Call of the sea

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A fisherman has lost everything to repeated illegal Chinese harassment and detainment, but says fishing in Vietnamese waters is his livelihood and his birthright

Fisherman Mai Phung Luu looks at the sea in the central province of Quang Ngai. Luu is eager to go out to sea again and fish in Vietnamese territorial waters despite Chinese patrols threatening, detaining and harassing him several times over the last seven years.

Mai Phung Luu stared into the distance.

And there was a lot of distance to stare at for the fisherman who had been grounded for the last two months, unable to do what he knew best offshore fishing.

"I miss the sea. Two months without heading out to sea is like torture for me," said Luu, a 44- year-old fisherman in the central province of Quang Ngai.

Late last October, Luu and eight of his crewmembers arrived home safely in Quang Ngai's Ly Son District after being illegally detained by a Chinese patrol while fishing in Vietnamese waters off the coast of the Hoang Sa (Paracel) Archipelago a month earlier.

Luu returned barehanded and has been unemployed since.

His fishing equipment had been seized by the Chinese, leaving him with losses of around VND150 million (US$7,700). Luu has had to sell his vessel, the sole meal ticket his family had, to pay off part of loans totaling some VND600 million that he had taken earlier to fund his fishing trip.

But Luu says he is still optimistic.

"I will head out to sea, again and again, no matter how hard it is," Luu told Thanh Nien Weekly on the phone. He said the earliest he can get out to sea would be next month, given the rough seas at present and the shortage of funds he was grappling with.

"Over the last 20 years, I have spent on average 10 months a year at sea. The sea has become part and parcel of my life. I can never give that up."

Troubled waters

Born into a family dependent on the sea for its livelihood, Luu quit school at age 13 to assist his father on fishing trips.

Luu said he has since been to every nook and cranny of the Hoang Sa Archipelago. "I can map almost every coordinate of the islands."

The bountiful fishing resources there had ensured that Luu, his wife and their four children led a comfortable life until 2004 when his boat was first seized by Chinese patrols, setting off a trend of repeated seizures and ransom demands that have pushed his business to the brink of bankruptcy.

His arrest last September was the fourth time since 2004 that Chinese officials had detained Luu and confiscated his boats. "I cannot remember exactly how many times they have severely damaged my boats and confiscated my fishing equipment during the past years," Luu said. "Perhaps dozens."

But the latest arrest last September was the most nerve-racking experience Luu had undergone, he recalled. But he had stood his ground.

"Through a Chinese interpreter, I was able to tell the people who detained me that Hoang Sa has been, is, and will forever be Vietnam's," Luu said. "I also told them that our ancestors have taken great strides in building the archipelago and their offspring reserve the rights to fish there.

"No one can deprive us of our basic right. No one."

Luu has become a familiar face to Chinese patrol forces who have threatened him, saying that if they find him at Hoang Sa waters again, he will have to pay a higher price.

"I just don't care about what they say," Luu said. "Hoang Sa is flesh and blood of Vietnam and of all fishermen like me. If I accept such threats, it looks as though I am denying my Vietnamese roots. I will be disappointing my ancestors and countrymen."

No turning back

As Luu has had no job for the last two months, two of his sons have hired out their services to another fishing boat belonging to their neighbor to make ends meet. They have been at sea since early December, Luu said.

After the sons return, Luu said, it will be his turn.

"I really feel bad for my wife and my kids who have to pray for me every night while I am at sea. But they shouldn't be scared and neither should I," Luu said.

But his wife, Pham Thi Lan, is not comforted.

"I have never stopped worrying about him. He survived last time but who knows what will happen next time?" Lan said.

Carl Thayer, a Vietnam specialist at The University of New South Wales in Australia, said there are clear indications that China will not only step up patrols in maritime areas, including the East Sea, but will also enforce its annual fishing ban from May to August as more and more vessels become available.

"In October 2010 China announced it would build thirty fisheries patrol vessels for maritime law enforcement over the next five years," Thayer said. "A month earlier it launched its newest fisheries administration vessel which was equipped to carry a helicopter," he added.

"The scene is being set for further confrontation between Chinese fisheries administration vessels and Vietnamese fishermen."

Luu was honored last week by the Quang Ngai provincial government for his steadfast determination to continue fishing in the seas despite all his troubles. When Luu and his crewmembers were released last October, local authorities also promised they would offer financial support for future fishing trips.

Luu can hardly wait to get his next trip going.

"When I reunited with my wife last October, it felt like I was born again to remarry her," Luu said. "I want to relive that experience when return from sea the next time."

"I must be there [in waters around Hoang Sa] no matter what. My conscience would not forgive me if I turn my back on Hoang Sa."

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