Rice and circuses
For those watching, the Senate hearing on rice smuggling last Monday was a distressing experience. We do not know which of the following occasioned the most wailing and gnashing of teeth: the fact that the identity of David Tan, the alleged central figure in rice smuggling, was finally resolved at the level of the Senate agriculture committee; the realization that the Senate was a much diminished institution in the wake of the so-called pork barrel scam; the visible (even visceral) proof of Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte’s contempt for law-abiding officials, summed up in his assertion that he would “gladly kill” Tan, aka businessman Davidson Bangayan, if the opportunity presented itself; or the reality that rice worth billions of pesos continued to be smuggled in, despite all the ritual declarations that the country was finally on the right path, the “daang matuwid.”
To be sure, that both political branches of government now agree on Tan’s identity is a real advance, and we have the hearing partly to thank for that. But still, it was disconcerting to see so much Senate time spent on establishing facts that the government’s many prosecutorial or intelligence agencies could have done on their own. Does it really take a Juan Ponce Enrile to press Tan/Bangayan on his on-the-record inconsistencies?
But Senator Enrile’s active participation in the hearing reminded viewers that the Senate remains engulfed in a scandal of its own. When Enrile moved to cite Tan/Bangayan in contempt, a motion belatedly seconded by Sen. JV Ejercito, many viewers must have been struck by the irony of it all: Here was a man facing an actual plunder charge, moving to cite someone else in contempt of the Senate. Surely plunder is a greater affront to the Senate’s institutional integrity than perjury? The hearing drove home the point that the Senate was a casualty of the pork barrel scam.
But it was Duterte’s display of bravado that captured the public fancy, or at least the lion’s share of sound bites on TV. “If this guy would go to Davao and start to unload—if the commission will grant—I will gladly kill him and so, I’ll go to prison.” Remarkably, no one at the hearing, not the senators, not the Cabinet secretaries present, not Tan/Bangayan himself, objected to the mayor’s tough-guy posturing. In fact, in separate interviews after the hearing, Enrile, committee chair Sen. Cynthia Villar, and even Senate President Franklin Drilon excused away Duterte’s words. Depressing; their excuses only made the Senate look even more diminished.
The problem at the center of the hearing, however, remains a pressing one. According to the new Customs commissioner, John Philip Sevilla, the country lost some P8.4 billion to rice smugglers in 2012.
Part of the problem is that savvy rice traders had cashed in on the earlier confusion over the Philippine commitment to the World Trade Organization’s scheduled lifting (on June 30, 2012) of quantitative restrictions on rice imports. But as former agriculture undersecretary Ernesto Ordoñez explains in an Inquirer commentary: “WTO has given us the flexibility to extend this deadline. We have done so, and the import restrictions are now in effect. The 2,000 smuggled rice containers seized by [the Bureau of Customs] are therefore smuggled. This should not be released back to the smugglers, as what is happening today.”
Tan/Bangayan’s own explanation is more nuanced. “If we go back to the history of the system, in my opinion, because of the restrictions on import permits, this gave rise to operations like this. It’s common practice for permits to be sold.” In a previous hearing, he had admitted that he used farmers’ cooperatives and their permits to import rice.
Last Monday, Duterte (like Justice Secretary Leila de Lima before him) took direct aim at this industry practice: “What’s sad is the policy that cooperatives get permits. We all know that they don’t have any money, so they go to him.”
The proposal to limit all rice imports to the National Food Authority again seems newly viable, but will it solve the basic problem that rice from Thailand or Vietnam costs several hundred pesos cheaper than rice produced at home? Unless that root cause is addressed, these recurring scandals will end up like expensive entertainment—rice and circuses for the masses.
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