Behind Filipino boat captain’s ‘change of tune’ on South China Sea collision

June 21, 2019 - 4:11 PM
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Junel Insigne
Junel Insigne, boat captain of F/B Gem-Vir 1 (The STAR/Walter Bollozos)

The boat captain’s recent change of tune over the collision incident which left him and 21 other crew members in the middle of the South China Sea with a sunken ship is being perceived to be a result of pressure from government.

Secretary Emmanuel Piñol of the agriculture department leads the government response team to the tragic sinking of FB GEM-VER 1.

This new testimony came after Piñol held a closed-door meeting with the 22 shipwrecked crew members at the house of the boat owner in Occidental Mindoro last June 19.

Anti-riot police surrounded and guarded the house while the meeting was ongoing.

Insigne’s about-face was on at least two matters raised in his earlier statements:

1. About the supposed meeting with Duterte

Junel Insigne, who previously expressed dismay over officials’ response to a Chinese boat’s alleged ramming and abandonment of his fishing boat in a June 9 incident, apologized to President Rodrigo Duterte for thinking he was invited to meet him.

“Humihingi po ako ng paumanhin sa ating mahal na president na ‘di po pala siya ang nagpatawag sakin kundi si Secretary Piñol ang nagpatawag sa’kin,” Insigne said at the press conference.

“Umatras po ako dahil masama po pakiramdam ko,” he added.

2. About the China-flagged fishing boat

Insigne’s previous assertion on the origin of the ship that collided against theirs also turned less certain.

“Naguguluhan po ako dahil ‘pag ano ko po hindi ko pa naano kung talagang bangga na po eh. Masama po ang loob ko sa kanila dahil iniwan po kami,” he said.

Insigne then appealed diffidently to Duterte to mete out sanctions over the misdeed.

“Humihiling po ko sa ating mahal na presidente na sana po mapanagot po yung kapitan ng bumangga samin,” he said.

This apparent backpedaling on the part of Insigne led some Filipinos to suggest that the captain and his crew might have been coerced or pressured to change their narrative in favor of the government, whose response to the incident was seen as weak.

Twitter user @jason_bats noted on how the fishermen looked scared in the photo op with Piñol and other officials.

“He was sent there not only to intimidate them but also to bend their narratives into favoring a supposedly ‘maritime incident,” he wrote.

Meanwhile, Twitter user @MiaMagdalena said that crew members were possibly “gaslighted” by the government.

“Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation where a person seeks to sow seeds of doubt in an individual or a targeted group, making them question their own memory, perception, and sanity,” she explained.

Magdalo Rep. Gary Alejano appealed to the public on his Twitter account not to condemn the fishermen for the perceived backpedaling.

Piñol said he met with Richard Blaza, who was assigned to cook for the team. Piñol claimed Blaza was the only one awake when the foreign boat crashed into the Filipinos’ trawler.

Despite having two lights on the boat, Blaza told Piñol that the Chinese vessel seemed to not have seen them and continued to head toward their direction.

Blaza tried to rouse the captain but it was too late.

“He said the captain tried to start the engine but it was too late, they were hit by the vessel. Shortly after the impact, he said the vessel actually slowed down, lighted the vessel and trained on them flashlights,” Piñol said in an interview with ANC.

On the side of the Vietnamese

A member of the Vietnamese crew who saved the distressed Filipino fishermen finally spoke to a Vietnamese online news outlet about the tragedy.

The details that Ngo Van Theng, the owner of the boat, shared to VNexpress matched that of the Filipino fishermen.

Time of first contact

Theng recalled that it was past midnight when he and his 10 colleagues were awakened by two Filipino fishermen in two small boats gesturing for help.

It was June 10 by then.

In a parallel account, Insigne said that the collision happened at midnight of June 9.

When they spotted a vessel about 5 miles away after their boat sank, Insigne immediately ordered some members of his crew to board a small boat or banca to seek for their aid.

How they were rescued

Nguyen Thanh Tam, the Vietnamese ship’s captain, admitted they were hesitant to help the Filipinos at first fearing they were pirates.

However, their state of being soaked wet and shivering made him think otherwise.

When the Vietnamese crew followed the two Filipinos, they found 20 more Filipinos at the site wearing life jackets and clinging to materials left from the sunken boat.

“After working as a fisherman for many years, this is the first time that my family’s ship has rescued another vessel, especially a foreign ship. I believe that anyone who heads out to sea would have done the same thing, not just us,” Tam said.