sa ating mga Pilipino,” Dela Torre said in a text message. (READ: Boat’s captain: ‘Parang balewala ang pagbangga sa amin’)

(Even if we insist on the truth, they themselves are making up excuses to make it appear that we are in the wrong. They are blind and deaf when it comes to us Filipinos.)

She added in a phone interview: “Hindi namin alam kung kinakampihan pa kami. Parang walang paninindigang maipagtanggol pa ba kami; maipaglaban pa po ba kami (We don’t know if they’re on our side. It’s like they have no conviction to defend us; to fight for us).”

Dela Torre is one of the owners of fishing boat Gem-Ver, which a Chinese vessel rammed into, then abandoned near Recto Bank (Reed Bank) in the West Philippine Sea on June 9. It had 22 crew members on board when the incident happened, who were fortunately rescued by a Vietnamese boat.

Her husband Felix earlier lamented that they felt like “slaves” of China and that Filipinos had lost their rights in their own territory. Recto Bank belongs to the Philippines.

Why she’s mad: Dela Torre took offense in the statements of President Rodrigo Duterte and his officials downplaying the incident as a “liitte maritime incident.”

Despite the testimony of F/B Gem-Ver’s captain and crewmen that the Chinese vessel rammed the boat and abandoned them, Duterte and his officials want a complete investigation into the nature of the incident first – whether the ramming was intentional or accidental  – before taking any official position.

Dela Torre said that while her family and their crewmembers were happy about the promised assistance, they were dismayed by the government’s refusal to believe their version of events.

Sa amin okay na rin sana na maayos, maibalik lang sa aming tamang hanapbuhay, pero ‘yung isyu nila na sinasabihan na ng totoo pero hindi naniniwala – ‘yun po ‘yung masakit doon (For us, it would have been fine for everything to be in order, for our livelihood to be restored, but their issue, that they have been told the truth but they don’t believe it – that’s what’s painful there.)

China was first to dismiss the incident as an “accident,” even claiming earlier that their boat was “besieged” by Filipino boats, apparently to explain why it failed to rescue the Filipino fishermen. It omitted that claim – which leading maritime law expert Jay Batongbacal had earlier disputed – in its latest statement on the incident on Tuesday. 

Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr, meanwhile, raised the incident before the United Nations (UN) in New York. Speaking at the commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the entry into force of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, he slammed the abandonment of the Filipino crew as a “felony.”

Refuting Malacañang: On Tuesday, Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo said Malacañang doubted the narrative of the fishermen and their captain, Junel Insigne, after Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol spoke with the crew’s cook, Richard Blaza, who first saw the Chinese vessel approaching Gem-Ver.

Panelo described Blaza as the “sole witness” in the ramming, and even claimed that the rest of the fishermen were asleep when the collision happened.

Dela Torre disputed Panelo’s claim.

While Blaza was indeed the first one to see the Chinese vessel approaching, Dela Torre said the cook woke up the rest of the crew to alert them of what was happening. Blaza supposedly shouted, “May barko (There’s a ship)!” and woke up the other crewmembers.

Dela Torre said Blaza first woke up the captain, who tried to maneuver the boat from the Chinese vessel’s path but it was too late.

Kung hindi agad sila umalerto, paano sila nakaligtas? Buhay ang pinag-uusapan. Alangan namang gusto ni Richard na siya lang ang makaligtas (If they hadn’t been alerted, how were they able to survive? We’re talking about lives here. It’s not as if Richard only wanted to save himself),” she said.

Dela Torre then stressed that regardless of whether the Chinese boat intended to ram Gem-Ver or not, her crew were abandoned at sea. (READ: AFP: Chinese vessel’s sinking of PH boat ‘far from accidental’)

Iniwan pa rin sila (They were still abandoned),” she said.

Some lawmakers criticized Duterte and his officials’ mostly dismissive response to the incident, as if to shield China. (READ: Lacson: Duterte’s statement on Recto Bank incident ‘left us heartbroken’– Rappler.com

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Rambo Talabong

Rambo Talabong covers the House of Representatives and local governments for Rappler. Prior to this, he covered security and crime. He was named Jaime V. Ongpin Fellow in 2019 for his reporting on President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs. In 2021, he was selected as a journalism fellow by the Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics.