WITHOUT looking at the personalities, and just using a theoretical perspective, it simply does not make any sense that individuals would attempt to import sugar only to hoard it in order to manipulate the price. After all, anyone familiar with the process of importation would know that these are fairly transparent transactions that are under the bureaucratic scrutiny of and approval by the Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA), the imprimatur for which is issued transparently through sugar importation orders.

What is plausible, however, is that certain people could illegally smuggle sugar and hoard it to manipulate the price. Since smuggling does not require the SRA's imprimatur, and there is no need for a sugar order to be issued by the SRA board, then it is pretty obvious that the movement of the contraband occurs through the route through which other smuggled goods would pass. It would involve the usual agents composed of unscrupulous individuals illegally seeking profits conniving with corrupt bureaucrats who are on their payroll.

And this is where it becomes a bit confusing how people, even those in elected and appointed positions of power, would try to conflate importation with smuggling, when their very natures are totally different. Importation passes through a vetting process and is a remedy to stave off rising prices by increasing available supply. On the other hand, smuggling falls through the cracks of the regulatory powers of the state, and because of its invisibility can be exploited to manipulate prices through hoarding.

If there is any sector that can hoard sugar, it would be the millers who are also sugar planters as well as traders. The political economy of sugar in the country is such that these three sectors of the industry are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but are in fact either the same people, or if not, are connected and integrated in a whole ecosystem in the product chain. It is also true that some of them have political connections.

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To illustrate the point, there is evidence that the alleged smuggled sugar that was supposedly detected by the Bureau of Customs in Subic turns out to be legally covered, as attested by no less than the SRA deputy administrator who issued a written certification which he affirmed under oath in the Senate. The incident showed the layers of control in legal importation, with the names of the importer and industrial end-users specified.

It is therefore correct that the focus of investigation should be less on importation, and more on smuggling, as well as the hoarding of smuggled sugar and of locally produced sugar. We cannot allow those benefiting and profiting from these illegal operations to conspire with others to use as a smokescreen the inordinate focus on sugar importation as the source of the anomaly and the price manipulation.

If there is one thing we can fault the sugar regulators with, it would be in their readiness to import sugar so as to stave off shortages and rising prices instead of going after smugglers and hoarders. As to whether there was collusion involving the regulators, then the principle is always based on a presumption of regularity, and to accord all parties their right to due process. We cannot countenance politicians further muddling the issue with their thirst for grandstanding.

We should not tolerate a situation where upright bureaucrats who are just doing their jobs, and whose only fault is in the form of procedural lapses rather than being involved in immoral and illegal transactions, are the ones who are bearing the brunt. It is saddening that the Customs officials at Subic who in fact performed complete staff work, conducted due diligence and verified the legality of the suspected sugar shipments, which was affirmed by the clearing officer who testified under oath, and therefore have not even committed any procedural lapses, are now being tarred and feathered in the court of public opinion. They have been relieved of their duties pending an investigation. Investigation for what? For doing their job?

Furthermore, we cannot allow former Agriculture undersecretary Leocadio Sebastian, whose career both as an agricultural scientist and professional bureaucrat has been tarnished by allegations and suspicion, to become a casualty of innuendo and grandstanding. If he has to be condemned, then let it be as a result of an investigation in the proper venue, and not in congressional hearings where we are not entirely sure for what purpose and to what direction they are heading. We cannot allow politics to take over the quest for truth, as this can be undermined by those who only care for the interest of the patrons that would benefit from making Sebastian the sacrificial lamb.

There is something in the case of Sebastian that needs to be articulated. The office of the executive secretary, in a July 15 memorandum, designated him not only to sit on behalf of the Secretary of Agriculture, but as the ex-officio chairman of the SRA board. The same memorandum also authorized Sebastian to sign administrative issuances, which include sugar importation orders.

If there is anything we can fault Sebastian with, it would be in correctly reading the text of the July 15 memorandum if we use technocratic and not political lenses. Sebastian is a technocrat and a scientist and he would have read, as I do, the explicitness of the nature of and extent of his authority as the designated ex-officio chairman, with signing authority to match, of a body that under the law, and by precedent, has been issuing the same sugar importation order in the past, with the most recent one just last February. And Sebastian also knew that the chairman had only one vote. Had President Marcos not been the concurrent DA secretary, he would not even have had a direct role in the process as president.

There is just too much noise in this entire sugar issue. We cannot allow the noise to effectively cover up the truth.