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Sisyphus’ Lament

Illegal book tax: Why no one trusts Customs

OUR CUSTOMS commissioner argued that his bureau is only implementing the law if it starts opening balikbayan boxes. He may as well have said that buses never fall off Manila’s elevated highways, the Ninoy Aquino International Airport is the best in the world, the MRT is efficient and well-maintained, and we will elect the reincarnation of Lee Kuan Yew as our next president. Before letting the Bureau of Customs get away with claiming that it only implements the law, we should ask why it blatantly refuses to implement the 1952 tax exemption on imported books, among other rules.

My greatest frustration is when commentators mix political opinion into a discussion on a legal issue without being clear about it, from the Reproductive Health Act hearings to the present Torre de Manila litigation. However, it is equally frustrating when a government regulator

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attempts to reduce a social issue into a legal one, such as initially forcing Uber and Grabcar to conform to our dysfunctional taxi regulation regime instead of asking why the system is broken.

Customs officials must confront the broader issue of why no one trusts them and feels intimately violated when new Customs measures are announced. The blatantly illegal tax on books is the simplest case study. Recall the media uproar in 2012, when Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima publicly reiterated that imported books are exempt from Customs duties, particularly shipments for “personal use” of not more than six copies. The Philippines committed to this in 1952 under the United Nations Florence Agreement or “Agreement on the Importation of Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Materials.” Purisima reiterated this simple, clear exemption in Department of Finance Order No. 57-2011 and a press release in the government’s Official Gazette on Jan. 4, 2012.

Nothing is apparently simple or clear with Customs since the exemption has often been ignored. Customs Memorandum Circular No. 142-2014 acknowledged complaints from book importers and reiterated Purisima’s 2011 order. This circular was issued by then Commissioner John “Sunny” Sevilla almost three years later—yes, three years!—on Dec. 3, 2014. Sevilla has long since resigned and the blatantly illegal book tax has outlasted him. Please download these orders from my Facebook page (facebook.com/OscarFranklinTan) or Google them for yourself.

I received a small box via UPS from Hong Kong containing nothing but textbooks on Aug. 21, 2013. I was made to pay a duty of P1,763. In frustration, I tweeted the official link to Purisima’s 2011 order and tagged Purisima, then Commissioner Ruffy Biazon, deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte, Fully Booked, National Bookstore, and Sen. Pia Cayetano, who helped publicize the 2011 order. The following morning, Deputy Commissioner Jorenz Tañada (who has since left) tweeted to ask for my importation documents.

On Aug. 28, lawyer Liza Torres of the Customs Tax Credit Secretariat e-mailed to confirm the exemption. However, I would have to write a letter to the Customs collector in Clark, Pampanga (where UPS imported the books) and pay a P500 processing fee. Further, I could only receive a tax certificate, since Customs does not issue cash refunds. I understandably gave up and did not even bother when a similar box of textbooks was taxed in 2014.

I am hardly alone. Weeks ago, a prominent lawyers’ association asked me to purchase a dozen thick specialist textbooks on a trip abroad and bring them home in my checked-in luggage to avoid Customs duties. They knew full well that a courier purchase from Amazon.com would be automatically slapped with blatantly illegal duties. If even lawyers cannot claim the clear tax exemption, one wonders how much Customs has illegally collected from book imports all these years. My Aug. 21, 2013, Facebook thread featured friends who were made to pay taxes on their own books published abroad, told by Customs officials that there was a tax exemption but one had to apply with the finance secretary for it, or pay illegal duties of about half the price of the books.

The actual law is the last thing citizens are concerned with when it comes to Customs. Citizens instead voice how helpless and frustrated they feel when Customs simply sets aside the actual law with all the impunity in the world. Further, the violations feel intimate given how personal the likes of books and balikbayan boxes are. Such violations break the sense of security granted by the longstanding human right to tell a king’s agents not to enter one’s door or touch one’s personal belongings. My Baguio student Christine Elvena-Carantes, of Oracion Barlis & Associates, wrote a thoughtful letter in the Star last Aug. 25 linking the opening of balikbayan boxes to a violation of the right to privacy.

Claiming to be only implementing the law is a disappointing way for Customs to react to the public’s well-earned distrust. Further, the commissioner’s condemnable response that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear turns on its head how government must be accountable to the people, in this case for impunity in arbitrarily ignoring laws and unbridled discretion in misinterpreting them to the point that exasperated citizens would rather pay blatantly illegal duties just to get their property. Perhaps Sen. Pia Cayetano and tax reformist Sen. Sonny Angara may yet save our books, as a start. Perhaps we should blame ourselves for speaking out against Customs only now over balikbayan boxes and not when the perceived competent, honest Sevilla resigned four months ago.

If the Iglesia ni Cristo adds Customs abuses to their protest, one wonders if the crowd at Edsa will double.

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React: [email protected], Twitter @oscarfbtan.

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