By Arjay L. Balinbin, Reporter

AGRICULTURE Secretary Emmanuel F. Piñol on Wednesday said the 22 fishermen of the sunken boat F/B Gem-Vir 1 are now “uncertain” whether their boat was intentionally sunk by the Chinese vessel it encountered off Recto Bank in the West Philippine Sea on June 9.

Mr. Piñol was in Mindoro on Wednesday to meet with the 22 fishermen with an offer of government assistance.

Jonel Insigne, the captain of the Filipino boat, said in an interview with News5 last week: “Sinadya ‘yon. Kasi kung hindi…dapat tutulungan kami (It was done purposely. Because if it was not intentional, they should have rescued us).”

Asked on Wednesday if he was still standing by his statement, Mr. Insigne told reporters in a televised news conference: “‘Yun lang talagang sinadya nila yung pag-iwan po sa amin (The only thing that was done on purpose was when they abandoned us).”

At one point, Mr. Piñol grabbed the microphone saying: “I would like to clarify kasi parang lumalabas dito na dumidepensa kami (because it appears as if we are defending ourselves here). We would like everything to come out in the open. The truth. We are not slaves to anybody, but we adhere to the truth.”

When the captain was asked again why he was changing his tune on the matter, he said: “Masama po ang loob ko dahil iniwan po kami (I feel bad because they left us).”

Then Mr. Piñol interjected saying: “They are not certain anymore.”

Kaya nga ang pinakamaganda… i-frame ko lang ang sinasabi nya. Ang sinasabi n’ya…nasabi n’ya na sinadya silang banggain sa sama niya ng loob na dahil iniwanan sila (That is why it’s better to… I will just frame what he said. He is saying that the reason why he said they were intentionally hit by the Chinese vessel was because he felt bad that they abandoned them).”

“Right now they are not certain anymore. So my view is that the right thing to do is to conduct an impartial inquiry so that the truth will come out,” Mr. Piñol said further.

Mr. Insigne also clarified to reporters, in Mr. Piñol’s presence, that the President did not invite him to the Palace.

Humihingi po ako ng paumanhin sa ating mahal na Presidente na hindi po pala ako pinatawag n’ya, kundi po si Secretary Piñol po ang nagpatawag sa akin. Hindi po ako tumuloy, umatras po ako dahil masama po ang pakiramdam ko (I would like to apologize to our beloved President. It was Secretary Piñol who invited me, not him. I backed out because I was not feeling well),” he said.

He added, “‘Yun nga po humihiling po ako sa ating mahal na Presidente na sana po ma, ma ano po ‘yong bumangga sa amin na ‘yong kapitan po, gusto ko po ma– (I am asking for help from our beloved President that hopefully the captain of the vessel that hit us will be-).”

Mr. Piñol was heard coaching the captain saying: “Mapanagot (will be held liable).”

The captain continued, “Mapanagot po ‘yung kapitan ng… ‘yun lang po ang hinihingi ko sa ating mahal na Presidente (Will be held liable. That is all I am asking from our beloved President).”

Mr. Piñol said he will recommend to the President to “secure” the Recto Bank area and make it an “exclusive” fishing ground for Filipino fishermen.

“The fishermen are asking the President that the Recto Bank should be their exclusive fishing ground. [I will] ask the President to secure the area,…” he said.

In a phone interview, University of Santo Tomas Political Science professor Marlon M. Villarin said when sought for comment: “He (the captain) changed now. Diba nagbago talaga s’ya ng tono eh. But this will not change the public perception that Filipino fishermen are being belittled and being bullied in our maritime territory.”

Also sought for comment, UST Political Science Department chairperson Dennis C. Coronacion said in a phone message: “Secretary Piñol must have said something in that meeting that convinced the Filipino fishing boat captain to change his statement.”

“It’s obvious that Malacañang is on the move to put a stop on the mounting critical public opinion about the President’s soft statement. And their strategy is quite simple: to make the source of the story change, or doubt, his own account of what actually happened. The new story should be in line with the President’s downplaying of the incident. It should diffuse the tension created by the original account, which aroused the Filipinos’ nationalist sentiment.”

For his part, Defense Secretary Delfin N. Lorenzana on Wednesday described the incident as “just an accident.”

“Maybe the other side didn’t mean to brush against our boat,” Mr. Lorenzana said at a televised briefing in Manila.

Mr. Piñol, for his part, said that 11 fiberglass fishing boats and P550,000 worth of loans or P25,000 for each of the 22 fishermen will be provided to them, while the boat owner, Arlynda Dela Cruz, will receive P1.2 million as grant.

The financial assistance will come from the Survival and Recovery (SURE) Loan Assistance of the Agricultural Credit Policy Council (ACPC), which is payable in three years with no interest. Each of the fishermen also received one sack of rice from the DA.

Mr. Piñol said that he has tapped Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. (PAGCOR) for additional funding.

The said incident caused the fishermen P2 million worth of damage, which includes three tons of fish with an estimated cost of P1 million, as well as P500,000 in capital, and P700,000 for the fishing boat.

For his part, Senior Associate Justice Antonio T. Carpio called on the youth to continue defending the country’s rights on the West Philippine Sea as well as other resources in the territory.

“We have to continue defending West Philippine Sea because that’s our duty,” Mr. Carpio said during the oath taking of re-elected Kabataan Party-list Representative Sarah Jane I. Elago.

“My generation laid the foundation by winning the arbitral ruling that the West Philippine Sea belongs to Philippines and the next generation, including your generation, must build on this foundation so that our exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the West Philippine Sea will belong truly to the Filipinos and all the resources there — the fish, oil, gas and other resources — will be enjoyed exclusively by Filipino citizens — including Reed Bank because that’s part of our EEZ,” he added.

For her part, Ms. Elago said that the youth accepts the challenge to take care of the resources belonging to the Philippines.

Sa part naman po ng kabataan, tinatanggap po naming ang hamon na pangalagaan po ang ating yamang lakas, ang mga napanalo niyo na noon na para sa mga susunod pang henerasyon,” she said.

(For the part of the youth, we accept the challenge to take care of our natural resources, and what you have won before for the next generations.) with reports by Vincent Mariel P. Galang, Vince Angelo C. Ferreras, Vann Marlo M. Villegas, and Bloomberg