Writing on the wall

CTALK - Cito Beltran - The Philippine Star

With Malacañang saying that President BBM shares the sentiment of the Senate regarding POGOs, it would be safe to say that the possibility of POGOs being allowed to operate again has two chances: Slim and none. In fact, after the miscommunicated statement from the Chinese embassy came out, the “odds” are 2 million to 20,000 that POGO will be allowed to continue in the Philippines. By this I mean that the stakes involved are now a choice between bringing in 2 million legitimate Chinese tourists to the Philippines versus 20,000 local jobs of Filipinos servicing “legal” POGO companies.

While the Chinese embassy has made repeated clarifications that the Philippines is not in any blacklist for Chinese tourists, there is no denying the fact that the message has been delivered and heard loud and clear; If the Philippines continues or persists in harboring offshore gaming operators that target Chinese nationals, the possibility of being blacklisted or banned as a tourist destination in the very near future is now a sure thing.

Based on numbers provided by tour operators and experts, that would translate to 2 million tourists who spend an average of $1,000 per person per visit. If that was not enough to get people’s attention, the Chinese embassy, for the first time, also stated how the scourge of POGO has resulted in their citizens falling into serious gambling debts, forcing people to borrow huge sums of money from relatives, forcing others to commit crimes such as serious thefts and, worst of all, that a number of Chinese citizens have even committed suicide due to their desperation.

That added information and transparency on the scourge of POGO hit a familiar cord among many Filipinos who have been reeling from the scourge of another online form of gambling we all know as E-Sabong. We too have seen thousands of Filipinos fall into serious debt, lose jobs, homes, cars, families because they fell into the trap of online gambling. Just like China, we have had a number of suicides as a direct consequence of E-Sabong. But worst of all, we have an undetermined number of missing sabungeros, currently placed at 32 persons, whom many presume to be dead.

When the local media publicized the disappearance of 32 sabungeros, I remember an investor/player in E-Sabong who called me to say that he gave up his slot because he could not in good conscience make money on a “game” or business that had gone out of control and had become so violent. All this makes us realize how the Pagcor, under the Duterte administration, is directly responsible, guilty even, of all the social damage inflicted by online gambling here in the Philippines as well as in China.

In spite of this social nightmare, certain politicians, lobbyists and representatives of the “legal” or “legitimate” POGOs appealed to the Senate that they not be included or lumped together with the illegal operators and for the government to consider the future of 20,000 Filipino workers. It will never happen, but I somehow wish the Chinese embassy would publish names, photos and stories of the different victims of POGOs in the mainland so that the people making a living, profiting from POGO, will be confronted with the reality that what they have been earning is the equivalent of “Blood Money.”

Let us not forget that the victims of POGO are not only residents of mainland China, a number of women from other countries in the region have been victims of human trafficking and prostitution. How ironic that Filipinos scream bloody murder and rape when OFWs are abused or maltreated but not much is heard for foreign victims on Philippine soil!

Historically speaking, more Chinese nationals have been killed in the Philippines, beginning with the Manila hostage situation where seven tourists died, and add to that other victims of illegal POGO operators and gangsters. If POGOs are allowed to operate, you can also bet that the E-Sabong operators will demand equal rights.

As far as the 20,000 POGO employees are concerned, I was informed by the Philippine Tour Operators group that there is room in the tourism industry, especially for Mandarin-Chinese speaking individuals who could be retrained as specialized tourist guides for Chinese travelers. PHILTOA president Fe Abling-Yu pointed out that if the Mandarin speaking Pinoys leveled up as tour guides, they can take the place of “imported” tour guides who are brought in by each Chinese tour group. Come to think of it, that was the same way POGO operators started, using the language barrier as an excuse to bring in “employees” from the mainland.

Aside from a no-brainer choice between getting 2 million tourists versus keeping 20,000 jobs, it is evident that many senators are no longer buying into the argument for keeping POGO. Senator Wyn Gatchalian reportedly shot down the claim of a real estate personality who claimed that the POGO presence resulted in positive revenues for many condominium units. Gatchalian retorted by pointing out that the artificially high rentals resulted in inflation and deprived Filipinos of the ability to afford condominium units. When you think about it, those very same condos could just as easily be transformed to Airbnb units for the 2 million tourists coming into Metro Manila and they could probably earn even more.

As for the big picture, President Bongbong Marcos could actually use this situation as a talking point or an opportunity for cooperation. Aside from the tourism angle, the ban on POGO could be a jump off point for fighting cross border crimes, particularly the influx or drop off of drugs from suspected Chinese sources. We stop the illegal gambling, they clamp down or toughen up border control and movement of drugs as well as shipping vessels trespassing our territory. We have to start somewhere and for the first time there is something on the table that both sides can probably agree on.

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