Is David Tan for real? The new chief of the Bureau of Customs isn’t certain. “We don’t know if there’s really a David Tan,” Commissioner John Philip Sevilla said on Tuesday. Davao Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, in pursuit of rice smugglers using his city’s seaport, told a TV audience on Sunday: “I have tried to track him down and found that the name is fictitious.”
And lawyer Argee Guevara, who has filed plunder charges against Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala for his alleged role in rice smuggling, issued a statement describing David Tan as fiction created precisely by Alcala and his group. “The witch hunt for a certain David Tan is obviously part of a grand plot to instill fear among legitimate rice traders who can be accused of being Tan himself,” Guevarra said. “Anyone can be David Tan because he is not a person but a fictional character created to ensure Alcala et al.’s absolute control of the industry.”
The Keyser Soze of rice smugglers: The notion of a mysterious, identity-shifting underworld figure controlling the trade in the country’s main staple seems closer to fantasy, but this is what is already in the public record.
In February last year, five committees of the Senate concluded that a rice cartel did exist, recommended the filing of charges against former National Food Administration head Lito Banayo and other government officials, and pinpointed a certain Danny Ngo and David Tan as the cartel’s financiers. “There is sufficient basis to conclude that the financiers are behind the anomalous transactions, and testimony and documents obtained in the hearings establish without a doubt that these financiers exist and have employed dummies to rig the bidding process.” The Senate failed to establish David Tan’s real identity, however, and the National Bureau of Investigation, acting on the Senate report, could not locate him.
That is certainly strange. And yet, according to an influential businessman and an ex-congressman, David Tan does exist.
Jesus Arranza, president of the Federation of Philippine Industries, said the dealings of David Tan, as well as those of other major traders, were “common knowledge” among FPI members. Urging the Senate to “continue looking into the rice smuggling activities of David Tan,” Arranza said he had reason to believe that the David Tan in the rice smuggling stories was the same person as “a certain Davidson Tan Bangayan,” a controversial businessman from Davao City.
Former Abono party-list Rep. Rosendo So, now the head of the newly formed Samahang Industriya ng Agrikultura or Sinag, said David Tan’s smuggling of cheap rice imports from Vietnam and Thailand was wreaking havoc on the sector.
“Tan can easily undercut the farmers by selling his hot rice at P50 to P100 off the local price, which is still a big margin for rice traders. This is the reason why some rice millers, instead of buying palay, find it more profitable to buy rice from Tan as they do not have to go through the milling and packaging process. No wonder some rice millers have become mere rice traders, their milling houses converted to warehouses.”
At a news briefing on Tuesday, however, Duterte said that the name David Tan Bangayan was also fictitious.
Will the NBI (which has resumed its investigation) or the police be able to locate the real David Tan in time for the Senate agriculture committee hearing on rice smuggling on Jan. 22? We like the new Customs chief’s attitude. “We’re not getting fixated on David Tan,” Sevilla said. He added that the agency he had just taken over was “100-percent committed to address the rice smuggling problem.”
We shall see. Rice smuggling on the scale attributed to David Tan cannot happen without the active involvement of corrupt Customs personnel.
Sinag’s So shared some telling statistics with the Inquirer. In 2012 (the year the rice smuggling issue erupted, leading to the joint committee investigation in the Senate), Vietnam and Thailand booked a total of 30 million cavans of rice in sales to the Philippines. However, he said, only 13.8 million cavans were officially recorded. That means some 16.2 million cavans of rice were directly or technically smuggled into the country. That’s the real vanishing act the authorities must focus on.
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