#Chexit: The Crowning of Thorns


Blood Rush

The fireworks are on full display. The cheers are deafening. Cups are overflowing. But, what does #Chexit mean? Is it really a victorious ending to a long-drawn maritime dispute over the West Philippine Sea? Or is this triumph a first step to understand the struggle of the fishermen in Zambales and Pangasinan?

Understanding Backwards

What was at stake in the Philippine arbitral case against China? It is to uphold the sovereign rights of the Philippines and the Filipino people over the 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and the Extended Continental Shelf (ECS). What was at stake for the Philippines in another 150 nautical miles from the outer limits of the EEZ?

The international arbitration award favored the case of the Philippines against China. But the latter continues to claim a wide swathe of the West Philippine Sea and its islands. It asserts “indisputable sovereignty” over the 9-dash line claim based on historical rights. Historical rights, however, have been extinguished since the establishment of the United Nations Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 1994 and have been since then embodied in every maritime state’s EEZ and ECS. Under UNCLOS, China’s 9-dash line claim does not belong to any maritime regime. The dispute between the Philippines and China is called a maritime conflict because the latter is challenging international maritime law.

The decision that favors the Philippines is a reaffirmation of UNCLOS. It is a reinforcement of international law that is being violated by China’s claim on Scarborough Shoal, which is only a part of its 9-dash line claim. The same claim has adversely affected fishing communities in Central Luzon.

From the ground

The 70s was the beginning of what would later become a lucrative fishing business. Boholano fishermen sailed to Surigao region in search of more abundant fishing spots. Surigao was a good place for making a livelihood out of the resources of the sea. The Visayan pangayaws (migrants) from Bohol were then able to acquire more powerful motorboats and smaller boats or banca. These newfound technologies had them sailing to Central Luzon in the 1980s. The Visayan fishermen would then bring the payaw (a method of fishing) to the tumandok (natives) of Pangasinan and Zambales. The same family from Bohol would make it possible for fishermen in Infanta to sail to Scarborough Shoal.

BULATLAT FILE PHOTO. Pamalakaya vice chairperson Salvador France carries a symbolic boat along with other fisherfolk at the July 12 protest in front of the Chinese Consulate in Makati City (Photo by Carlo Manalansan/Bulatlat)
BULATLAT FILE PHOTO. Pamalakaya vice chairperson Salvador France carries a symbolic boat along with other fisherfolk at the July 12 protest in front of the Chinese Consulate in Makati City (Photo by Carlo Manalansan/Bulatlat)

A fisherman from Masinloc reported that it was a Muslim from Mindanao by the surname of Alcare who first told them about an island near Masinloc. In the late 70s, Alcare reportedly gathered a few local Masinloc fishermen and funded the sail to what is currently known as Scarborough Shoal.

It was by word of mouth that Kalburo (Scarborough Shoal) became a popular fishing spot among the locals of Masinloc. Fishing in the Kalburo began to be an alternative to payaw fishing during the summer. Payaw fishing is done all year round except on bad weather days. Yield in payaw fishing depends on the method that fishing equipment allows.

The kawil method, for example, only requires a small boat and a hook and line and at least three fishermen. It does not allow the fishermen to earn as much as the pangulon method. The latter requires a pump boat, two light boats and a team of 24 fishermen. Fishermen’s earning using this method is computed by deducting the expenses for the trip, computing for the 50% of their sales. The financier gets the other half of the sale.

On the average, a single trip to the Kalburo yields 3 tons. Fishermen earn depending on their post in the hierarchy. The captain earns Php 3,500 ($74.50) per trip. The fishermen in the smaller boats are paid by the kilo average catch per trip.

While fishing in the Kalburo remained an alternative to payaw fishing, it was a lucrative alternative for the two fishing villages in Masinloc and Infanta. Other than fish, Kalburo contains other resources that local fishers report to have had been the target of Chinese fishing vessels. Local fishermen report how Chinese fishing vessels scrape off corals, harvest Taclobo or giant clams, and capture pawikan or sea turtles. The Philippine Fisheries Code designates those practices as illegal.

In 2012, Chinese vessels would begin to stop Filipino fishermen to get anywhere near Kalburo. Aggressive actions such as the display of high-powered weapons and the use of water canon were inflicted upon Filipino fishers who attempted to fish in the shoal.

