MANILA - Senator Leila de Lima on Tuesday said President Rodrigo Duterte’s response to last week’s ramming of a Chinese vessel of a Filipino fishing boat in Reed Bank (Recto Bank) is an assault to the dignity of the Filipino people.
Duterte on Monday urged calm in his first public comments about the June 9 incident, which has fed into outrage over China's expansive claims to the resource-rich waterway.
He said the sinking was just a “maritime incident” and should not be blown out of proportion.
In a dispatch from her detention cell, De Lima said Duterte and other top government officials’ remarks on the ramming incident seem to form part of an “odious yet subtle effort on the part of our executive authorities to cover up for China.”
De Lima added the government was “implicitly accepting the flawed and implausible version proffered by the Chinese government regarding the incident, a version soundly rejected by credible observers and experts.”
“The pro-China Duterte regime is hard put at supporting the causes of the Filipino fishermen victimized by this latest act of bullying within our own EEZ (exclusive economic zone),” she added.
De Lima said the “inutile” Duterte must step down now, as she called on the public to finally come to its senses as ”our very own leaders [are] assaulting our very dignity as a people!”
She also lashed out at Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi for downplaying the incident and at Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. for “rubbing salt on this highly delicate issue through his constant tweeting of highly annoying and offensive remarks.”
Another opposition lawmaker, Sen. Risa Hontiveros, said Duterte’s remarks on the incident “reveals a lot.”
“Thank you for confirming who you truly are, Mr. Pres: violent and cruel towards the poor, foul-mouthed and obscene to women and democracy advocates, but feckless and spineless before China. Shame,” Hontiveros said on Twitter.
Duterte has largely set aside the Philippines' row with Beijing over the key waterway to court trade and investments, but he has occasionally criticized China's actions there.
Opposition politicians as well as segments of the public and media charge that Duterte has bartered away Philippine sovereignty with little to show in return.
Manila has filed a diplomatic protest against Beijing as Duterte aides and critics alike blasted how the Chinese boat left the fishermen in the open sea.
However China has denied the claims, saying the trawler merely "bumped" into the Philippine boat and tried to rescue the fishermen but was "afraid of being besieged by other Filipino fishing boats".
The incident occurred in Reed Bank, which is within the Philippines' 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone and far from China's nearest major landmass.
Vietnam and the Philippines have partial claims over the South China Sea, where Beijing has staked "indisputable sovereignty" and built artificial islands with military facilities and airstrips.
Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia also have claims in the area.
With a report from Agence France-Presse