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Sea Dispute Spotlights Plight of Vietnamese Fishermen

Vietnamese coast guard officer monitors Chinese vessel in the South China Sea, about 210 km (130 miles) off coastal Vietnam, May 15, 2014.

Vietnamese coast guard officer monitors Chinese vessel in the South China Sea, about 210 km (130 miles) off coastal Vietnam, May 15, 2014.

Vietnamese captain Dang Van Nhan has been left idle in his hometown of Da Nang following the sinking of his ship in the South China Sea last month.

Shortly after the ramming incident with a Chinese ship, contributions began pouring in from all over the country. But they have not been enough to help him build a new $200,000 fishing boat that would get him back to work.

While China and Vietnam continue trading accusations over aggressive behaviors, it is fishermen like Nhan who have borne the brunt of mounting tensions in the disputed waters.

Vietnamese fishing crews have been urged by authorities to maintain their presence at sea to protect the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. But critics say that might put them at risk while the confrontation between the two neighbors shows no sign of abating.

Some on social media networks go even further, suggesting that fishermen are being used by Hanoi as human shields, an accusation denied by Vietnamese officials.

Tran Van Linh, Chairman of the Da Nang Fisheries Association, told VOA’s Vietnamese Service that authorities have never forced Nhan or others into danger.

“They are asked to protect the nation by continued fishing in our territory," he said. "We instruct them to retreat if they encounter Chinese forces. They are told not to provoke or to act aggressively. What China has done is to dishearten us not to carry on fishing, to occupy our sea illegally.”

This week, Vietnam’s parliament, the National Assembly, endorsed a budget of more than $756 million to support its maritime forces and fishermen.

Lawmaker Nguyen Si Cuong, a permanent member of the Assembly’s Legal Committee, told VOA that it is a necessary move.

“Fishermen are currently facing a lot of difficulties at sea, so we have to help them do their jobs," he said. "It does not mean we support them in venturing out to face off against Chinese forces.”

Colonel Nguyen Quang Trung, Chief Commander of the Coast Guard of Region 2 in central Vietnam, agreed with Cuong’s comment, saying sea law enforcement teams have been beefed up to reassure fishermen.

Hanoi and Beijing have accused each other of escalating tensions since the placement a Chinese oil rig in waters claimed by both countries.

For his part, Nhan told VOA last week that he was looking forward to going back out to sea as soon as possible.

Vietnam has said it plans to revamp fleets of wooden-hull fishing boats with steel-clad ones, raising hope in Nhan and other fishermen who rely on the ocean for their livelihoods.

This report was produced in collaboration with the VOA Vietnamese service.

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