The Dynasty that Sioktong built

Sioktong is a wine from fermented palm fruit, a local alcoholic brew common in the rural Philippines. A single shot creates a nauseating but ecstatic feel for the man drinking it – reason why cases of men with bolo running amok in barrios on Sundays have been widely attributed to the Sioktong drunkards.

For Pedro, 59, who admits drinking Sioktong regularly, says that the local wine has not only given him headaches but a modern-day dynasty too. Pedro, a pedicab driver since 1992, recalls the first time he saw Representative Milagrosa Tan. It was a cool, breezy afternoon in the port of the then municipality of Catbalogan when a voluptuous, wheezing woman diligently distributed her supposed for-sale goods to the men and women of the city’s Pier Uno. Everyone was happy to have a free bottle of Sioktong from the amiable and soft-spoken businesswoman, including Pedro who was lucky enough to be in the port when Tan gave the people a Sioktong spree. And he never thought that from those cheap liquor, an enduring political family will emerge.

Liquor and loans

Representative Milagrosa ‘Mila’ Tan, 58, is the incumbent congresswoman of the 2nd District of Samar in the House of Representatives. Her daughter, Sharee Ann, 33, is the incumbent governor of Samar Province, a post her mother once held for consecutive terms. And Mila’s son, Stephen James, 32 is the current vice governor of the provincial government.

The Tan family’s political involvement started when Mila’s husband Ricardo first became a member of the provincial legislative board, his brother Ruben substituted him after he died of heart attack. Mila then replaced Ruben after 3 terms.

Pier Uno | View from the Catbalogan City Port
Pier Uno | View from the Catbalogan City Port

The widow businesswoman focused on her cigarette retailing and liquor business, which monopolized the tobacco and Sioktong sales in the whole province. But when she entered politics and won her candidacy for provincial board member in 1998, she made her whole merchandising business a starting capital for a promising political career.

A graduate of commerce in the Asian Development Foundation College in Tacloban City, Mila proved to be a good businesswoman when every now and then she would give away Sioktong bottles to barangay officials from all over the province and even to bystanders in her store at the port. This new stunt made Mila very popular in Samar that paved the way for her successful gubernatorial bid in 2001. Mila challenged the Lakas Party bigwig and former deputy prime minister during the Marcos dictatorship, Jose Roño.

According to a local politician, and former municipal mayor under the wing of Tan who requested anonymity claimed that “Mila was then the beacon of change, the voice of hope, the patron of a renewed democracy,” which effectively toppled the already-ailing 80-year-old Roño for the province’s governorship.

But according also to the local politician, while the Sioktong-giveaway gimmick made Mila a talk-of-the-town, the loan business contributed also in catapulting her to the provincial Capitol. With the condition of withholding her identity for security reason, an employee of the Samar Capitol also shared her experience of borrowing money from her former boss. “Of course, we would be forced to borrow money from Inay, because we would have nothing to pay for our expenses, and even with the huge interest rate, we still felt heavily indebted that our votes would serve as the ultimate payment,” the employee said.

Former Governor and Mila’s distant relative, Tomas Ricalde filled in Mila’s investment void. Ricalde, Samar’s pioneer in the 5/6 lending business, provided Mila with additional capital for expanding her own micro-lending venture and gave massive network to aid for her apparent political ascent. Ricalde also requested help from the political giants of the province’s northern district, in the city of Calbayog. The late Representative Reynaldo Uy, responded positively by helping Mila win in the former’s turf, Samar’s 1st District.

But relationships between Tan and all other politicians who helped in her victorious battle against Roño turned sour just months after she took office.

Allegations of Corruption

Under the Tan governorship, Tomas Ricalde became the provincial administrator, but according to Marissa Cabaljao, a peasant leader of Pinabacdao town in Samar, “Ricalde quickly left the post because of irreconcilable differences between Tan and Ricalde’s businesses.” Along with Ricalde, Representative Uy also had a silent rift with Tan when she failed to bring change to the poor situation of Samar.

Several administrative cases were also filed against her during her governorship. The budget for line agencies was allegedly siphoned by the governor’s office in the guise of implementing the projects directly by the governor herself. Several reports of the Commission on Audit (COA) found suspicious transactions under Mila’s office. In 2006, Mila was charged with graft at Sandiganbayan for the procurement of supplies worth P16 million without public bidding. And another set of funds were used to buy electric fans distributed to another province but was supposedly allocated for the procurement of emergency supplies to the victims of Typhoon Kadiang. A case was then filed by the Isog han Samar Movement (Valor of Samar Movement) against Tan.

