By Luis Liwanag and Basilio Sepe
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte threatened to jail anyone who moved to impeach him because he had said he could not stop Chinese boats from fishing in South China Sea waters within Manila’s Exclusive Economic Zone.
Duterte late Thursday dared his critics who had complained about the government’s inability to hold Beijing accountable for the sinking of a Filipino fishing boat by a Chinese trawler that strayed into the EEZ on June 9.
“Impeach me? I will jail you all. Try me,” Duterte said. “I am challenging you to do it. You really want to force my hand on it?”
After downplaying the sinking for nearly two weeks, Duterte on June 22 agreed to a joint investigation with China into the incident. Instead of demanding reparations, the president called the sinking a simple “maritime incident” that should not strain ties between the two countries.
On Thursday, Duterte said he could not approach Chinese leader Xi Jinping to tell him to stay out of Manila-controlled fishing areas in the exclusive zone. He said waving a copy of the Philippine constitution in front of Xi would not be effective.
“I will go there, tell them to get out, this is the constitution. They will tell me, you run out of toilet paper, use it,” he said.
“And that piece of paper, the constitution, will become meaningless with no spirit except desperation, agony and suffering,” the president said.
The Philippine constitution clearly states the government shall protect the country’s marine wealth in its waters, territorial sea and EEZ, as well as reserve its use for Filipinos.
China claims most of the mineral-rich South China Sea while Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan have overlapping claims to the region.
Earlier this week, a maritime law expert said Duterte could be impeached for his comments about permitting Chinese boats to enter EEZ waters that could be interpreted as a constitutional breach.
“If you allow Chinese fishers there, that’s dereliction of duty. The duty of the chief executive is to implement and enforce the law,” said Jay Batongbacal, director of the Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea at the University of the Philippines.
‘President knows he can’t do it’
Since taking office in 2016, Duterte has sought to repair diplomatic ties with China, which were damaged by an international court of arbitration ruling on the South China Sea favoring the Philippines. He has traveled to China several times during his three years in office, and Beijing has reciprocated with pledges of billions of dollars in investments and infrastructure projects.
The controversy erupted following the June 9 incident where a Chinese trawler apparently rammed the anchored Filipino fishing boat, leaving its 22 crew members floating at sea near the Reed Bank, about 150 km (93 miles) off the Philippine island of Palawan. They were rescued by a Vietnamese boat.
On Friday, some of the fishermen received cash donations from a group of Filipino-Chinese businessmen to help them pay for boat repairs and cover expenses until they can return to the sea.
Meanwhile, opposition Sen. Panfilo Lacson said Duterte may face bigger problems if he jails his critics, adding that he doubted Duterte would make his threat real.
“The president knows he can’t do it and he won’t do it,” Lacson told reporters. “His problem is when one third of the members of the HOR (House of Representatives) feel more challenged than afraid of his threat. A bigger problem is when 16 senators are convinced by the evidence presented during the trial.”
Despite Lacson’s challenge, Duterte effectively retains control of Congress especially after his allies dominated the Senate and House of Representatives through mid-term elections in May.
Presidental spokesman Salvador Panelo said Friday that an impeachment would be a “numbers game.”
“I believe the members of Congress, and we have spoken to a lot of them, believe that the president knows what he is doing,” Panelo said, emphasizing that the threat to impeach Duterte did not have legal standing.
“The president knows that what he is doing is right and constitutionally feasible,” Panelo said.