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AFP contradicts PNP on Maute presence in Metro Manila

MANILA – The Philippine military said it has not monitored the presence of Maute Group members in Metro Manila, contradicting claims made by the police that the local terrorist group based in Central Mindanao has penetrated the country's capital.
"Insofar as the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) is concerned, wala tayong na-monitor na members ng Maute Group dito sa Metro Manila (we have not monitored the presence of Maute Group members here in Metro Manila)," said AFP Public Affairs Office chief Colonel Edgard Arevalo on Tuesday, March 21.
The police said they found an improvised explosive device (IED) at a residence in Barangay Culiat in Quezon City, where they believe the Maute Group members behind the foiled attempt against the United States embassy in November 2016 have been hiding.
The target was a suspected "Maute Group ally", a certain Jamil Baja Tawil who has an outstanding warrant for illegal possession of firearms. He was not in the house so the owner, Nasip Ibrahim, was instead arrested for allegedly coddling the terrorists.
"Whether they are supporters or members of Maute Group themselves, it is up to the PNP to make an assessment and we respect it," Arevalo added.
The military is also involved in the investigation of the foiled bombing at the US embassy. "Kung mayroon man na-involve sa foiled bomb attack, ito ay nandoon na ulit sa Mindanao," said Arevalo. (If there are members who were involved in the foiled bomb attack, they are already back in Mindanao.)
The military has been fighting the local terrorist group in Central Mindanao and closely monitoring its movements.
The AFP's aim is to significantly weaken the group by June 2017, its self-imposed target.
Arevalo said the military is always on alert and closely coordinating with the police. – Rappler.com

BIR files P9.56-B tax evasion case vs Mighty Corp

MANILA – The Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) has filed a P9.564-billion tax evasion complaint against cigarette firm Mighty Corporation and its executives for allegedly using fake stamps on their products to dodge excise tax payment.
BIR Public Information Chief Reymarie Dela Cruz confirmed that the agency filed the complaint before the Department of Justice (DOJ) Wednesday morning, March 22.
The complaint is filed against Mighty, together with its officers: retired general Edilberto Adan, president; retired judge Oscar Barrientos, executive vice president; Alexander Wongchuking, vice president for external affairs and assistant corporate secretary; and Ernesto Victa, treasurer.
The BIR said the complaint is based on "Unlawful Possession of Articles Subject to Excise Tax without Payment of the Tax, and for Possessing False, Counterfeit, Restored or Altered Stamps, in violation of Sections 263 and 265(c) of the National Internal Revenue Code of 1997, as amended (Tax Code)."
The complaint was filed following raids of the Bureau of Customs, BIR personnel, and local police on Mighty's warehouses in Sad Isidro, Pampanga yielding billions of pesos worth of cigarettes with fake stamps.
Mighty promised to cooperate with the government.
“The company welcomes the filing by the BIR of the complaint as it provides us an opportunity to clear our names and show we violated no tax laws,” Mighty's legal counsel, Sigfried Fortun, told Rappler in a text message.
Fake tax stamps
The BIR noted that the only Mighty production plant registered with the bureau is the one in Barangay Tikay in Malolos, Bulacan.
It was then discovered that 4 warehouses at the San Simon Industrial Park (SSIP) in San Isidro, Pampanga were being leased to Mighty.
BIR personnel inspected the Pampanga warehouses and random tested 10 master cases of cigarettes. BIR personnel declared the tax stamps on all 10 cases as fake.
After an inventory of all 66,281 master cases, the BIR found that 87.5% of the total 33,140,500 packs of cigarettes had fake tax stamps.
"The stamps are fake since they did not contain one of the multi-layered security features of a valid internal revenue stamp," the BIR said in a statement.
BIR also noted that because the Malolos warehouse was the only one registered with the BIR, tax stamps should have been affixed on the cigarettes inside the Malolos warehouse premises.
"They were not affixed at the production plant of Mighty Corporation in Barangay Tikay, Malolos, Bulacan as required by law since no official delivery receipts for the SSIP warehouses were presented by the respondent," the BIR said.
Duterte offer
The BIR pursued the case even after Mighty owner Alexander Wongchuking took the offer of President Rodrigo Duterte to pay the government P3 billion, which is "double" the P1.5 billion worth of Mighty cigarettes found with fake stamps.
Duterte threw the challenge to Wongchuking on March 9, and said in a media interview that if the businessman agreed, he would "forget about the printing of P1.5 billion worth of fake stamps."
Wongchuking wrote the Office of the President a week later to inform the Chief Executive that he was ready to settle for P3 billion – P1 billion up front, and the rest to be paid on instalment.
The amount of taxes Mighty allegedly owes the government, however, is more than thrice as much.
The President had earlier ordered the arrest of the Mighty owner for alleged "economic sabotage."
The President's directive, however, was not carried out then as there were no pending charges against Wongchuking. Instead, Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II issued Immigration Lookout Bulletin Orders against Wongchuking and his brother, Caesar.
Mighty had denied the use of fake tax stamps, and alleged that based on its own check, the BIR used "faulty" machines during its raids.
The case against Mighty is the ninth case filed by the BIR since it started its Run After Tax Evaders (RATE) program when BIR Commissioner Caesar Dulay took office. – Rappler.com

