Malaysian Police Probe Deadly Incident Between Coast Guard, Vietnamese Boats

Members of the Malaysian coast guard shot dead a Vietnamese sailor during a violent confrontation with Vietnamese-flagged fishing boats suspected of encroaching in Malaysian waters of the South China Sea, authorities said Monday.

The incident occurred about 81 nautical miles (150 km) off Tok Bali, a small port in northern Kelantan state, late on Sunday when the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) was out on patrol looking for fishing boats from Vietnam and other countries poaching in Malaysian waters.

MMEA Chief Mohd Zubil Mat Som said Rescue Boat 7 was approaching two Vietnamese fishing boats to conduct an inspection when it was rammed and attacked with Molotov cocktails and hard objects including metal rods, lumber blocks and wrenches.

“(Our crew) had no choice in their effort to defend themselves, their lives, and (the ship) but to discharge their weapons toward the fishing boat,” he said, adding the ramming damaged the front starboard section of the coast guard ship and broke the glass in its windshield.

He said the officers observed the rules of engagement by firing a warning shot, but claimed it was ignored. MMEA is opening an investigation into the incident.

“The MMEA has full authority to investigate any offense under Malaysian law in Malaysia’s maritime zone,” he said.

Shafien Mamat, Kelantan's police chief, told BenarNews that the victim’s body was sent to a hospital in the town of Pasir Puteh for an autopsy.

“The remaining 18 fishermen on the boat have been brought to shore by the MMEA for further investigation,” he said.

Sunday’s incident occurred while the MMEA ship was out on patrol as part of Operation Seahorse, an ongoing effort to clamp down on fishing boats from Vietnam and other countries poaching in Malaysian waters.

In a statement, the MMEA chief defended the crew’s actions.

Chief Mohd Zubil Mat Som said Rescue Boat 7 was rammed by the Vietnamese fishing boat and its officers were attacked with Molotov cocktails and hard objects including metal rods, lumber blocks and wrenches.

“(Our crew) had no choice in their effort to defend themselves, their lives, and (the ship) but to discharge their weapons toward the fishing boat,” he said, adding the ramming damaged the front starboard section of the coast-guard ship and broke the glass in its windshield.

Mohd Zubil noted that the officers observed the rules of engagement by firing a warning shot, but claimed it was ignored. MMEA is opening its own investigation into the incident.

“The MMEA has full authority to investigate any offense under Malaysian law in Malaysia’s maritime zone,” he said.

“The remaining 18 fishermen ... have been brought to shore by the MMEA for further investigation,” he said.

In Hanoi, spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang said Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry was "deeply concerned" about the incident and wanted the Malaysian side to "strictly deal with any personnel that caused the deaths of Vietnamese fisherman."

The Vietnamese embassy in Malaysia would arrange consular visits to the detained fishermen, she told reporters, according to Tuoi Tre News.

“At the same time, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs cooperated with domestic agencies to verify the identities of the fishermen and obtain more information about the case to have a basis to fight wrong-doing, take measures to protect citizens, and protect the legal rights and interests of Vietnamese fishermen,” she added.

Hundreds detained

Separately, the MMEA division in Sarawak, a state in Malaysian Borneo, announced on Sunday that it had detained 20 Vietnamese fishermen on two boats in its territorial waters 225 nautical miles north of Tanjong Po near Kuching under its Operation Eastern Dragon.

“Inspections of the first boat found 17 individuals including the captain on board, while on the second boat three individuals including the captain were engaged in illegal fishing,” Robert Teh Geok Chuan, the MME commander in Sarawak said in announcing the arrests that occurred last week.

The agency confiscated 40 tons of fish, 13,000 liters of diesel and the two boats. The agency estimated the total value at 2.5 million ringgit (U.S. $596,000).

Operation Seahorse, which was launched on June 24, so far has resulted in the detention of 487 Vietnamese crew members from 43 boats. Operation Eastern Dragon, which started in April 2019, has resulted in the detention of 1,411 crew members from 135 foreign fishing boats. Officials did not identify the countries of origin.

Ramli Dollah, a security analyst at the Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS), said some in Vietnam see it as their right to fish throughout the South China Sea.

“Vietnam considers this area is theirs because it is one of the claimants of the islands in the South China Sea,” Ramli told BenarNews.

He said other factors including Vietnam’s booming fishing industry as well as the rich sea life found in the South China Sea contribute to the encroachment.

“The South China Sea is one of the rich fishing zones in Asia especially being home to the blue fin tuna and other marine species,” he said. “[D]ue to the high demand for fish in the global market, it is not surprising that Vietnam has become one of the world’s major exporters.”

Certain key importers of seafood including the European Union, have reprimanded countries like Thailand and Vietnam in the past for lax enforcement of illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing activities. The European Commission slapped Vietnam with a ‘yellow card’ in 2017, warning that its seafood exports to the European market would be cut off if its fisheries enforcement did not improve.

Vietnam subsequently created a National Steering Committee to combat the issue in 2019, but IUU fishing remains a problem – Vietnam is still considered the 4th worst offender of IUU fishing in Asia, according to the IUU Fishing Index put out by the Geneva-based Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.

In January 2019, the EU cleared Thailand of a similar yellow card, four years after Brussels had warned Bangkok against illegal and unregulated fishing by Thai boats.

Meanwhile Malaysian defense analyst Abdul Rahmat Omar, a retired army captain, said ramming cases were unusual.

“But there were instances in the past where Vietnamese boats deployed lines astern hoping that the propellers of our patrol vessels would get caught. There have been incidences where they have rammed Indonesian patrol boats because they do venture all the way to the Natuna islands,” he told BenarNews.

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