Sea change needed

TN News

Email Print

Her father might come back home this week.

But despite the weeks of nerve-racking tension she has suffered over his fate, she might not be able see him until next February, when Tet, the Lunar New Year festival, arrives.

"I'd rather let my sister return home by herself. I need to stay here to make money," said 16-year-old Mai Thi Thu, a native of the central province of Quang Ngai.

Thu and her sister, Mai Thi Bich Hue, 20, have been eking out a living doing menial jobs in Ho Chi Minh City. Thu works for a pho eatery in District 12 while Hue hires out her labor to a construction project in Go Vap District.

They share a room in their uncle's house in Go Vap District. They also share the same agony.

"Every night I just couldn't stop thinking about my father, my husband, and my brothers. I worried about if they had enough food to eat until they get home," said Hue, the sister.

On September 11, Hue's father Mai Phung Luu of Quang Ngai's Ly Son District and eight crewmembers, including her husband and her two younger brothers, were illegally detained by a Chinese patrol while fishing in Vietnamese waters off the coast of the Hoang Sa (Paracel) Islands.

"That was the fourth time since 2004 they [China] had arrested my father and confiscated his boats," Hue said.

The latest seizure had forced Hue and Thu to get to HCMC last month, to find jobs and fend for themselves to support their mother back home.

"But I was never able to stay focused on my work as long as the fates of my loved ones remained unknown," said Hue.

On October 11, China claimed it had released the nine Vietnamese fishermen and their boat. The release came one day ahead of a high-profile regional security meeting where defense ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), along with their counterparts from the US, China, Russia, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, India, and South Korea, met in Hanoi.

But the fishermen had not been heard from since leaving, and expectations that they would arrive home on October 12 were not met.

"I just collapsed," Hue said. "I dared not think about the worst-case scenario, but it had been haunting me every night."

Hue received a call from her father last Saturday informing her that they were all safe and could be home in three days at the earliest.

"My father told me on the phone that his ship broke down after traveling about 10 nautical miles on Monday and that he had to steer the boat through rough seas with a sail made of blankets and a mosquito net. They starved for many days," Hue said.

The Vietnamese embassy in Beijing confirmed last weekend it had received confirmation from China that the crew had been located by a Chinese patrol ship which had towed them back to the Paracel Islands.

Vietnam has been in touch with Chinese authorities to bring the fishermen home. But it would take several days until Typhoon Megi, which slammed into the Philippines and is headed to southern China, abates, said Nguyen Phuong Nga, Vietnam's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman.

As of press time, the stranded fishermen have yet to return home.

Riches to rags

Having to work for 12 hours or so for a daily income of around VND70,000 in HCMC, Hue, who is two-months pregnant, said she had never thought of the hardships she would have to endure.

"My family was very wealthy until 2004 when my father's boat was first seized by China. His business has since gone bust due to repeated seizures," she said.

With the family in dire straits, only one of the sisters will be able return to Quang Ngai to meet their loved ones when they get home. Her sister Thu would have to stay in HCMC and save the travel expense.

Hue said the returned fishermen did not have a choice of vocations awaiting them.

"No matter how scary their last trip was, I think they will continue to go out to sea," Hue said. "It is our sole meal ticket."

Not again

Analysts have pointed out that the release of the fishermen may be viewed as a goodwill gesture and a sign of temporary easing of tensions in the East Sea.

But they said the fundamental problem remains the same.

"China has sought to deflect the negative publicity it has aroused due to its assertiveness. But the underlying tensions will not go away," said Carl Thayer, a Vietnam specialist at The University of New South Wales in Australia.

Ian Storey, a regional security analyst at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) in Singapore, said that in July the two countries had agreed to set up a telephone hotline. "But it remains to be seen how effective such a measure would be."

Since last year, Vietnam has repeatedly protested against numerous cases of its fishermen and fishing boats and equipment being seized by China. But both Storey and Thayer concurred that it would be difficult to avoid such incidents in the future.

"There will be more incidents especially next year when China imposes its annual fishing ban from May to August," Thayer said.

Hue, the fisherman's daughter, said she would not hesitate to risk her life and confront the Chinese at sea if her father or any member of her family is arrested another time.

"If they do it again, I will not just stand and suffer their cruelty."

More Society News