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How Aquino caved in to online rage vs balikbayan box rules

Voltaire Tupaz
How social media set the tone of public opinion on the balikbayan box issue, leading to a change in customs policy

MANILA, Philippines – “Victory!” exclaimed overseas Filipino worker (OFW) Julius Lajara after President Benigno Aquino III ordered the Bureau of Customs (BOC) on Monday evening, August 24, to stop conducting physical inspections on balikbayan boxes. 

Every year, OFWs send at least 7.2 million balikbayan boxes to their families, according to authorities.

Lajara was one of the thousands of OFWs who took to social media to complain about the BOC’s plan to strictly inspect and impose taxes on balikbayan boxes that OFWs send to their loved ones. (READ: OFWs: Hands off our balikbayan boxes!)

Almost every story about the balikbayan box controversy angered netizens, dominating Rappler’s mood meter from Monday morning until Tuesday morning. 

The hashtag #balikbayanbox has also been a trending Twitter topic in the Philippines since Monday, mainly used by netizens to air their views against the BOC policy and to show how they value their packages.

Between Sunday morning and Monday morning, #balikbayanbox racked up at least 36.7 million impressions or views on Twitter, according to Rappler’s social listening tool Reach. On Twitter, “impressions” means “the times a user is served a Tweet in timeline or search results.”

It set the tone of public opinion until Aquino’s reversal of policy on BOC’s balikbayan box inspection Monday night.

Distrusted agency

Customs Commissioner Alberto Lina drew flack on social media over the weekend until Monday, after he warned that the agency would inspect balikbayan boxes, which he claimed had been used to smuggle goods into the Philippines. (READ: Customs’ Bert Lina: Be honest, declare what’s in your #BalikbayanBox)

“Some people are alarmed why their boxes are delivered ‘already tampered.’ The Customs are allowed by law to do a 100% check of your boxes but if you think that there are items missing, you can report these to the proper authorities,” Lina said.

But Lajara, who works in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), distrusts the BOC. Even if OFWs report incidents, they cannot be assured of a positive outcome, he said. He posted a petition on Change.orgasking Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago to help “stop” the BOC from imposing tighter rules on balikbayan boxes.

“Whether they accept it or not, the sad reality is that Customs personnel don’t particularly enjoy the public’s trust. You cannot blame OFWs for doubting the renewed vigor of Customs inspectors when it comes to balikbayan boxes,” Santiago noted.

Santiago was fast in acting on the online plea, which became a trending petition, gathering more than 87,000 supporters. She was also furious:

“It is one thing to inspect balikbayan boxes, another to desecrate them. The Bureau of Customs seems aware that balikbayan boxes, when opened by their personnel, are sometimes pillaged. What have officials done to rid their ranks of thieves?” 

On Monday afternoon, August 24, she announced on Change.org that she filed Resolution Number 1534, seeking a Senate investigation into the issue. According to Change.org Philippines senior campaigner Christine Roque, Santiago was the first Filipino official to use the “decision-maker response” tool of the petition site:

“Thank you for bringing to my attention the Bureau of Customs plan to intrusively inspect and further tax balikbayan boxes sent by overseas Filipino workers (OFWs),” she directly told Lajara and thousands of the petition supporters.

After the Aquino government changed it policy Monday night, Change.org stamped the petition with a “Victory flag,” noting that it “made change with 87,773 supporters!”

LOOMING POLITICAL BACKLASH. The balikbayan box controversy almost eclipsed the gatherings attended by administration bet Mar Roxas, MMDA chief Francis Tolentino, and Justice Secretary Leila de Lima in Cebu.  Photo by Bea Cupin/Rappler

Change in policy

The change in policy was stunning it happened within a day. On Monday morning, August 24, the BOC was still standing its ground. On Rappler Talk, Lina warned Filipinos abroad that they should “declare honestly what’s the content of the boxes [and parcels].” (WATCH: Rappler Talk: Why the Bureau of Customs opens your #BalikbayanBox)

“If we see the items, we’ll pass. If the value [of the items declared] is too high, we’ll tax them,” he added.

As of Monday afternoon, Aquino was still backing the Customs commissioner, calling on Filipinos to allow the BOC to do its job in curbing the entry of smuggled items and other contraband into the country: “Tulungan natin ‘yung Customs na gawin ‘yung kanilang trabaho at dapat naman siguraduhin ng gobyerno na wala namang karapatan ng taumbayan na mapipinsala dito.

(Let’s help Customs do its job and the government must also ensure that the Filipinos’ rights are protected concerning this issue).

But after meeting with Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima and BOC Commissioner Lina, the President made a turnaround, echoing the sentiment of OFWs.

“He emphasized that OFW families view the balikbayan box as an integral part of the family relationship to nurture loved ones at home and as a tangible sign of their love and concern for their family members,” the joint DOF-BOC statement said.

Aquino’s response averted a looming political backlash.

The administration has suffered major social media setbacks in the past due to its handling of crisis situations, like the Zamboanga siege, the Yolanda disaster, and, most recently, the Mamasapano incident

Meanwhile, administration standard-bearer and Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II sang a different tune while in Cebu with the Aquino and his other allies. He challenged the BOC’s policy but only urged the embattled agency to issue clearer guidelines in conducting the inspections on balikbayan boxes.

Marami na po sa ating mga OFW ang nagpapahayag ng kanilang pagkadismaya sa random inspection ng BOC. Nananawagan tayo sa BOC na magpalabas ng malinaw na panuntunan sa mga inspeksyong ito para mapangalagaan ang mga padala ng ating mga OFWs. Hindi OFWs ang kalaban, smugglers ang kalaban dito.

(Many of our OFWs have already expressed their disappointment over the random inspections done by the BOC. We call on the BOC to issue clear guidelines for these guidelines to protect the balikbayan boxes of our OFWs. OFWs are not the enemy, smugglers are.)

A Twitter user pressed Roxas on how exactly he would deal with the controversy if he were in Aquino’s shoes. 

Clean your own backyard 

Meanwhile, party-list groups Bayan Muna and Migrante welcomed Aquino’s response.

“We are pleased that the President has spoken on the issue of random inspection of our balikbayan boxes. This is an initial victory for OFWs worldwide,” said Migrante chairperson Connie Bragas Regalado.

But Regalado noted that Aquino is silent on the P600 million “revenue target from the balikbayan boxes.” 

“This is what emboldened Commissioner Lina to implement the brazen, sacrilegious inspections of balikbayan boxes,” Regalado said.

The BOC earlier revealed that it is losing nearly P50 million ($1.07 million) per month or P600 million ($12.84 million) yearly from traders abusing the consolidated shipments. It stressed that by tightening rules on sending balikbayan boxes, the bureau could curb smuggling goods into the country.

However, netizens said the BOC should first curb corruption within its ranks and run after big smugglers.

What do you think of the last-minutes change of heart by Aquino? Do you have complaints or other solutions in mind? Tag @MovePH on Twitter or use the hashtag #balikbayanbox to continue the conversation. – Rappler.com