Hazard Exposures

The danger of getting pulled off the boat and drowned by the huge fish hooked in the line is imminent in the kawil method. In methods that require the use of compressors, pana and pangulong, divers are prone to decompression sickness, which may cause paralysis and drowning if it occurs underwater.

The cost of proper gear and equipment, such as wet suits, has to be shouldered by the fishermen and not the financiers. This led to a lot of fishermen forgoing proper gear and equipment, thus increasing risk of injuries.

There are no coastal rescue teams for fishermen in cases of accidents such as capsizing of boats during bad weather. This in spite of the exorbitant fees paid by financiers to register their boats to the municipal hall and Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR).

Fishermen have been exposed to these hazards even before the Chinese Coast Guard seized the Scarborough Shoal.

Impact of Chinese Occupation

Financiers of these fishing trips to Kalburo were forced to sell their boats and instead they turned to farming, poultry, and piggery.

As for the fishermen themselves, some of them have opted to work as part-time tricycle drivers and part-time fishermen whenever a financier hires them. This has resulted in intermittent income for households.

Some informants reported that as a result, their wives left the country in the beginning of 2015 to work as domestic helpers in countries like Hong Kong and Saudi Arabia to augment the family income, having lost the alternative fishing in Scarborough.

Sometime in summer of 2013, two fishermen from Masinloc in a small boat got trapped inside the shoal because a Chinese Coast Guard vessel was preventing the mother boat from fetching them. They were trapped inside the shoal for two days with no food to eat until the mother boat was able to evade the Chinese vessels and rescue them. This is just one of the many Kalburo stories of our fishermen ever since the Chinese Coast Guard started occupying Kalburo.

No fall from grace

The conditions presented above indicate that the nation’s current predicament that is the Chinese occupation of Kalburo is not a fall from grace. Fishermen have been exposed to all sorts of hazards long before the Chinese occupation of Kalburo. But since 2012, fishing communities in Masinloc and Infanta have been dealing with worse conditions and dispossession due to China’s claim on and occupation of Kalburo.

This maritime dispute, as it has impacted on the lives of the fishermen, demonstrates the subsumption of local labor to relations such as the amo-sakop relations under nation-states relations. The amo is the financier and owner of big boats while the sakop are the fishermen who sell their labor to the amo. The sakop expects protection of the amo. The latter is also expected to be a creditor in terms of great need such as hospitalization and other unexpected yet urgent expenses. Once the amo shifted to poultry after fishing became a busted business after the occupation of Kalburo, the sakop’s interpretation is one of betrayal: “Iniwan kami sa ere” (We were left hanging in the air).

Whatever happened to communism in the People’s Republic of China? Staunch Maoist and founding chairperson of the Communist Party of the Philippines Professor Jose Maria Sison avers:

“The Filipino people should understand that China since the death of Mao has become a capitalist country. As the neoliberal partner of US imperialism, it has prominently promoted big comprador operations such as the proliferation of export-oriented sweatshops, privatization of the rural industries built under Mao and the wanton use of finance capital to generate a private construction boom and consumerism among less than 10 per cent of the population.

It converted proletarian state power into a bourgeois nationalist power and indeed developed further its industrial base, including its production of advanced weapons. Although it still has a relatively low per capita GDP, China is already a big capitalist power with the economic features of a modern imperialist power and is on the verge of a definitive kind of military aggression.” (2)

The whole notion of “the commons” or the idea and practice that may be interpreted as and expressed in the principle that no one owns the resources of the sea and everyone can share it is also being washed away amidst nation-state expansion or imperialism.

“The commons” has ceased to be a lived experience in the lives of the fishermen in Masinloc and Infanta. But it still can be gleaned through the narratives of the fishermen in as they recall their fishing expeditions in Kalburo. They would exchange resources with Chinese and Vietnamese fishermen in the past. Fishermen from Masinloc recall a barge that was used for target shooting by the US military base in Subic.

The same barge was deserted when the Filipino people triumphed in their struggle to kick the US military bases out of the country in 1992. Since then it had functioned as shelter for fishermen in Masinloc whenever they would fish in the Shoal. But then it gradually disappeared, with every piece being taken away by foreign fishing vessels. Simultaneous with the barge’s disappearance in 2009, fishermen from Masinloc reported having experienced maltreatment from both Chinese and Vietnamese fishers who used to be their friends.

