[OPINION] What kind of citizens are we?

Isagani de Castro Jr.

This is AI generated summarization, which may have errors. For context, always refer to the full article.

[OPINION] What kind of citizens are we?

Alyssa Arizabal/Rappler

Faced with crimes such as human trafficking, kidnap for ransom, torture, money laundering associated with a number of POGOs, perhaps we should ask ourselves: what kind of citizens are we? 

If you’ve been following the Alice Guo and the Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators (POGOs) political serye (series), you’re probably going to appreciate the Korean movie, Citizen of Kind, still showing in select SM Cinemas as of Tuesday, July 9. 

The movie is largely based on the true story of how an ordinary Korean citizen, Kim Sung-ja, fell victim to a voice phishing scam in 2016. With the help of a tipster working in the call center of the illegal phishing group, Kim provided police with valuable information that led to the criminal organization getting busted in mainland China.

Although the offshore operator in Citizen of a Kind involves a phishing organization, where scammers misrepresent trusted organizations like banks, it nonetheless depicts most of the elements of the bad POGOs operating in the Philippines, including the Lucky South 99 in Bamban, Tarlac that’s been raided by authorities. 

The movie shows how workers in these operations are lured by the promise of jobs, how they are trafficked and forced to work against their will, how they are disciplined and punished by their superiors (including beating them up with baseball bats), and even killed if they attempt to squeal or escape. 

[OPINION] What kind of citizens are we?

In the dramatization of Kim’s case, her character, single mother Kim Deok-Hee, played by actress Ra Mi-ran, tries to get the police to help her recover the 30 million won (around P1.2 million) she remitted to the phishing organization based in mainland China. Initially, a police investigator tells her it’s impossible, until a Korean informant, Son Jin-young (played by Gong Myung), a human trafficking victim working in the phishing group’s call center, sends Korean police pieces of evidence that could help track down the criminal gang. 

According to Korean media reports, the movie is faithful to the true story until this point. The part when the victim Kim goes to China with her friends to track down the criminals is said to be all fiction. 

But it’s the fiction that is most useful to us Filipinos as we continue to face news about Guo and bad POGOs in the country. 

Spoiler alert: In the film’s penultimate scenes, when Kim runs after the phishing crime boss, Oh Myung-hwan (played by Lee Moo-saeng), and catches up with him at the airport, the crime boss returns to Kim not just the 30 million won she lost but 100 million won (P4.2 million), over three times more, just so she would stop running after him. 

Kim’s friend and co-worker, Chinese-speaking Bong-rim (played by Yeom Hye-ran), advises her to take the money so they can go back home and Kim can get her two children – who had been taken away by social welfare – back. 

Given all the information she learned about the phishing group, Kim, however, chooses to return the 100 million won.

The crime boss then leaves so he can catch his flight and evade arrest, unaware that Kim took his passport so that she would know the villain’s real name. And when Oh returns to get his passport, Kim tears up the page which has Oh’s picture and swallows it despite getting badly beaten up in a comfort room in the airport.

Economic benefits vs social costs

It’s these scenes that make this dramedy movie truly worth the P220 (with the senior discount) I paid for. It’s also why the movie is titled Citizen of a Kind since it highlights the importance of good citizenship despite threats to life and liberty. 

The movie provides important lessons to those in government and civil society.

First, in light of the illegal and inhuman activities being done in these organizations, there is no question that the social costs far outweigh the revenues that bad POGOs bring. The Chinese government has repeatedly made it clear that POGOs should be banned, noting that these breed crimes such as kidnap for ransom, human trafficking, torture, and murder.

A rescued worker’s tale of torture in Porac POGO

A rescued worker’s tale of torture in Porac POGO

In a statement last June 14 reiterating its appeal to the Philippine government to ban POGOs, the Chinese embassy in Manila said it has been working with the Philippines in “bringing down cross-border gambling and telecom fraud.” In the past six years, it said nearly 3,000 Chinese citizens implicated in POGO-related crimes have been repatriated. It also helped the Philippines shut down five POGOs.

Government, however, has not heeded this appeal, citing the economic benefits that POGOs bring. Recall then-president Rodrigo Duterte’s statement in March 2020: “Under my oath of office as President of the Republic, as elected by you, ‘yang POGO na ‘yan, malinis ‘yan (those POGOs are clean). Laro lang ‘yan para sa kabila (It’s just a game for the other side) but it employs something like 20,000 in Manila…Why? Because it gives us P2 billion a month. Kaya sabi ko para muna (That’s why I said let’s pause first).” 

POGOs had mostly been operating underground and the Duterte administration claimed that legalizing them would allow regulators to weed out the bad elements, but this strategy has clearly failed in many instances, as shown by the raids conducted by the Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Commission on a number of POGOs.

The Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation (Pagcor), under the Marcos administration, still maintains this policy. Pagcor chair Al Tengco, in a statement last June 9, said POGOs, which have been renamed Internet Gaming Licensees (IGLs), contributed P5 billion to the gambling regulator’s coffers in 2023. (Since China is against all forms of gambling, it is also presumably against IGLs.)

