Who Was He Again?

Patricio N. Abinales

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Artwork by Josh Cochran

Who was the smuggler Tomas Lianco? A Communist sympathizer? A secret agent of the presidential palace? A petty criminal?

“In the smuggling game, everybody is a suspect.” (F.V. Tutay, “The smuggling racket: Suspicion,” The Philippine Free Press, August 10, 1963, pp. 7)


On January 18, 1950, military operatives announced the arrest of the “Chinaman” Tomas Lianco, age 41, with residence at 1728 Taft Avenue Extension, Pasay town, Manila. The authorities accused Lianco of being a major player in an elaborate smuggling syndicate with a net worth of P10 million, operating out Manila and Cebu since 1946.  Lianco was caught trying to cash three cheques: a Bank of America cheque worth P300,000, China Banking Corporation cheques worth P200,000, and a Hong Kong and Shanghai bank cheque for P400,000, all suspected of being “goodwill payments” by clients of the syndicate which ran the smuggling of arms to Dutch Papua New Guinea, as well as of undocumented Chinese immigrants to the Philippines.

Lianco’s smuggling network appeared to have had quite a record. In 1949, the syndicate allegedly smuggled personal underclothes valued at P20,000, netting a profit of P100,000. In 1950 it brought in diamonds, textiles, perfumes, diamonds, and even explosives valued at P10,000,000. Three other shipments in the same year of various commodities earned the syndicate a profit of P1,000,000. Complementing their illicit trade, authorities alleged, was an extortion and blackmail racket that brought in at least P40,000 in 1950.

The goods were first purchased in Hong Kong then transported to Sandakan, Borneo, then moved to various islands in the Sulu Archipelago before reaching Cebu and Manila.  The Hong Kong-Sandakan connection was a well-preserved link because these two places were the last bastions of British colonialism and as such traded with each other sans much taxation. But it may also be part of an older network of city ports. Historian Eric Tagliacozzo writes about multiple trading links predating the arrival of Western powers in Southeast Asia These were forced to co-exist with the colonial states, which saw these activities as part of their revenue-generation efforts. When states declared goods illegal (like what the Americans did to opium trade in the Philippines), these network simply went underground and explored alternative sub-routes to escape interdiction. After independence and the emergence of many weak states in Southeast Asia, it was no problem resurrecting old pathways to complement new ones. The Sandakan-Sulu link was one such linkage.

Lianco told interrogators that the smuggling network was run by 32 prominent men and headed by two “Chinese businessmen.” The group worked together with gambling houses and shipping operators in Cebu and Manila to smuggle in not only the goods but also Chinese illegal immigrants. It was well protected, according to Lianco, by an ex-senator, a congressman, a provincial governor, a former city mayor, two police officials, and several secret service agents—all from the province. After receiving intelligence reports that some members of the Cebu Chinese community were plotting to assassinate Lianco, thereby preventing him to reveal the identities of his fellow conspirators, the Philippine Constabulary decided to transfer him to Manila.

It was then that his story took a series of peculiar turns.  Upon reaching Camp Murphy (now Camp Crame), Lianco changed his mind and denied every statement he had made in Cebu.  Then he just shut his mouth.

Things got worse for his prosecutors. The Military Intelligence Services (MIS) told media that it had in its possession a dossier stating that Lianco was a special agent of Malacañang from 1947 to 1949. Using the alias “Tomas Bata,” he supposedly worked under Colonel Augusto Marking, a confidential aide of President Elpidio Quirino. The Immigration Bureau added to the confusion when it also admitted that it had no record of Lianco as a Chinese citizen; he was not in the master list of “aliens” applying for re-entry to the country. The Bureau also disclosed that a November 20, 1949 joint investigation with the Philippine Constabulary on Lianco’s role in the trafficking of undocumented Chinese yielded nothing. The Constabulary, however, disagreed with their Immigration Bureau colleagues, saying it had a file on Lianco in its records office. This confidential information was based on a report of the Constabulary’s interrogations of Lianco in late 1948, July 1949, and March 1951, over his alleged involvement in a number of smuggling cases. The inquiries went nowhere.