Approaching Kalburo, Masinloc fishers would be given the go away hand sign with the statement “Philippines, Money-money.” What does it mean, was this writer’s follow up question to one of the pioneering amo of Masinloc of Bohol origins. “Pera-pera lang daw kami” was his tearful response. The Masinloc fishermen were being accused of having sold Kalburo to some higher authority, which, in turn, made fishing in the area complicated for Vietnamese and Chinese fishers. Masinloc fishermen suppose that their counterparts might have been warned against fishing in the shoal after a powerful entity from the country made a deal with China.

The disappearance of the barge is symbolic not only of Masinloc fisher’s loss of shelter. Their interpretation of its disappearance and what they take as a painful accusation against them by fellow fishermen (“Philippine money-money” as they were being shooed away) marked the beginning of dispossession on the level of everyday labor and the washing away of Kalburo as a common or shared fishing ground.

While the fishermen recall the sharing of resources or what might qualify as a manifestation of discourse of the commons, they are also keenly aware of dispossession. “Siguradong may nagbenta, pero hindi kaming mga ordinaryong mangingisda, mga nasa gobyerno yan.” (For sure someone sold out. But it is definitely not one of us fishermen. Bureaucrats in power did it). They surmised that Kalburo was taken away by Chinese authorities in cahoots with local authorities.

In one of our Pulong Bayan when our research team gathered together our informants to present and counter-check data culled from our interviews, two very interesting and urgent questions were raised by fishermen, which reflect the situation on the ground. China’s 9-dash line discourse fails the judgment of reason in relation to international law. This point is clear long before the favorable arbitration award was released.

“Mababawi pa ba natin ang Kalburo?” (Can we still take Kalburo back?) “Kung mabawi man, may matitira pa ba sa atin?” (If we do take it back, will there be anything left for us?). These questions reflect the gap between official discourse or what is obscurely known as the law of the sea and the actual experience of the laboring people of Masinloc.

Our longing for “the commons,” perhaps a practice of shared resources to be guided by joint management, badly needs mediation. It is the kind of mediation that will engage, involve, and understand the struggles of fishing communities. Otherwise, “the commons” gets stuck in utopian longing for legalese and/or pining for the Kalburo’s golden age amidst the hard life that fishing communities have always lived. (https://www.bulatlat.com)

(1) On May 20-May 25 2012, The Center for International Studies conducted its first fieldwork at Masinloc, Zambales. After three years of following the issue on the Scarborough Shoal, the Center offered a course on the Diversity of Perspectives in Peace and Conflict focusing on the Ph-China Maritime Dispute. On June 30 to July 5, 2015, the course on Diversity of Perspectives in Peace and Conflict (Global Studies 197) conducted a field study in Masinloc, Zambales and Infanta, Pangasinan. The team is composed of five students namely, Masumi Baba, Myra Cabujat, Angelica Pilapil, Marion T aguinod, and Lemuel Teh with Prof. Sarah Raymundo, Coordinator of the GS 197 and Dr. Cynthia Neri Zayas, Maritime Anthropologist and Director of the Center for International Studies. The author acknowledges the contributions of the research team in the data provided above and the University of the Philippines System’s Enhanced Creative/Research Grant for funding the author’s research entitled: Scarborough Shoal: The Gap Between Official Discourse and the Commons. Parts of this article have already been presented to the Ugat Conference in October 2015, submitted as a research report to the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Development, and a media kit disseminated last July 2015 to contribute to the Hands Off PH Alliance that campaigns for national sovereignty.

(2) http://josemariasison.org/concerning-the-maritime-dispute-of-the-philippines-and-china/

Sarah Raymundo is a full-time faculty at the University of the Philippines-Center for International Studies (UP-CIS Diliman) and a member of the National Executive Board of the All U.P. Academic Employees Union. She is the current National Treasurer of the Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT) and the External Vice Chair of the Philppine Anti-Impeiralist Studies (PAIS). She is also a member of the Editorial Board of Interface: A Journal for Social Movements.

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  1. Lawless China thinks might makes right everywhere. The US Navy differs.

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