By Carmencita A. Carillo, Correspondent

Border talks with Indonesia after sinking of 4 PHL vessels

Posted on November 06, 2015

DAVAO CITY -- The Philippines’ Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) met with the Indonesian delegation at the 34th Philippines-Indonesia Border Committee Chairmen’s Conference (BCCC) to discuss border issues, following last month’s arrest and sinking of four Philippine fishing vessels by the Indonesian Navy.

“There is a need to clarify this from a technical viewpoint because as far as we are concerned, the fishing vessels were still within the Philippine EEZ [Exclusive Economic Zone], while Indonesia thinks otherwise,” BFAR National Director Asis G. Perez said in an interview on Wednesday on the sidelines of the annual conference held in Davao City which began on Wednesday and ended yesterday.

The EEZ is prescribed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the international agreement which covers maritime borders and resources.

“While this is being discussed diplomatically, there is a need to resolve this at the technical level since there is already an agreement between the Philippines and Indonesia when it comes to these boundaries,” Mr. Perez said.

The Philippines and Indonesia, both state parties to the UNCLOS, signed a bilateral agreement on May 23, 2014, which delimits the overlapping EEZs in the Mindanao Sea and Celebes Sea in the southern Philippines and the Philippine Sea on the southern section of the Pacific Ocean.

The agreement was hailed as a landmark accomplishment amid rising tensions in the West Philippine Sea where there are long-standing overlapping claims involving the Philippines, China and other states.

Mr. Perez said his agency raised to the Indonesian delegation its concern that, “despite our communication efforts to conduct an investigation on the matter,” Indonesia reportedly went ahead with the sinking of the vessels.

Reports said the Philippine vessels were stopped by the Indonesian Navy, presumably on Indonesian waters, and their crew arrested as they didn’t have the permits to fish in the area.

The Philippine government has no information yet on the Filipino fishermen who are reportedly facing trial in Indonesia. Mr. Perez said the fishermen are believed to be held in the Indonesian island and city of Tarakan, off North Borneo.

The Indonesian Navy reportedly sunk 12 foreign vessels last month, including the four owned by Philippine companies.

Mr. Perez said this was not the first time Philippine flag vessels were apprehended by the Indonesian Navy.

The Philippine government has not previously raised this matter because the vessels in question were believed to have been operating in Indonesian waters. “We respected their authority,” Mr. Perez said.

Indonesia, which has launched a vigorous campaign against illegal fishing, sank 34 boats from foreign countries, including the four Philippine vessels last August as part of its 70th Independence Day commemoration.

Indonesia’s “sink the vessel” policy is based on Article 69, Paragraph 4 of Law No. 45/2009 on Fisheries, which allows Indonesian authorities “to burn or sink foreign fishing vessels conducting illegal fishing within the Indonesian fishing management area subject to the sufficient preliminary evidence.”

But in the case of the four Philippine vessels, Mr. Perez said an investigation showed they were still within the country’s EEZ. “While I do not expect the problem to be resolved now, we can at least discuss the border issue at the technical level,” he said.

Benjamin F.S. Tabios, Jr., BFAR assistant director for administrative services, informed the Indonesian delegation about the Philippines’ own stand against illegal fishing as affirmed by the passage this year of the Amended Fisheries Code, adding that the government is undertaking an information campaign among fisherfolk about going beyond Philippine waters.

The BCCC is chaired by Lt. Gen. Aurelio B. Baladad of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and Rear Admiral Laksda Tni Darwanto, S.H., M.A.P. of the Indonesian Navy.

In a joint statement at the end of the conference, the two officials said “the discussions of the committee aim to enhance cooperation addressing border and maritime concerns of the two biggest archipelagic states of the world.”

Among the issues taken up at the different sub-committee levels were the inclusion of civilian maritime law enforcement agencies in conducting coordinated patrols, and of other transnational and organized crimes (such as drug trafficking and migrant smuggling) in the list of border offenses, along with intelligence and information sharing procedures in the Border Crossing Stations.

The 35th BCCC will be held in Manado, Indonesia next year.