PH trade looking bright despite headlines

MANILA – Despite all the headlines about extrajudicial killings in the Philippines, foreign direct investments (FDI) last year was up by 40.7% – hitting $7.9 billion – compared to 2015.
What’s more, Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez pointed out, while the bulk of the improvement came in the first half of the year at the twilight of former president Benigno Aquino III’s term, robust FDI also remained from June to December under the President Rodrigo Duterte.
“They’re all applying to enter the Philippine market. The trust is there," Lopez told Rappler recently.
The Duterte administration is battling criticism here and abroad for some controversial policies such as the war on drugs and the drive to reimpose the death penalty – issues that its Western partners have questioned.
A Philippine lawmaker reiterated the threat that the European Union could remove the Philippines from its GSP+ recipients following the push to reimpose death penalty.
Lopez downplayed these concerns, noting that the government has been "in discussion with [the US and EU] and we’re simply telling them look just continue to engage with the Philippines."
Otherwise, he added, "it gives us more reason to talk to other countries that are also eager [to trade].”
He acknowledged, however, that the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) had to reassure investors following the President’s tough anti-US and EU remarks.
“This pivot to China does not mean that we will forget the west. To understand the President, you have to understand that he wants what’s good for the Filipino people. Investment is good for the Philippines because it creates jobs, so definitely he won’t scare away investors from the US or EU or even China,” he said.
Death penalty is a long shot
Lopez also reiterated the government’s stance that so far, accusations linking the government to extrajudicial killings have not been proven.
“Our appeal to them is please don’t jump to conclusions basing it on some newspaper reports out there. If you want (to do that) you have to conduct your own investigation,” he said.
On the death penalty, Lopez noted that the law has not been passed anyway. “I’m sure there will still be a lot of legal challenges to it and for all we know it could take 10 years before it even comes into effect," Lopez said.
“It's so difficult for them [EU] just to remove [the GS+] based on something that isn’t yet happening,” he added.
Good numbers
Despite this, Lopez is happy with what he's seeing on the trade front. "We’re looking at the numbers and we don’t know where the concern is coming from,” the DTI chief said.
Lopez said the administration has opened new doors in the region’s new giant, China, adding in particular that a $1.7 billion trade purchase agreement had just been signed on the day of his Rappler interview.
“It's like a purchase order coming from different [Chinese] firms and that’s only because the Chinese market has really opened up to Philippine products and that’s because of the tremendous goodwill generated by President Duterte when he visited China,” he explained.
This goes along with the additional billions of dollars in investments China has pledged to pour into the government’s infrastructure program.
That goodwill has boosted tourism, with tourist arrivals up 76.46% or 85,948 people in January this year, based on data from the Department of Tourism, according to Lopez.
The trade chief expressed confidence that this is just the tip of the iceberg. The administration is targeting 1 million Chinese tourist arrivals this year following the recent lifting of a travel advisory against the Philippines by the Chinese government.
This will benefit SMEs, as rentals, restaurants, agricultural products, and souvernis are all SME-oriented, the trade chief added.
“The challenge now is to build more hotel rooms and other infrastructure to accommodate that boom. But the government infra push is pulling that…We’re very bullish on tourism and trade,” Lopez said.
Balancing act
The DTI head pointed out that the county is in a good position to take advantage of the 600-million market in ASEAN. It's a market that could potentially expand to 3.5 billion with the ongoing Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) talks that include both China and India.
“When you look the Philippines, about 75% of our exports enjoy Generalized System of Privileges GSP [with the US] while two thirds of our exports to the EU enjoy GSP+, which means that the tariff rates are 0 and therefore locating in the PH will give [investor] easier access for their projects,” Lopez said.
Beyond dealing with negative perceptions, the trade chief will also have to carefully balance maintaining industry competitiveness with improving the livelihood of individual workers.
The government’s centerpiece reform is the comprehensive tax reform, which is being debated in Congress and aims to lower income tax for the majority of the population as well as corporations.
Doing this will lower much-needed government revenue so the reform includes tapping more revenue-generating programs, one of which is raising excise tax on new vehicles.
But the measure is seen by auto manufacturers as potentially hampering the local auto industry.
This is a concern for trade as one of its main incentive programs, CARS, specifically targets the resurgence of the automotive industry in the country.
“We believe and fully support the tax reform program because that is really something that will correct the current structure. Reducing the income tax for both individuals and corporates will yield more net gain [for both] to be brought back either through investment, R&D or innovation,” Lopez said.
Lopez said that while there were initial concerns, the Department of Finance (DOF) has since adjusted auto tax brackets and they are now consistent with the DTI’s CARS program.
Lopez also pointed out that the new rates are progressive in the sense that the majority of the burden now falls on luxury cars which he believes won’t be drastically affected since buyers in that segment are not price sensitive.
“The bottom line is that for cheaper cars and especially for cars that will be produced here, there will be minimal change in the effective tax rate and price rate… many of the higher-end cars are not manufactured here anyway so it’s not creating employment,” he said.
Protecting workers and cost
The DTI has also been working out a scheme that will give workers more security by ending the much maligned ”endo” system while at the same time allowing firms to manage their costs.
“Our priority here is to still to improve the tenure of workers so what we are simply saying is that [the key] is in the business model. Instead of hiring regular in the principal company, hire regular in the contractor instead,” Lopez said.
The new plan involves contractor firms that serve the personnel needs of principal firms hiring regular employees and crucially, making them permanent.
This way, if the contractor ends a contract with a principal firm, it is then the contractor's responsibility to find another firm to place its workers in.
This is important, Lopez noted, because what usually happens is that workers are let go once a contract ends between a contractor and a principal firm.
The new scheme will also include a grace period of around 3 months before the workers can be let go by contractors, but they will need to be let go with severance packages or retirement benefits.
“That is our stance and has to be in a department order (DO) issued by DOLE. The President simply remanded the DO to be reviewed further to give time for consultations with various stakeholders,” Lopez said. – Rappler.com

