When micro-management works: Aquino and the rescue of the Zamboanga hostages
The Zamboanga siege is undoubtedly a tragedy. But amidst the darkness, there were some points of light. The saving of some 190 hostages was one of them.
Perhaps the key reason for this was President Aquino’s placing a priority on bringing them to safety. Shortly after he arrived in Zamboanga to supervise the effort to retake those parts of the city seized by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) force headed by a Commander Malik, he declared, “There’s a thin line that can’t be crossed, putting civilians’ lives at risk…When that line is crossed, I will be forced to not only show, but use the full force of the state.”
I thought this was the usual pro-forma statement against hostage-taking by a head of state. I was disabused of this notion in the next few days.
On Sept 18, I received a frantic call for help from contacts in Zamboanga City seeking help for a frail elderly couple, James and Luisita West, who had been taken hostage by the MNLF. I tried to get hold of several officials, including Philippine National Police (PNP) officers on the frontlines, but all they could promise was to call me if they were able to track down the hostages. Then I remembered that I had the president’s cell number and that he was on the ground in Zamboanga. I sent the number a text asking for help for the couple, not expecting any response. To my surprise, the president texted back, asking for details, including landmarks near the place where the Wests were being held. I texted back: “31 Lustre Street, green gate, with a parrot, in front of the Lustre baranggay Hall.” Little did I know then that the West’s residence had become the MNLF headquarters, where they had herded many hostages. Mr. Aquino promised his best effort to get the hostages released.
Over the next few days, the president and his aides gave me updates on the rescue efforts. On Sept 23, his close-in aide informed me that the Lustre Street residence had been retaken, but that it was empty. Then on the evening of Sept 24, Mr. Aquino called me saying his aides had informed him that a couple had been rescued and that the woman’s name was Luisita West. They were still unsure of the man’s identity, however. I communicated this immediately to the relatives of the hostages. Their relief, however, was short-lived: the next morning I received a text from Mr. Aquino saying, “Prof, my sincerest apologies, Our security forces corrected yesterday’s report of the West rescue. They mistakenly identified one of the females rescued as Luisita West. This error was discovered when I asked for details.”
The next day, however, I received a call from one of the president’s security aides that James and Luisita West had definitely been rescued, a fact that was confirmed a few hours late by the president himself. Next day, I read an account of the rescue in the Philippine Daily Inquirer: “A junior officer is now fighting for his life after helping rescue an elderly couple on Martha Drive in Santa Catalina here on Tuesday night. First Lieutenant Ian Paquit of the Light Reaction Company is now in critical condition after he was shot in the throat and legs while rescuing James West and his wife, Lucy, both in their 60s. City Councilor BG Guingona said the couple was rescued around 6 p.m. ‘James is okay and active. Lucy is dehydrated,’ Guingona said.” Two days later, I read that Lt. Paquit was declared in “stable condition.”
When I gave the president the message of thanks from the West’s relatives for Paquit’s heroic act, he said, “All will be duly recognized.”
There will be debates about the Zamboanga debacle in the days and weeks to come. One of the issues will be over the president’s role. Was he at fault for not pressing his aides to make a greater effort to bring the MNLF into the peace process, or was Nur Misuari’s desperate attack something that was out of his control? Did his being on the ground contribute to or hinder a quick resolution to the crisis?
One thing will, however, be subject of little debate: that his hands-on management of the government’s response to the MNLF attack was what led to the saving of the lives of the 190 hostages. The Zamboanga tragedy could have been much worse had he not been on the ground closely supervising military operations that put a premium on rescuing the hostages while ensuring their safety in the process. This went to the extent of micro-managing the rescue of the hostages. If this is example of micro-management, then let’s have more of it not only in hostage rescue but in all other areas demanding presidential leadership.
*INQUIRER.net columnist Walden Bello represents Akbayan (Citizens’ Action Party) in the House of Representatives.
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