Updated at 3:40 p.m. EDT on 2017-09-26
The Philippines on Monday assured Vietnam that it would carry out an impartial probe into the deaths of two Vietnamese fishermen who were gunned down after a local navy ship fired warning shots during a sea chase at the weekend.
Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said a thorough investigation was being carried out two days after the incident, which occurred about 34 miles off the coast of Cape Bolinao in northern Pangasinan province.
The area was “well within (Manila’s) exclusive economic zone,” Abella said in a statement issued in Manila.
“The incident led to the death of two Vietnamese nationals and the DFA [foreign office] is closely coordinating with the officials of the Vietnamese Embassy in Manila to update them on the developments and to facilitate their access to the five other Vietnamese fishermen taken into custody by the Philippine Navy,” Abella said.
Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano also extended the Philippines’ condolences to his Vietnamese counterpart, Pham Bin Minh, during an informal meeting in New York, where Southeast Asian ministers were attending a meeting of the U.N. General Assembly.
He said the Philippine Navy, the coast guard, as well as the local maritime police have conducted an investigation into the incident.
“We would like to offer our sympathies over the unfortunate loss of life and give you our assurance that we will conduct a fair and thorough investigation into this matter,” Cayetano said.
The police, in a report, said the Vietnamese fishing vessel was allegedly “engaged in illegal fishing” in Philippine waters.
A joint team from the police, the coast guard and the navy saw six Vietnamese fishing vessels in the area. But one of the fishing vessels immediately turned off its lights and sped off, triggering a chase and prompting the local authorities to fire “warning shots,” the police report said.
Despite numerous and repeated orders through marine-band radio and megaphone to stop fleeing, the Vietnamese vessel initiated a dangerous maneuver and subsequently rammed the Philippine Navy patrol boat in an attempt to escape, the report said.
When the Philippine ship caught up with the Vietnamese boat, Philippine sailors saw “two dead bodies lying on its deck,” it said, adding that the two bore “gunshot wounds” to the head and body, although no contraband were seen inside the Vietnamese vessel.
Fellow ASEAN members
An initial investigation by the maritime police showed that the Vietnamese vessel had seven crewmen on board.
Cayetano said the five other arrested Vietnamese fishermen would be treated fairly and that Vietnamese Embassy officials would not be barred from visiting them.
However, the foreign office also said, the Vietnamese boat was clearly at fault and by initiating “very dangerous maneuvers” that led to the incident.
Forty-nine people aboard the Filipino naval vessel, the BRP Malvar, were placed under investigation. It was not clear whether they were restricted to the ship or were apprehended.
"We don’t agree with the 'inhumane' behavior of the Philippines,” Nguyen Viet Thang, president of the Vietnamese Fisheries Association, told RFA’s Vietnamese Service on Monday.
“The Philippine president has just visited Vietnam and offered many humane solutions for Vietnamese fishermen. But we don’t know why such incidents still happened,” he said.
Speaking from Bolinao, where the surviving fishermen were staying on their boat, Captain Pham To told RFA that his vessel did not ram the Filipino naval boat.
“We were trying to run to save ourselves. They let us go. We had a wooden ship and we are afraid of guns because in Vietnam guns are not allowed for public use. How dare we attack other boats while ours is wooden? Theirs are 20 times bigger than ours,” said To.
Bereaved family members of the two slain fishermen, Pham Van Liem and Le Van Reo, told RFA they would need financial help to bring the men’s bodies back to Vietnam.
Liem’s sister said his parents are 70 years old and poor and only learned of their son’s death through newspaper reports.
“We don’t know how to bring him back home now, because we don’t have money,” said the sister, who gave only her first name, Lien.
Reo’s wife, Quyen, told RFA she is “heartbroken” and has lost the breadwinner for her two small children.
“The city authorities came to our house today and they said that it will cost a lot of money to bring their bodies back. We asked if the government will help with that money but they said they will only help with a small part of that.”
In August, the Philippine Coast Guard detained 10 Vietnamese fishermen on suspicion of poaching off a remote southwestern Philippine island after they found 70 dead sharks in their boat.
The Philippines and Vietnam are among six nations that have territorial claims in the South China Sea. The others are Brunei, China, Malaysia and Taiwan.
Frequent arrests of fishermen have often been the cause of tension in the South China Sea, a strategically important and potentially mineral-rich region that straddles vital commercial and fishing lanes.
Carl Thayer, a Southeast Asia expert based in Australia who has taught at several defense universities, said the Southeast Asian neighbors, formally allies, needed to work together to stop violence and work out legal ways to deal with inevitable disputes.
“This is reprehensible among ASEAN states. They shouldn’t have to kill each other's fishermen,” he told RFA, referring to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
"These incidents of Indonesian or Vietnamese or fishermen going into each other's waters are quite common and it needs to be regulated," added Thayer.
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service, and by RFA's Vietnamese Service. Vietnamese translation by Emily Peyman.