Tue, Jul 29, 2014 - Page 6 News List

Vietnamese fishermen bear brunt of China row

Reuters, LY SON ISLAND, Vietnam

Vietnamese fisherman Dang Van Hoanh sits on the deck of a creaky ferry, nursing a broken leg wrapped in grubby bandages and splinted with wood.

Staring out to sea, he recounts how an unidentified vessel rammed into and sank his boat one night in May in South China Sea waters claimed by Vietnam and China. One of his six crew was killed and another is missing.

“I planned to marry after that fishing trip, but we lost everything,” Hoanh, 27, said as the ferry headed to Ly Son Island off central Vietnam, where he and many other fishermen live. “Now, I’m broke and in debt.”

Hoanh believes he got caught in the crossfire of a dispute between Hanoi and Beijing over China’s deployment of a US$1 billion oil rig near the disputed Paracel Islands (Xisha Islands, 西沙群島), which are also claimed by Taiwan.

Midway through the month, China moved the rig back toward its coast, but for 10 weeks, scores of coast guard and fishing vessels from both sides squared off around the platform in daily confrontations in which the Vietnamese boats appeared to be no match for the larger Chinese vessels. Foreign reporters joined two Vietnamese Coast Guard patrols near the rig in May and last month, and on both occasions, faster, better-equipped Chinese ships chased them off.

Hoanh has no proof because it was dark, but he believes that a bigger Chinese boat rammed his small wooden craft on May 25. At the time, Ly Son authorities said they also suspected it was a Chinese vessel.

Beijing did not comment on the incident, but has frequently accused Vietnamese boats of being aggressive around the rig and blamed Hanoi for any collisions.

Hoanh said he did not want any part in the drama and had sought to fish elsewhere, unlike some of his fellow fishermen, who took part in the cat-and-mouse jostling around the drilling platform.

“Since the rig was put there, we moved further north to avoid the Chinese, but they still rammed us and sank us,” he said, adding that Vietnamese fishermen were not safe anywhere.

Another Vietnamese fishing boat was sunk in an incident on May 26 near the rig. Its 10 crew were rescued.

About 3,000 fishermen live on Ly Son, 15 nautical miles (28km) off Vietnam’s coast and which for centuries has been a base for fishermen to venture into the South China Sea.

China claims 90 percent of the strategic waterway, while Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Cambodia and Indonesia also claim parts of the ocean, which is potentially rich in oil and gas, but also home to vital fishing grounds.

Tensions with China in disputed waters have already proved costly to Vietnam’s fishermen, but worsened after the oil rig was deployed on May 2.

Fourteen of Ly Son’s 426 boats were badly damaged in collisions with Chinese vessels while the platform was off Vietnam, Ly Son Government official Pham Thi Huong said, putting the damage at US$280,000.

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