BONGAO, Tawi-Tawi (MindaNews/16 March)—With the increase in price of gasoline coming from Sabah, Malaysia, several roadside gasoline vendors here have been forced to close shop as tricycle drivers were forced to adjust the fare by P5 to the discomfort of passengers.
Prices of rice and other basic consumer commodities in this town, which for decades sourced an estimated 80 percent of their supply from Sabah, also rose as traders remained wary in plying the route on security concerns given the uncertain situation in the contested region.
“Talagang gipit kami ngayon dahil sa nangyaring gyera sa Sabah (We’re really in a difficult situation nowadays because of the war that erupted in Sabah),” 26-year old James Ladja said Friday, his roadside gasoline store just in front of his house closed for two weeks now.
Before the standoff in Lahad Datu town, Sabah ended violently on March 1 between the followers of Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram and Malaysian security forces, Ladja and his 25-year old wife Emily were not as hard pressed as they are now.
Kiram is pressing the claim that Sabah belongs to the Sultanate of Sulu based on legal and historical evidence.
“We’re earning a profit of P1,500 with the drum of gasoline that would be sold out in just three to four days,” Ladja told MindaNews in Filipino.
Emily, who just gave birth a month ago to another girl, recalled that they used to buy a drum of gasoline containing 200 liters from traders getting the stuff from Sabah at just about P8,000.
The couple was forced to stop buying gasoline and retailing them as the price rose by P4,000 to P12,000 a drum, she lamented.
“Masyado ng mahal (The price has become really expensive),” she said.
Before the conflict in Sabah erupted on March 1, gasoline retailed for P45 per liter and P50 if with an oil additive, tricycle driver Hassan Kadir said.
Referring to the gasoline retailers as “sidewalk” vendors, he said he buys from them the fuel product at P75 per liter and P80 if with an oil additive.
“There’s no other recourse for us tricycle drivers but also to increase the fare by P5 otherwise we would operate on a loss and our families would starve,” Kadir said.
Tricycle is the main mode of transportation in this town that is about an hour away by plane and a day and a half by boat from Zamboanga City, the nearest Philippine urban center.
On the other hand, Bongao is about seven to 24 hours away by boat depending on the location of the town in Sabah.
Aside from the nearness, the Muslim-dominated population here has patronized Malaysian products because they are largely considered halal with Malaysia being an Islamic country.
Ladja, who is also a tricycle driver, appealed for consideration from the commuters on the higher fares they charged, which was not sanctioned by the municipal government.
“There are some who do understand but there are others who cannot. That’s why I have figured in a quarrel with some passengers because they would not pay the additional fare,” he said
Tricycle fare rates would only go back to their previous rates once the prices of gasoline would return to their old self, he said.
“When that would be hinges on the situation in Sabah that we hope would soon be resolved so that the trade link can resume on the normal level,” Ladja added.
He said that gasoline supply still comes into town from those small traders who dare risk travel to Sabah, but the problem was that they sell it at high prices.
Based on the records of the Department of Trade and Industry here, the two gasoline stations operating in this town by the country’s oil companies, there was at least 14,000 liters of ordinary and special gasoline supplies as of March 12.
The estimated daily gasoline consumption in the town mostly by tricycle operators is at least 1,800 liters, the DTI data showed.
Prices in the two gasoline stations were monitored by the DTI to range now from P62 to P68 per liter.
All the rest of the gasoline stores vending on sidewalks are considered illegal since they source their supply from Malaysia. This has become an acceptable practice and never curbed by the local government since this is the “kalakaran” (way things have been going) since the past, many residents would say.
Danny Coyoca, who lives about four kilometers away from the town proper, resented the increase in fare and prices of basic commodities in the town.
“We’re affected. From my place, I would use to pay only P15 but now the tricycle drivers would charge P20,” he told MindaNews.
Before the Sabah crisis surfaced, Coyoca was able to buy a 25-kilogram sack of the Sunrise Triple A brand from Sabah at P640 to P650.
“Last week the family ran out of supply and I bought a sack at P960,” Coyoca said, describing the situation as “depressing” since he earns just P5,300 a month as a resort worker to feed his four-member household.
He could only wonder about the supposed more difficult situation facing the island-municipalities in the province that get their supplies from Bongao.
At DM cafeteria in the public market here, owner Hadja Morada Mahamod-Nebre discussed how she is managing the situation with the increase in prices of consumer goods.
“I have not yet increased the price of our menu. What I do is reduced the serving,” she told MindaNews.
Among the goods that Nebre identified to have increased were rice, flour and cooking oil.
Nebre said they felt the impact of the Sabah crisis on the economy three days after the conflict erupted.
She claimed there could be traders who are taking advantage of the situation by increasing the prices of supply that they have accumulated even before the Sabah crisis erupted.
Al Padtta, who owns a small grocery store at the public market, said he increased the prices of selected consumer goods from Sabah like rice because suppliers have been selling them higher.
“The bottom line of the situation here is that consumers have become pitiful. Most of the people here are poor and working as fishermen, construction laborers…those without regular jobs,” he told MindaNews.
Hamad Abubakar, DTI senior trade and industry development specialist, said they have been monitoring on a daily basis since March 4 the prices of gasoline and other basic commodities.
“Indeed there were upward movements in prices of basic commodities from Sabah, especially the gasoline,” he told MindaNews.
He said the local government unit has yet to convene the Local Price Coordinating Council to address the spike in prices of consumer goods from Sabah.
Last Tuesday, Acting Gov. Mujiv Hataman of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao and Tawi-Tawi Gov. Sadikul Sahali convened a meeting for the imposition of price control in the area.
There is still no government price control here because the council has yet to convene, Abubakar noted.
The council can only convene once there is a declaration of a state of calamity, which the local government unit has not done so far, he said. (Bong S. Sarmiento/MindaNews)