Duterte spokesman says president’s silence over West PH Sea incident due to ongoing investigation

President Rodrigo Duterte at an event in Lanao del Sur on June 12, the day that the Department of Defence divulged the hit and run incident in the West Philippine Sea. Photo: Presidential Communications Facebook page
President Rodrigo Duterte at an event in Lanao del Sur on June 12, the day that the Department of Defence divulged the hit and run incident in the West Philippine Sea. Photo: Presidential Communications Facebook page

Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo defended President Rodrigo Duterte today for remaining silent on the recent West Philippine Sea hit-and-run incident by saying that the chief executive prefers to keep mum because it’s still being investigated.

The controversial incident was made public by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on Wednesday, when he released a statement that announced a Philippine boat by the name of F/B Gimver 1 was hit by a Chinese vessel while anchored near the Recto Bank in Palawan (Reed Bank) — which caused the F/B Gimver 1 to sink.

The Chinese ship allegedly left the scene, which also left the sunken boat’s 22 Filipino crew members to fend for themselves. They were later rescued by Vietnamese fishermen.

The Philippine military says that it does not believe the collision was an accident, stating Chinese crew members would have stopped and rescued the Filipino fishermen if it were unintentional.

However, Lorenzana yesterday backtracked on that official stance by saying that he is now unsure if the vessel that rammed into the Philippine boat was indeed a Chinese one. He said he had just relied on the statement of the Filipino fishermen, who believed that the vessel that hit and reportedly abandoned them was Chinese-owned, reported Rappler. 

Throughout all this speculation, the typically opinionated Duterte has remained silent. In an interview today on the ANC show Early Edition, however, Panelo defended the president by saying he has already released an official statement.

“We already made a statement that we condemn it. We said it’s uncivilized, it’s outrageous and barbaric,” Panelo said.

When the host pointed out that Duterte was willing to declare war on Canada when it failed to take back its illegally dumped garbage in the Philippines, Panelo answered: “There’s a difference there. You must remember that the Canada incident has been there for five years. And this one, we don’t really know exactly what happened there. It’s still under investigation. In fact… we don’t even know if that is Chinese vessel or not.”

“The president is a very cautious man. If you notice he makes calibrated responses,” Panelo added.

Panelo initially told the media during a press conference yesterday that Duterte was “outraged” by what occurred to the Filipino fishermen. However, he admitted today that he hasn’t spoken to the president about the incident: “We haven’t talked but I know for a fact that he read our three statements and he agreed with it,” he said.

Panelo said that after Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. filed a diplomatic protest over the incident, Chinese ambassador in the Philippines Zhao Jianhua reached out to him via text message.

“The ambassador of China, ambassador Zhao, texted me last night and he said… [that] they’re seriously and thoroughly investigating the incident. He says that the Chinese government shares our concern and if it’s shown that the accident was intentional, then the culprits… would be educated and accordingly punished,” Panelo said.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang yesterday called the incident “an ordinary maritime traffic accident” and accused the Philippines of politicizing what occurred — though Panelo has rejected the suggestion that Manila has been politicizing the incident.

“First, we are not politicizing that incident. What we’re focusing [on] is the act of abandoning, not the collision itself. Because collisions happen in the high seas. But the act of abandoning is in violation of the UNCLOS — the United Nations’ law of the seas. You don’t even need an international law provision on that. It’s a human act of lending a hand to somebody in distress.”

Some Filipinos view Duterte’s administration as overly pro-China in many cases, including the time the president announced an economic and military split from the United States, one of its oldest allies, to align himself ideologically with China.

Some critics have assailed the government for this, especially because Duterte has consistently refused to enforce a 2016 United Nations tribunal ruling which invalidated China’s claim over the West Philippine Sea.

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