Reforms are badly needed to better regulate this sub-sector of the gaming industry. Pagcor, together with the police and local officials, must undertake regular and actual inspections of these enterprises. They must ensure that no human trafficking, forced labor, torture, and other crimes are taking place in these places. No search warrants should be required for random inspections. No area should be off-limits during inspections, especially in light of hidden areas where abuses were committed in these bad POGOs. 

Tengco said in his statement that Pagcor has “embedded monitoring teams in the physical venues of all licensed gaming operators, including land-based casinos, to ensure compliance with the terms of their licenses.” He did not say, however, when this started. Hopefully, this can help ensure that no crimes are committed in IDLs. Incidentally, Tengco also appealed to the public to “report suspicious alien activities in their communities,” warning however that such “criminal syndicates are usually armed and dangerous.”

Second, there has to be better cooperation between law enforcers in the Philippines, China, and in labor-sending countries against human trafficking. Many of the workers in these bad POGOs were duped by traffickers. Their passports are taken by their employers and their freedoms curtailed once they reach their work places. 

Intelligence work also needs to be improved in these countries. Similar to how international terrorism has been greatly reduced, these criminal organizations have to be infiltrated so that authorities can better crack down on them. There needs to be political will at the highest level of government, however, and if the Philippine government continues to reject China’s demand to ban POGOs, these criminal organizations may choose to wait until interest in the POGO controversy subsides.

Third, the movie’s title, Citizen of a Kind, highlights the key role played by Kim: a citizen who is upright, active, and brave. 

Her character reminds me of what Filipinos did during the tumultuous years after the August 21, 1983 assassination of Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. Faced with a dictatorship that was ruining the economy and violating human rights, ordinary citizens stood up and fought back, eventually succeeding in the February 1986 “people power” uprising. 

A number of ordinary citizens were also encouraged to join democratic elections post-1986, and some of them even won against established political warlords and clans.

Sadly, some of these virtues weakened post-EDSA, leaving many to become disappointed with how Philippine democracy works. 

Active citizenship

It’s that spirit of active citizenship, however, that Commission on Elections (Comelec) Chairman George Garcia has urged voters to practice. As the poll body faces questions on how Guo was able to file a Certificate of Candidacy (COC) despite her questionable background – and win as mayor in 2022, Garcia last May said voters should be more engaged in checking the qualifications of candidates. 

“Kung may mga interesadong kwestyunin ‘yung eligibility o qualification nung mga kandidatong iyon, maganda pong mai-file. May period po ‘yun, 25 days after the filing of the candidacy.… Puwede po naming tingnan kung talagang citizen. Kasama po ‘yun sa kapangyarihan ng Comelec basta may mag-file ng disqualification,” Garcia said.

(If there are people interested in questioning the eligibility or qualification of candidates, it would be good to file it. There’s a period of 25 days after the filing of candidacy…. We can check if the aspirant is really a citizen. That’s part of the powers of the Comelec as long as someone files a disqualification petition.)

This active engagement is something many Filipinos do with national candidates, especially those running for president. However, in local races, especially in rural areas, active citizenship is apparently lacking. There are also reports that in the case of Guo’s 2022 victory as mayor, voters of Bamban were easily swayed by promises and money. 

The Comelec, claimed Garcia, will be able to weed out these shady aspirants, but the poll body needs active citizens who can help provide information.

Fourth, those who make identity theft possible – as what the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) has determined in the case of Guo – should be held accountable. Some civil servants are likely to have played roles that allowed Guo to get official documents despite her Chinese citizenship. The case of Guo again exemplifies the problem of corruption, and how some public servants violate the law, as well as the principle that public office is a public trust.

Writer-director Park Young-ju, in giving the movie the title, Citizen of a Kind, appears to be begging the question, what kind of citizens are we? Or, perhaps, more importantly, what kind of citizens should we be? 

As actress Ra, who played the lead role, told the Korea Times: “This ordinary person accomplished something truly extraordinary. Personally, I don’t believe I could have done what she did. It’s genuinely admirable for her to achieve something so significant from that incident. Not many people have such remarkable experiences, which made it all the more compelling for me to take on the role.”

I doubt if Citizen of a Kind, which was released in Korea in January this year and shown exclusively in select SM Cinemas in the Philippines starting July 3, will still be in theaters this week. Despite it being an entertaining movie, there were only six people in the theater when I watched in on Saturday, July 6, at 9:30 pm in SM Megamall.

The movie, however, will likely be shown on streaming platform Netflix, as it’s already available there in some territories. 

Better still, perhaps a Filipino producer should make a movie about Alice Guo and her POGO connections – and make sure it’s a crime thriller, not a tearjerker involving an illegitimate child of a kasambahay (househelper) who grew up in a farm. – Rappler.com 


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Isagani de Castro Jr.

Before he joined Rappler as senior desk editor, Isagani de Castro Jr. was longest-serving editor in chief of ABS-CBN News online. He had reported for the investigative magazine Newsbreak, Asahi Shimbun Manila, and Business Day. He has written chapters for books on politics, international relations, and civil society.