Malaysia Coast Guard Guns Down Vietnamese Fisherman in Maritime Skirmish

Fishing boats sit idle at the seafront in Penang on May 21, 2020, as Malaysia relaxes its partial lockdown that was set up to contain the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. (Photo by GOH CHAI HIN / AFP) (Photo by GOH CHAI HIN/AFP via Getty Images)
GOH CHAI HIN/AFP via Getty Images

Malaysia said Monday that a Vietnamese fisherman died from gunshot wounds sustained in a conflict in the South China Sea after the nation’s coast guard tried to ward off two Vietnamese boats suspected of illegal fishing.

Malaysian coast guard chief Zubil Mat Som told Agence France-Presse (AFP) on Monday that two Vietnamese fishing boats entered Malaysian waters roughly 80 nautical miles from the small fishing port of Tok Bali, off the northeastern Malaysian state of Kelantan, late Sunday night.

“The coastguard crew had earlier fired warning shots in the air but after [the two Vietnamese fishing boats] rammed and threw a bottle of petrol [at the Malaysian coast guard vessel], my men had no choice but to open fire in self-defense,” he said.

According to Zubil, the Vietnamese crew threw a petrol bomb and a tire at the coast guard vessel to try to set fire to the boat, which was damaged by the “aggressive ramming.”

After the coast guard opened fire, “one Vietnamese fisherman suffered gunshot wounds and was pronounced dead after he was brought to shore,” according to the report.

“We are saddened by this deadly incident. But I can guarantee … my men took this action to protect their lives and to protect our national sovereignty,” Zubil said.

In a statement on Monday shared by Reuters, the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency said that a total of 19 men had been on board the Vietnamese fishing boats at the time of the incident and that 18 of the crew members had later been detained by Malaysian authorities and “would be investigated for various offenses, including illegal fishing, illegal entry, and attempted murder.”

Vietnam’s foreign ministry also released a statement on Monday addressing the confrontation, according to the report.

“We are deeply concerned about this incident and would like the Malaysian side to verify and investigate the case, and strictly deal with any personnel that caused the deaths of Vietnamese fishermen,” the ministry’s spokeswoman said in a statement.

The South China Sea is a highly coveted waterway, rich with natural resources including plentiful fishing grounds. It is also located on or near global shipping routes that make control of the sea strategically important. The Southeast Asian nations surrounding the sea — Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Brunei — all vie for influence over finite territory within the maritime region. Beijing illegally claims the entire South China Sea.

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