Duterte to Gem-Ver fishermen: 'Sorry, that's how it is'

MANILA, Philippines - "Well, I'm sorry. That's how it is."

These were Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's first words directly addressed to the 22 Filipino fishermen who were left to fight for survival after their boat was hit by a Chinese vessel in Recto Bank (Reed Bank).

Duterte said this on Monday, June 24, at the premiere of the movie Kontradiksyon in Mandaluyong City. He was asked to give his message to the fishermen of F/B Gem-Ver.

"It is a maritime incident, little because there was no confrontation," he continued.

The Chief Executive then went on to say that the Recto Bank incident was not worth going to war for, consistent with his much-criticized narrative that the Philippines' only options to assert its rights in the West Philippine Sea is either friendly ties or war with China.

"This was not to belittle anything. There was damage but luckily nobody died. This is a small matter for anybody to bring in the war, the gray ships," he said.

"Sorry kung ganun ang feeling nila, but alam naman nila na that area is claimed by both. Para sa kanila, sa China, it happened within their jurisdiction, sa atin within our jurisdiction," he also said.

(Sorry if they feel that way, but they know that area is being claimed by both. For China, it happened within their jurisdiction. For us, in our jurisdiction.)

The 2016 Hague ruling struck down China's claim to the West Philippine Sea, including Recto Bank. The historic decision expressly stated that Recto Bank is within Philippine waters and only Filipinos are allowed to benefit from its natural bounty, including its fish.

Duterte doubted that Chinese would fish in Recto Bank, even if the Chinese embassy admitted the Chinese ship found in the area had been conducting light purse seine operations, a fishing method.

"I don't think China will do that. Why? We're friends," Duterte said.

His remarks take on the tone of his previous statements on the incident, where he downplayed it as a "little maritime incident" and possibly an "accident."

Duterte is yet to meet with the 22 fishermen or the owner of their boat F/B Gem-Ver – uncharacteristic, given his penchant for meeting with distressed Filipinos in headline-grabbing tragedies or calamities.

Instead, two Cabinet members, Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi and Agriculture Secretary Manny Piñol, were dispatched to touch base with them and provide aid.

Duterte had previously brushed aside the boat sinking, saying in a June 21 speech that there was no violation of sovereignty in the Recto Bank. He failed, however, to assert the Philippines' exclusive rights to fish in the area. 

Recto Bank is part of Philippine waters. The Philippines enjoys sovereign rights over the area though it has no sovereignty there. – Rappler.com

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.