On the front lines

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A fisherman continues his small war in the East Sea as regional tensions rise


Captain Mai Phung Luu and his wife were re-united at Quang Ngai Province's Dung Quat Port last October. Luu, who has been fishing in Vietnam's Hoang Sa (Paracel) Archipelago for 30 years, has maintained that there's no reason to be afraid of fishing in his own waters.

China's recent attack on a state-owned vessel in the East Sea has sparked public outrage.

The act attracted broad condemnation from Vietnamese diplomats and newspapers.

But the conflict is not new to captain Mai Phung Luu and his family, who live on the front lines of Vietnam's fight for the sea.

Last September, Chinese patrol boats took Luu and his crew prisoner off the shores of the Hoang Sa (Paracel) Archipelago-where he has fished for the past 30 years.

It was the fourth time in six years that the Chinese had taken his freedom and his boat. During their one-month ordeal, Luu said he and his crew were scraps from their captors' table. He further claimed that they were routinely beaten.

On October 11, 2010 Chinese officials announced they had released the nine Vietnamese fishermen and their boat one day ahead of a high-profile regional security meeting in Hanoi.

In reality, Luu and his crew had been set out to sea without navigational equipment or communication devices.

Their engine broke down and they spent several days adrift at sea until a Chinese vessel towed them to an island, where they weathered a typhoon. Finally, on October 26, a Vietnamese patrol boat returned them to their home on an island off the central province of Quang Ngai.

Their troubles didn't end there.

Luu returned to a mountain of debt. He was forced to sell his vessel-the family's sole meal ticket-and remains saddled with debts totaling some VND600 million.

The fisherman could not be reached on the phone on Wednesday.

"He's back to sea," his daughter Mai Thi Bich Hue, 21, told Thanh Nien Weekly on the phone. "He has been hired to work for local boat fishing in Malaysian and Filipino waters."

Her two brothers joined him on the boat.

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Hue's husband found work on a boat bound for the Truong Sa (Spratly) Archipelago.

When the men put out to sea, again, they left Hue, her younger sister, and her mother alone.

The young woman has suffered greatly from the ordeal. She took on odd jobs to support the family. In March, she lost her unborn child to a miscarriage.

"I know I shouldn't have worked too hard. But I had no choice and neither did my family," Hue said. "We desperately need money to pay off my father's debts and buy a new boat."

Hue said that before Luu went out to sea nearly a month ago, he remained determined to fight for the islands.

"He has vowed to return to Hoang Sa," she said. "He says there's no reason to be afraid of fishing in our own waters."

Hue and her mother, however, remain worried.

"We always worry whenever my husband puts out to sea," Luu's wife Pham Thi Lan said. "This time our worries have mounted as the Chinese appear to be increasingly aggressive and cruel."

"But I know my husband well. He is too stubborn to give up," Lan said.

Upon his return from sea, Luu described the threatened islands as "flesh and blood" to reporters and insisted that abandoning them would disgrace his ancestors.

Despite her myriad sacrifices, Hue remains equally stoic.

"We are scared of the Chinese and their brutality," she said. "But it doesn't mean fishermen like my dad are afraid to fish in both Truong Sa and Hoang Sa."

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