Sink or Swim in the Philippines

MANILA – The tragedy of the sinking of the Princess of the Stars ferry in the waters off Romblon in the Philippines – with hundreds of corpses still believed trapped inside – is proof that the country is prone not only to natural calamities, but to manmade ones as well. The decision to allow the vessel to sail directly into the path of Typhoon Frank resulted from plain and simple incompetence.

Worse still, the same shipping line has been involved in at least three other tragedies at sea in the past 11 years, including the “Dona Paz” disaster in 1987, which killed more than 4,000 people and was described as the world’s worst maritime disaster in peace time. That record adds even more ignominy to the sense of loss suffered by the loved ones of those who died or remain missing. If only Philippine authorities could learn the lessons of past tragedies, this latest one might well have been averted.

Philippine law, like that of most jurisdictions worldwide, classifies the business of transportation as a public convenience. It is undertaken not as an ordinary business under traditional conditions of laissez-faire, but as one vested with the public interest.

Of prime concern is the fact that sea travel has been and will always be perilous. For a thousand years, states have regulated maritime transportation for the purpose of promoting safety at sea. In theory, the Philippine authorities should have exercised their regulatory oversight with far more diligence. Instead, Manila port officials and the Philippine coast guard permitted the Princess of the Stars to set sail, despite clear warnings by the weather bureau that the ship was headed for the eye of the typhoon. So the problem is not one of regulation, but of the will to enforce it.