Marcos ordered to get sugar 'through selected importers' – DA senior official

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, May 23) — President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. ordered the importation of sugar "through selected importers," Agriculture Senior Undersecretary Domingo Panganiban revealed on Tuesday before the Senate blue ribbon committee.

"Ang sabi ng presidente [The president said] 'let's import,' he said, 'let's import through selected importers,'" Panganiban said Tuesday as senators continued their probe into the entry of sugar shipments to the country ahead of the issuance of an official order from the Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA).

The Department of Agriculture (DA) official pointed to the president — who's also DA secretary — as the one who initiated the importation of around 455,000 metric tons (MT) of sugar from Thailand, citing inflationary pressures at the time.

"He (Marcos) told us that we really need to import at this point because baka tumaas pa ang inflation rate at tataas pa ang presyo sa public market [the inflation rate and prices in the public market might go up]," Panganiban said.

"On that basis, I called a meeting with the Sugar Regulatory Administration to address this problem," he added. "Ang sabi ng president [The president said] let's do it ourselves muna [for the meantime]."

Panganiban also recalled Marcos calling on a meeting with around four or five sugar importers, where he said he saw a certain Alvarado and a certain Escaler. He added that the meeting concluded with Marcos agreeing to the importation.

When committee chair Sen. Francis Tolentino asked Panganiban if Marcos’ statement referred to going through the process required in importing, the Agriculture official replied: "He (Marcos) said let's import through selected importers of sugar."

The president, however, did not give any specific names of sugar importers during the meeting, according to Panganiban.

One of the sugar barons Panganiban named was present at the hearing — Michael Escaler, president of sugar import company All Asian Countertrade Inc.

During the hearing, Sen. Risa Hontiveros presented a photo taken by Digicast Negros of Escaler's wife with Panganiban, Marcos, House Speaker Martin Romualdez, and sugar traders Edwin Lee and Ian Alvarado.

Panganiban explained that the photo was taken after the meeting with Marcos.

Hontiveros further questioned the selection of the three importers — All Asian Countertrade Inc., Sucden Philippines, and Edison Lee Marketing Corp. — but Panganiban was unable to explain why they were chosen.

Hontiveros also asked why these importers were not required to pay a performance bond, which serves as a guarantee that they will complete the trade. This, according to the senator, was against the law due to the lack of an SRA sugar order at the time.

Executive Secretary Lucas Bersamin responded that a sugar order is not the only basis for importation. He said the government can also base the importation on minimum access volume set by the World Trade Organization.

"To us, in the Office of the President, we have committed no irregularity, no violation, when we issued that sugar order. Neither was there any violation committed by any of the parties involved in this questioned transactions,” Bersamin said.

The Senate committee will reconvene when former SRA chief David John Thaddeus Alba and sugar trader Edwin Lee indicate their readiness to participate in the probe, according to Tolentino.

CNN Philippines' correspondent Lois Calderon contributed to this story.