But the Constabulary also admitted that the file was not in the records section anymore: It had disappeared. The Constabulary tried to explain the loss by saying that, because he had multiple aliases, it was likely that Lianco had several files, with some sent off to different sections of its intelligence service, including the Foreigners Section. The office now had to track down who were in charge of both the Intelligence and Foreigners sections at the time of Lianco’s interrogation, now under orders from an exasperated Secretary of Defense, Ramon Magsaysay. They came up with four names: Colonel Dominador Mascardo, the former PC intelligence chief, and his former Executive Officer Major Eugenio Hacab; retired Colonel Macario Asistio, another former intelligence chief; and retired Captain Vicente Castelo, who once headed the PC foreigners’ division. Constabulary intelligence invited these officers to share any information regarding the lost documents, but whatever transpired in their “conversations” was not shared with the media.

Complications kept coming. In late January 1953, Constabulary operatives arrested Go Hay, 54 and Lim Kim So, 53, two Chinese businessmen and legal residents of Manila. They tagged Lianco as one of the many spies sent by Communist China to the Philippines. Lianco supposedly approached and told them that they were on the Chinese Communists’ list of anti-Communist businessmen but assured them that something could be done about it under “certain conditions.” Lianco said that he wanted to open a distribution outlet in Manila for Thai rice, and, if they bankrolled the business, their names would disappear from the list. The government thought it now had strong evidence to pin Lianco down. He was not only a smuggler; he was part of a Communist plot to subvert the Philippine government, and to turn the Philippines into a source of war material for the people’s war in China.

Lianco, however, decided that he had enough of these allegations (the two businessmen disappeared from the headlines). On January 29, he his ordered his lawyer to file a habeas corpus petition with the Supreme Court on the grounds of him being illegally detained. In the petition Lianco also denied that he was a smuggler and a Communist.  The hearing brought in witnesses and experts from both sides, but the media was not able to cover these testimonies and cross-examinations for still unexplained reasons. The Supreme Court sided with Lianco and ordered his release.

Lianco’s story was singular because it was one of only two times in post-war Philippines when media and state paid so much attention to a named suspect, who also happened to be Chinese (the other was that of Lim Seng, who was ordered executed by President Ferdinand Marcos in 1972 for allegedly heading a drug syndicate). In other similar incidents, either no names were mentioned, or if they were, their stories were ignored by the media once the arrests were made. Lianco was the opposite: His story was well covered. But as criminal proceedings moved forward, it also turned out that Lianco proved to be an elusive character.

The first government reports tagged him an “alien” involved in an illicit activity that had cost the government as much as nearly half a million in uncollected taxes. At a time when the cash-strapped government was trying to control a currency crisis brought about by free trade, having “aliens” to blame for the predicament was the most convenient way of allaying public fears. Lianco fit the bill: a notorious “alien” who smuggled arms, consumer goods, dollars, drugs, luxury items, and people; who was also a Communist sympathizer helping subversives into the country while sending resources back to the home base, “Red China.”  The state could take away his residency, and he would be removed from the body politic not to return and hector it anymore.

Once his citizenship was proven, however, these accusations could not hold, for Lianco was now a citizen of the Republic, and, with his influence, someone who appeared familiar with the intricate pathways of social and political power. He even had an edge over others because he was fluent in Tagalog (and most likely Cebuano) as well as Chinese Hokkien or Mandarin (which his interrogators and their media lackeys were not). Being a Filipino criminal muddled things further as he would have to be kept “in-house,” where, as had been the case of prominent criminals, he could still run his operations from a jail cell.  With its options becoming more limited, the government had to use the only label that could neutralize his citizenship and still link him with the illicit networks of Asia: They branded him a (Chinese) lackey of Communist China. Government was in effect saying that his citizenship may have saved him from deportation, but it did not necessarily diminish his notoriety as described in the media.

How does one explain this state panic? A possible answer may be found in the type of economic actor Lianco was in the eyes of authorities. He embodied the potency of the smuggler. His influence cut across the interstices and recesses of state and society, and he ran a complex underground network that merged the legal and the illegal, the frontier and the metropolitan centers, and even class and ethnicity; and he had connections with national, provincial, and city politicians, police, military, and Constabulary officials. While his bases were in Cebu and Manila, Lianco had extensive links with illicit enterprises throughout Asia: He partnered with Chinese and Filipino businessmen, Hong Kong suppliers, Borneo middle-men, Muslim couriers, and Filipino and Chinese Communists.