Tourism chief asks Robredo, media to 'tone down' statements on killings

BANGKOK, Thailand – Tourism Secretary Wanda Teo appealed to Vice President Leni Robredo and the media to "tone down" in its reporting of extrajudicial killings to make it easier for her to promote Philippine tourism.
"I have a great respect for VP (Vice President) Leni. Philippines is now becoming an alternate destination in Asia and Europe. Eh 'yung mga statements na ganoon, nahihirapan kami i-sell ang Philippines," said Teo on Wednesday, March 22.
(Statements like that make it hard for us to sell the Philippines.)
She was speaking at a press conference in Bangkok, Thailand, on the last day of President Rodrigo Duterte's official visit here.
"This does not only refer to VP Leni but also to media. Medyo i-tone down natin 'yung EJK (Let's tone down on statements on extrajudicial killings) because I'm always asked wherever I go, even in Asia and Europe, 'totoo ba ito?' (is this true?) and I would say it's safe in the Philippines and I would always ask them to come," she added.
Teo had been asked if Robredo's video message for a United Nations meeting, where she spoke of summary killings being linked to the drug war, has affected the country's tourism industry.
She said the effect can be seen in how tour operators from various countries have asked her if it's safe to travel to the Philippines.
Thus, Teo said it would help if media and officials like Robredo softened their statements on the summary killings of suspected drug personalities.
"I hope those statements can be toned down because we are having a hard time selling the Philippines. Just help us sell the Philippines," said Teo in a mix of English and Filipino.
The Tourism Secretary admitted, however, that there has actually been an increase in tourists travelling to the Philippines.
"Inspite of that, I still see that we have more tourists coming to the Philippines, especially in China, Europe, and Asia," she said.
The Duterte administration's drug war has so far been linked to the deaths of over 7,000 persons. Of this, some 2,500 are suspected drug personalities killed in police operations while 3,600 are victims in cases of "deaths under investigation."
The Philippine police says it has finished investigating the deaths of 922 individuals. – Rappler.com

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