Ship captain in Chinese vessel spat hailed as hero but might lose job

BATANGAS CITY, Philippines – Manolo Ebora’s voice wavered as he spoke before the city council, and his speech was more defensive than valedictory, even if he was there to be officially commended as a hometown hero. Heroism, he was learning, comes at great cost.

There was a certain gravity in Ebora’s manner when he faced the Batangas City Council on Tuesday, November 5, that made him seem different from the man in the video viewed more than 1.6 million times on Facebook and 340,000 times on Twitter, who beamed as he narrated how he bravely faced what claimed to be a Chinese naval warship near Panatag Shoal in the West Philippine Sea on September 30.

Siguro pagod na rin (Maybe I’m just tired),” he replied when asked why he did not seem to be his usual self – the daring, intrepid captain of an international oil tanker who took no nonsense from foreign intruders. He had been giving one interview after another to recount his story, reliving the tense encounter at every retelling, and he was exhausted.

He did not need to reiterate his story before that gathering. They played the same Rappler video on the big screen to make sure everyone in the hall knew why they were bestowing a commendation upon “Captain Noli,” who sat motionless as he watched the story that turned him into a public figure overnight.

The room was in awe of him when the video ended. People moved in for selfies. The councilors in their elegant Barong Tagalog all wanted to shake his hand.

But when Ebora took the podium, thanking everyone for the warm applause, he launched into an explanation of why he did what he did, as though he needed to justify it.

“Nung time po nung insidente, dadalawampu’t-dalawa po kaming Pilipino doon. Nangyari ‘yon siguro dahil sa bugso ng damdamin dahil nakita mo na ‘yung isla mo ay napapalibutan na ng ibang nasyon, na dapat ay para sa atin,” he began.

(At the time of the incident, we were only 22 Filipinos there. It must have happened because of a surge of emotion when you see your island surrounded by another nation, when it ought to be yours.)

He did not endanger the vessel or its crew, he went on. In his 15 years as a master mariner, he never risked any of his crew’s safety no matter their nationality, and definitely not during the encounter with the Chinese vessels, he said.

“Kung regards po sa pagdaan doon, dahil may karapatan po naman ako bilang isang commercial vessel na dumaan doon dahil ‘yon po ay international waters,” he added.

(As regards passing there, that was because it was my right as a commercial vessel to pass there because those were international waters.)

Challenge to the government

His original assertion was that the waters around Panatag, or Scarborough, Shoal belonged to the Philippines. The shoal, in fact, lies within the country’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone provided for by international maritime law. That much, Ebora knew.

But because neither Malacañang nor the Department of Foreign Affairs took his side or would call out China for what he felt was bullying, he felt he needed – again – to assert his position, this time to some fellow Filipinos who were not so convinced that he was right.

Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo said the incident was “not a concern” because it involved a Liberia-flagged, Greek-owned ship, the M/T Green Aura. Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr said it would jeopardize thousands of Filipino seafarers if he protested the matter with China.

On social media, some people criticized him for even taking the ship near the shoal, knowing it was controlled by the Chinese. He was looking for trouble, they said. It could have been avoided.

From the beginning, Ebora was forthright that he did want to check out the situation around Panatag Shoal, knowing that passing through the area should not have been an issue, especially because he was steering a commercial ship bound for China anyway.

But he did get challenged by Chinese vessels that, to his knowledge, had no business being there, much less keeping other vessels out. He only insisted on what was right.

“So sana naman po, para sa mahal nating pamahalaan, kung ano man po ‘yung pinanindigan ko noon, sana po ay suportahan ako, o kaya’y ipagpatuloy,” Ebora called on the government.

(So I hope that our esteemed government, whatever it was that I stood up for, may they support me in it, or keep it up.)

Suddenly uncertain

What was really bothering Ebora was his future, which was suddenly uncertain. He had just finished a contract when he came home from China on October 29. Now, he was unsure whether his employer would hire him back after what happened.

“Nais ko rin pong ipaalam na wala pong kinalaman ‘yung kompanya ko, yung PTC, Philippine Transmarine Carriers Incorporated, [at] ‘yun pong Liberian-flagged na Green Aura na owned ng Greek company,” he told the council, adding that his turn with the Chinese vessels was his personal stand as a Filipino.

(I also wish to inform everyone that the incident had nothing to do with my company, PTC, Philippine Transmarine Carriers Incorporated, and the Liberian-flagged Green Aura that is owned by a Greek company.)

Was he in trouble with his employer? “Palagay ko mayroon. Nararamdaman ko,” he said. (I think so. I feel it.)

“Kahit na – hindi natin alam – kunwari lang, wala nang mag-hire sa akin, walang magtiwala na mga – kasi business ‘yan eh. Wala na akong magagawa,” he added.

(Even if – we never know – supposing no one would hire me anymore, no one would trust me – because that’s business. I can’t do anything about that anymore.)

Ebora might be disappointed by the tepid response from the national government, and troubled by what could be an abrupt end to his erstwhile successful career, but he said he would not change a thing. What he said and did, arguing with the Chinese intruders on September 30, he would do again if necessary.

“But anyhow, masaya rin ako dahil hindi lang pala ako nag-iisa. Marami pala tayo na kung magsasama-sama, karapat-dapat lang na manindigan tayo, ‘yung para sa atin,” he said, buoyed by the public recognition from his hometown and the outpouring of congratulations and admiration from people on social media.

(I am happy to know that I am not alone after all. There are many of us who, if we band together, must rightfully stand up for what is ours.)

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana had commended him for how he handled the situation with the Chinese vessels, saying he did the right thing, and his attitude was “admirable.”

Masarap pakinggan (It’s good to hear),” Ebora said of the defense chief’s opinion of him.

Destiny

He wasn’t thinking of whether he would earn praise or draw criticism when he decided to tell off a Chinese “warship” and put it in its place. It was sheer emotion, he said, an urge to insist on justice.

The certificate of commendation the city council gave Ebora read, "in recognition of his exemplary display of bravery and courage that highlighted his belief in standing and fighting for what is right and just, in line with his performance of duty as captain of his assigned vessel.”

The councilor who drafted the commendation, Oliver Macatangay, said Ebora had always been a stickler for his beliefs.

“‘Pag nasa tama siya, talagang pinaglalaban niya (When he knows he is right, he really fights for it),” Macatangay told Rappler.

Ebora’s mother, Elena, said her son used to annoy his siblings because he was always “correct.”

Dahil may prinsipyo. Kung anong tama ay siyang talagang ginagawa (Because he had principle. Whatever was right, that’s what he would do),” Elena laughed as she recalled the captain as a growing boy.

Her son’s headstrong nature scares her sometimes, Elena shared, but that’s who he is, and she is damn proud of him. Whether it would lead to good fortune or ruin, God only knows.

So be it, said Ebora. Even if it meant taking his captain’s stripes off his shoulders for good, though hopefully not.

“Hindi ko alam kung anong kahihinatnan nito. Siguro, kung ano na ang darating diyan, destiny ko na ‘yon,” he said.

(I don’t know where this would lead. Perhaps, whatever comes my way, that’s just my destiny.) – Rappler.com

JC Gotinga

JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.

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