In post-war reportage on smuggling, the Chinese and the Moro, the country’s “least trustworthy” minorities, were always marked the “bad guys.” Understandably so. For both have had a long fraught and often violent relationship with the state and the lowland Filipino/Christian majority—a relationship that many historians claim dates back to the colonial period.  They were two “problems” that had made political consolidation, territorial integration, and social assimilation challenging in the post-war era. With their niche in the domestic economy, the Chinese had near-monopoly control of the retail trade.  The government tried to weaken this hold by passing a Retail Trade Nationalization Act specifically targeted at the Chinese. After the initial furor, this died down.

But it was more problematic if the Chinese was also a smuggler; this time the state had to deal with a double illegality. One was in relation to the illicit sector’s dangerous impact on the political economy, and the second was the political threat that the smuggler-as-Communist posed to the Republic. The Chinese-as-smuggler was not just a member of the lumpen-bourgeoisie; he was also the other whose singular goal was to destroy the nation. He became extremely dangerous once he allied himself with Moros. Residing in in the “dark,” ungovernable southern frontier, Muslims were one of the most unreliable members of the imagined community because of their religion, but, more importantly, because they continue to lie  in places where economic activity was deemed illegal by the state. In the early years of the Republic, Manila had tried to tame and control the southern frontier, but its efforts were met with difficulties because of its limited military capacities (a navy equipped with old and slow-moving ships, an over-extended poorly-armed Constabulary force unable to cover a wide swath of ungovernable terrain, and a customs agency littered with bribable agents). The more it could not catch Muslim smugglers, and the more it could not stop the flow of illicit goods from the south into the bodegas of Chinese businessmen (like Lianco), the more agitated the state became in its pursuit of these “criminal elements.”

Moreover, the Chinese and Moro were not simply fearsome economic partners; they also represented what was morally questionable in society. The Moros resisted integration and refused to admit that Islam was second to Catholicism. In the Chinese case, it was not religion but ideology that made them fearsome; they represented Communism, the feared enemy of a capitalist Philippine state and its ally, American imperialism.

Hence, if ever there was a definitive symbol of the Cold War foe inside the country, it was the Chinese; if there was a figure that could break the fragile stability of the nation-state by refusing integration, it was the Moro.

 Yet this demonization could only go so far. On the one hand, state leaders despised Chinese involvement in the smuggling trade, but they were also well aware of how important they were to the political economy. A newspaper put it well when it described the Chinese as “a population to be feared and controlled under one set of discriminatory laws, but to be engaged for commercial profit under another set altogether.” One can be totally racist about the Chinese, but the bigot still has to buy his soy sauce and cooking oil at the Chinese store. On the other hand, their exclusion in national politics, the powerful sway of their “traditional” elites over them, widespread poverty, and absence of social welfare services (especially public education) had placed the Moros at the lowest end of the totem pole of state threats. Yet they could not simply be wished away into the darkness of the frontier, for to do so would contravene one of the first commitments of the young Republic: national integration. The new state had to show that it cared for all its citizens, and solving the problem of Moro alienation from the nation-state was the only way to do that.

Alas, smuggling with alleged Chinese involvement had completely messed up the plans for national development and cultural integration.

What ever happened to Tomas Lianco after the Supreme Court set him free? Did he return to his legitimate businesses (pursuing the opportunity to import Bangkok rice, for example), or did he simply revert to his main occupation: smuggling? The newspaper reports leave us perplexed. There were news reports of Constabulary and Army intelligence conducting a thorough probe of 60 Chinese businessmen and 10 Filipinos suspected for smuggling on April 11, 1952. But Lianco’s name was not mentioned. Nothing else was heard of him; it was as if his story was just a glitch, albeit unusual, in the larger narrative of post-war smuggling in the country.

Yet this minor story tells us a lot about a bigger tale. It is about how much the economic netherworld is a realm that is extremely difficult to access. Tomas Lianco’s abrupt disappearance underscores the fact that the study of the illicit remains one of the most difficult enterprises to engage in, either as a policy issue, a civil society “concern,” or a dissertation topic.


Literature Consulted


-Teresita Ang-See, The Chinese in the Philippines: problems and perspectives (Manila: Kaisa sa Kaunlaran, 1990).

-Theresa C. Carino, Chinese big business in the Philippines: political leadership and change (Singapore: Times Academic Press, 1998)

-Caroline S. Hau, The Chinese Question: Ethnicity, Nation and Region in and Beyond the Philippines (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2013).

-Eric Tagliacozzo, Secret traders, porous borders: Smuggling and states along the Southeast Asian frontier (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005)

-The Philippine Free Press, 1961, 1963 (various issues)