One report looks into the suspicious procurement and distribution of cement bags by the governor’s office. Cabaljao claimed that Tan used to give empty vouchers to her village leaders, which served as claim stub for cement bags in hardware stores in Catbalogan. Cabaljao even recalls when a village captain was advised by Tan herself to just sell the cement he would be claiming because it would incur more expenses if he would have it brought to his upland village. Cabaljao recalls that the captain seemed appalled, but still did as Mila advised nevertheless. “Tikang ha barangay officials talaga an iya pag-maintain power. Super-corrupt, kulang service parehas hit nagpapapirma hit mga documents for ghost projects,” (The way she maintains power really starts from the village officials. She is very corrupt while services are scarce. Like when she makes people sign documents for ghost projects)

More Tan, more corruption

Once the image of a new Samar, Mila reared her ugly head all worse when in 2007 she started out her family’s Dynasty. She fielded her daughter Sharee Ann for the representative of Samar’s 2nd district. Sharee Ann won and became the youngest member of Congress then. In 2010, Mila switched positions with Sharee Ann and at the same time, fielded her third child Stephen James for the vice gubernatorial post. The 2010 elections proved the immense political power Mila has gained when she retained her post while both of her political neophyte children trounced their respective veteran opponents

As the Tans effectively held a good grip of the Samar province, allegations of corruption proliferated all the more. Visible in the whole province’s major road networks are waiting sheds built, which pillars fashioned to bear the letters M and T or A and T, which are believed to allude the initials of Mila Tan and Ann Tan. Those structures according to unofficial reports are said to be overpriced. Claims of the existence of ghost projects also hounded the Tan dynasty. Cabaljao said that the provincial hospital has been the favorite item pegged for those alleged ghost projects. Their family’s business have also grown exponentially while they are in office. Cabaljao alleged that right now, the family has acquired real estates, shipping, and construction firms.

It is notable that when Sharee Ann married the scion of the De Los Santos Family, a construction mogul in Albay, various government infrastructure projects were awarded to the family’s WCS Construction Inc. In the Money Politics report of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, it stated that in the year 2010, major and multi-million projects in Samar’s 2nd District were given to WCS as its contractor. Particularly, the 32 million San Juanico–Basey–Sohoton Road; the 46 million Wright – Taft – Borongan Road; and the 18 million worth River Control Project in Catbalogan City.

WCS Construction Inc heavy equipments in a depot at Catbalogan City
WCS Construction Inc heavy equipments in a depot at Catbalogan City

The most recent issue is the controversial P800 million loan from the Land Bank of the Philippines which sparked massive opposition and led to a signature drive all over the province. The hefty loan requested by Governor Sharee Ann and her allies in the provincial board as they stated in the provincial resolution were to be used for “concreting of farm-to-market roads, tourist destination improvement, several infrastructure projects, and the first phase construction of the new Samar Provincial Hospital.” For its rather perfect schedule in time with the nearing elections, church, civil society and activist groups expressed extreme opposition against the loan attempt.

6 Tans

In 2013, the Tan dynasty fielded six from its family to contest for various top positions in Samar. Mila, Sharee Ann, and Stephen James ran for reelection while Mila fielded her eldest daughter, Angelie for Mayor of Calbayog along with Mila’s brother-in-law, Arnold as congressman for the 1st district of Samar. The bid of the two is their family’s attempt for political expansion in Samar’s 1st district. Mila’s youngest, Reynolds Michael ran for Catbalogan’s mayoralty post.

After the assassination of then city mayor and the Tan dynasty’s biggest political nemesis, Reynaldo Uy, Mila eyed Uy’s turf as an expansion target. But the children and allies of Uy stood to fight against the Tans for their own political survival. Long-time ally and then Vice Mayor Ronaldo Aquino frustrated Angelie’s mayoralty bid in Calbayog. Former representative and now Secretary of the Department of Interior and Local Government, Mel Senen Sarmiento successfully defended his seat in Congress against Arnold Tan. While Stephany Uy-Tan, estranged wife of Vice governor Stephen James defeated her brother-in-law, Reynolds Michael for the mayoralty post of Catbalogan.

However, the incumbents retained their positions. Mila, Sharee Ann, and Stephen James won.

