By: Our Correspondent

The sinking of M/V
Princess of the Stars at the height of Typhoon Fengshen highlights
once again the decrepit state of the Philippines ferry system and
underscores the country’s lax and fatally defective maritime
laws and regulations. It is the third disaster since 1988 for ferries
owned by Sulpicio Lines, taking the lives of nearly 5,000 people.

So far, although only
70 people have been confirmed dead, more than 700 remain missing.
There were 866 people aboard the Princess of the Stars and, four days
later, only 57 survivors have been found washed ashore near Sibuyan
Island in Romblon. Authorities said they do not expect to find any
more alive.

The tragedy is a
recurring theme to a country where the inter-island ferry system is
one of the major modes of transportation and it stems from a welter
of confusing guidelines, undermanned maritime authorities and ageing
boats. It is an indictment of on the entire industry– the players,
government regulators and lawmakers– which take for granted the
safety of largely poor passengers.

Immediately after being
informed of the incident, President Gloria Arroyo, who is on an
official 10-day trip to the United States, publicly castigated the
Philippine Coast Guard for allowing the 23,000-ton vessel to leave
Manila’s port for Cebu while the typhoon raged. The ferry
capsized Saturday, at the height of Fengshen’s fury. A
surviving crew member said the ship turned over in only 15 minutes
after its engines failed.

Lawmakers from both
houses of Congress are demanding yet another investigation on the
sea-mishap, which is actually just a replay of probes of past
maritime disasters. Such probes feed on public outcry, but no
concrete legislative remedy is ever acted upon after the outrage has
died down. Past congressional investigations—from the
Sulpicio-owned Dona Paz tragedy in 1988, which is considered to be
the worst peacetime maritime disaster in the world, killing 4,000
people, and the Princess of the Orient disaster in 1998, where 150
died—have identified the questionable seaworthiness of most
inter-island vessels, the confusing maritime regulations and the
moribund state of the Coast Guard as contributing factors. Beyond
that, the probes have gone nowhere. Sulpicio Lines, owned by the Go
family from Cebu, have never been charged criminally for the three
disasters involving their shipping line.

In the meantime,
everybody is blaming everybody else. Edgar Go, the vice president of
the ferry line, said the Coast Guard had cleared the ship to sail.
Arthur Lim, a Sulpicio lawyer, cited 1998 rules saying the Coast
Guard had the responsibility to plan storm routes. But the head of a
newly convened inquiry board, Rear Admiral Ramon Liwag, said new
guidelines were issued in 2007 passing the responsibility to the ship
captain whether to leave port. Sulpicio said they hadn’t
received the guidelines. The coast guard also temporarily removed the
district commander of Manila, Commander Erwin Balagas, who had
authority over the ferry when it sailed from the capital.

Former senator John
Osmena, who chaired the public services committee in the Senate,
noted that that all passenger ships that figured in the past
disasters were considered no longer seaworthy because “these
are already old.”

“You have Dona
Paz which was more than 25 years old, also with Princess of the
Orient and Princess of the Stars,” Osmena pointed out. “I
think the rule of thumb is that the age of the ship should be 15
years at most.”

Compounding the
situation is the questionable competence of the crew in most ships,
which a previous Senate hearing showed were mostly products of
diploma mills. The Senate hearing was in connection with the Dona Paz
tragedy in 1987, and yet there was really no effort to upgrade the
maritime educational system.

Under a presidential
decree issued by the former President Aquino, the determination of
seaworthiness of a ship and competence of its crew is delegated to
the Maritime Industry Authority. Before the decree, the task was
performed by Philippine Coast Guard.

But because the
maritime authority doesn’t have the manpower and capability to
determine a ship’s seaworthiness on a regular basis, the task
of ensuring it is in top condition is reverted back to the Coast
Guard. Already hampered by logistical constraints, the Coast Guard’s
capability to ensure vessels’ compliance on maritime
regulations further suffered a setback when the Coast Guard was
transferred from the Philippine Navy to the Department of
Transportation and Communication.

Former senator Ramon
Magsaysay Jr., who also chaired the committee on public services,
said the transfer was a mistake since it deprived the latter of
equipment and logistics in ensuring safety and enforcing regulations
on the sea. “For instance, the patrol crafts are with the DND.”

The budget allocated to
the Coast Guard shows its funding from the national government has
barely increased in the past six years, ironic for an agency tasked
to man the country’s territorial seas. In 2003, its budget was
pegged at P1.082 billion (roughly $22 million). This year, its budget
is pegged at P1.809 billion (around $40 million).

The bulk of the Coast
Guard’s annual budget goes to salaries, leaving a measly amount
for acquisition of new equipment. In 2003 and 2004, its capital
outlay was only P10 million ($227,272). In 2005 and 2006, it had no
budget for capital outlay at all. In 2007, its capital outlay rose to
P44 million ($1 million) but declined this year to P25 million

Because of its limited
budget, the Coast Guard can only afford to keep 4,000 people on its
payroll, when the actual requirement far higher.

“We actually need
an optimum 25,000 men and women to perform our duties well,”
former Coast Guard officer-in-charge Vice Admiral Danilo Abinoja said
an interview last year.

Yet despite these
tell-tale problems, government and Congress, which has the power of
the purse, failed to provide the Coast Guard with ample funds and
consolidate the confusing maritime laws and regulations, which allows
for buck-passing. A number of proposed measures, from instituting a
Department of Maritime Affairs, modernizing the maritime industry and
enacting a Maritime Code, have been filed in previous congresses
but have never got to the committee level That is because such
issues are not in the radar of politicians and government, Osmena
acknowledged. Political and economic issues consume the energy of
lawmakers, he added.

In its 1988 committee
report on the Dona Paz disaster, the Senate noted that “most
ship passengers belong to the poorer sectors of our population.
Unless immediate changes are made to improve passenger service and
shipping routes, the government stays open to an indictment of ‘bias
against the poor.’”

Twenty years later, the
observation remains valid.