In the opening pages of Jose Rizal’s El Filibusterismo, the steamer Tabo was likened to the ship of state where the presence of the ilustrado classes at the upper deck and the indios at the lower deck alluded to inequality in society. The Tabo was slow like the progress of the country under Spanish colonialism. Adopting Rizal’s creative way of analyzing the state of affairs, we can say that the present-day Tabo is represented by several ships that made the headlines over the past months.
First, the MT Princess Empress which sank in the waters off Naujan, Oriental Mindoro, and caused a massive oil spill in the area and nearby provinces. The oil tanker was carrying 800,000 liters of industrial fuel when it sank due to engine trouble. The oil spill destroyed marine habitats and undermined the livelihoods of residents in coastal communities and tourism destinations. Later, it was revealed that the ship owner lacked permits, the government was criticized for being slow in responding to the disaster, and the oil slick reached the shores of Palawan.
Another tragedy involved MV Lady Mary Joy 3 which caught fire and killed 33 passengers in Basilan. Reports described it as a “floating inferno” after the ferry carrying more than 200 passengers en route to Sulu was hit by a fire in the evening. It was a stark reminder of the precarious state of maritime travel in the country.
Ship-related accidents seem to be on the rise. News of passenger ships running aground has been reported in Camotes and Ozamis. MV Diamond Highway, an abandoned cargo vessel that used to transport second-hand luxury vehicles, was destroyed by fire last month in Lapu-Lapu City. The ship ran aground in Cebu during a storm in 2021.
As an archipelagic country, the country should boast of having a robust sea travel and shipbuilding industry. But these disasters mirror the backward conditions of the maritime transport sector and the failure to connect our islands and stimulate sustainable coastal trading.
They also reflect our dependence on imported surplus ships. This is more evident in the warships that we acquired from the United States. During the recent Balikatan war exercises between Filipino and American troops, one of the activities involved the sinking of a decommissioned donated warship named BRP Pangasinan, which is reported as a Miguel Malvar corvette of the Philippine Navy. It was a painful confirmation of how the Philippines has been a recipient of surplus equipment from its supposedly equal treaty partner; and a reminder of the heroism of revolutionaries like Malvar who was the last Filipino general to surrender during the Philippine-American war. The symbolism was hard to ignore: an American weapon attacking a ‘Malvar’.
Another powerful interloper is the Chinese navy which bullies our coast guard and conducts illegal patrols in our waters. Its vessels enter our maritime borders and they constantly harass our fisherfolk.
To deter the aggressive behavior of China, the Philippine government allowed the expanded military presence of the United States. Our officials peddle the spin that the military basing of a nuclear superpower will lead to deterrence rather than an escalation of tension in the region.
The protest of Masinloc fishers highlighted the lack of attention given to ordinary people as officials relish their token role in the geopolitical ‘game of thrones’ in the Asia-Pacific. On one hand, they are bullied by oversized Chinese vessels in our own territory; but they are also barred from fishing during Balikatan war games. Dynamite fishing has been outlawed yet US troops used a missile to blow up a warship in Zambales.
The Philippines finds itself in a hotspot as the United States and China vie for supremacy in this part of the world. Assertion of sovereignty is the basic principle in foreign policy. Unfortunately, our officials interpret this by equating our national interest with the imperialist agenda of the United States.
We are bombarded with images of sunken tankers, destroyed ferries, and belligerent navy warships. So far, it has been a challenging year. But the sight of fishing boats protesting the disruption caused by military exercises with foreign troops gave a glimmer of hope to those who believe that it is only through our own collective will and action that we can steer our ship of state towards a better future.
Mong Palatino is a blogger, activist, and former legislator. He can be reached via his email, email@example.com