But this 2016 elections, Angelie is yet again gunning for the mayoralty post of Calbayog, still facing the same foe, Mayor Ronaldo Aquino.

The revolutionary forces as foe

The Tans have not only angered the traditional politicians of Samar but also the expanding revolutionary forces in the province. In 2013 the National Democratic Front – Eastern Visayas through its spokesperson, Fr. Santiago Salas declared that the People’s Democratic Government is confronting the Tan Dynasty for its “serious crimes against the people and the revolutionary movement.” Salas also added that “the Tan family is held accountable for gross corruption, abetting human rights violations, and collaborating with the military’s counterinsurgency campaign,” which became grounds for the revolutionary movement to “deny entry to candidates from the Tan family in areas under the jurisdiction of revolutionary authorities.”

Fr. Salas also lamented that “(h)uman rights violations have raged in the province since 2005 under then 8th ID chief, the butcher Gen. Jovito Palparan, but the Tans never condemned but in fact helped cover up the military’s rights violations. They also slammed the door on rights violation victims seeking assistance, as well refused as to aid areas suffering from intense militarization.” It can be remembered that while Mila Tan was governor of Samar, the spate of rights violations was committed by the military’s 8th ID especially under Gen. Jovito Palparan, branded as ‘The Butcher’ for his bloody record of extra-judicial killings and various forms of rights violations.

Gov. Ann Tan in a flag raising ceremony. Photo Courtesy: Gov Tan FB Page
Gov. Ann Tan in a flag raising ceremony. Photo Courtesy: Gov Tan FB Page

The NDF-EV spokesperson also said that the Tan political dynasty not only collaborated but even colluded in corruption with the military. “Through their control of the provincial government, the Tans ensured financial and material support for the Social Integration Program, the 8th ID’s surrender campaign against the New People’s Army. The Tans also lent support to the 8th ID’s brutal Special Operations Team campaigns of psywar and intimidation against the people. They also allowed the military to be the contractor in projects used for “counterinsurgency”, as well as supported relief and medical missions meant to deodorize the military’s human rights violations.”

Fr. Salas | Revolutionary leader, Father Santiago Salas of the National Democratic Front Eastern Visayas
Fr. Salas | Revolutionary leader, Father Santiago Salas of the National Democratic Front Eastern Visayas

Aside from conniving with the military, Fr. Salas also accused the Tans of maintaining its own private army composed not only of goons but mercenary soldiers and policemen as well. “The Tans are known to have soldiers from the 34th IB and the 87th IB in their payroll. They are also connected to the Intelligence Service of the Armed Forces of the Philippines through Sgt. Emil Soza who is now running against Sharee Ann for Samar’s gubernatorial seat. The Tans meanwhile, control the police provincial mobile group through their man, Insp. Jovy Espinido. The other armed henchmen of the Tans are the Casaljay group based in Sta. Margarita and Calbayog City; the so-called Rebolusyonaryong Hukbong Bayan (RHB) in Paranas and Hinabangan towns; and goons from Masbate harbored in the islands of Tagapul-an, Almagro and Daram.”

Corruption allegations false

Mila, when she first ran for the province’s highest elective office, wafted like a spew of fresh air across the poverty-riddled land of Samar. But Pedro still believes in her. The pedicab driver believes that the accusations of corruption against her congresswoman are all but false. He said “panguba la ito hit iya mga kalaban ha pulitika” (those are just part of the demolition job by Mila’s opponents). “Waray pa man may nakag-pruybar nga tinuod ito nga mga akusasyon, ngan natatagan man ako hit mga Tan nga aada ha posisyon” (Nobody has provided proof to their claims, and after all I benefit from the Tans in position) added Pedro.

Marissa Cabaljao meanwhile said that there is a lot of explaining and massive education that needs to be done in Samar for their only source of information is the government which is under the reign of the Tans. “The responsibility still lies on those who know the issue, those who are enlightened from the Tan family’s lies,” said Cabaljao.

No political opponent has so far significantly defeated the Tan dynasty in elections. Cabaljao believes that the traditional politicians are missing a major point in their quest to topple the Tan dynasty from the province. “Mila’s political opponents seem to think that money is decisive in this electoral battle, but it’s not. What is decisive here is the massive convincing and education among the impoverished people of Samar because whatever the amount of money the Tan family can shower, people will reject it if they have already been educated that they don’t owe their future to any politician, be it a Tan or any other family,” said Cabaljao.

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