Lessons yet to be learned | Inquirer Opinion
Editorial

Lessons yet to be learned

/ 12:25 AM April 26, 2014

Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada, Cabinet Secretary Rene Almendras and Philippine National Police Director General Alan Purisima all deserve congratulations for the successful resolution of the long-festering row between the Philippines and Hong Kong arising from the August 2010 Rizal Park hostage crisis. Any way you look at it, the easing of the tension between the two governments—after the expression of the Philippines’ “most sorrowful regret and profound sympathy” over the botched police rescue that led to the death of eight Hong Kong tourists and the injury of others—is a welcome development.

The wording fell short of the formal apology that Hong Kong Chief Executive CY Leung had long demanded from President Aquino, but apparently, the letter that Purisima wrote to the victims and/or their families convinced them as well as Hong Kong’s officials of the sincerity of the Philippines’ position. Estrada did his part: He carried to Hong Kong two resolutions by Manila’s city council reiterating the city’s own apology and declaring that Aug. 23 will henceforth be observed as a day of prayer for those whose lives were lost in the tragedy.

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That last bit is the kind of sympathetic gesture that was the least the Philippine government could have done in the immediate aftermath of the hostage crisis, pending the inquiry into official liability in the incident that was demanded by Hong Kong. Instead, in what was among the first of a number of blunders by the then fledgling Aquino administration, the President and a number of his officials were seen inspecting the bloody tourist bus and inadvertently turning the scene of the crime into a ghoulish attraction. Police and other officials could not or did not prevent a horde of kibitzers from following suit and even taking turns posing for pictures by the bus. The insensitive, indeed crass, photographs eventually ended up on social media, sparking even more outrage among the people of Hong Kong.

The tension could have been defused at the outset had Malacañang led the nation in a day of sympathy for and commiseration with the victims and, more importantly, quickly held liable those responsible for the bungled rescue attempt. Malacañang appointed Justice Secretary Leila de Lima and then Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo (since deceased) to lead an “incident and review committee” to look into the tragedy. It promised that heads would roll and appropriate administrative and criminal sanctions would be filed against government officials found negligent or liable.

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After hearing from more than 20 people over five days of hearings, the committee came out swinging in its 83-page report. It recommended that 12 people be held accountable for the tragedy, including then Mayor Alfredo Lim, then Interior Undersecretary Rico Puno, then PNP chief Jesus Verzosa, Manila Vice Mayor Isko Moreno, and even broadcasters Michael Rogas, Erwin Tulfo and the manager of radio station dzXL for their attempt to conduct their own unauthorized negotiations with the hostage-taker at the height of the crisis.

As a gesture of appeasement, the entire report was turned over to the Chinese ambassador. But, in a surprise move, Malacañang disclosed only 53 pages of the report to the Filipino public and then formed a team to go over De Lima and Robredo’s findings. Puno, Verzosa and Moreno were subsequently absolved of any fault, and minor administrative charges were recommended against Lim and four police officials. The opportunity to impose real accountability for the massive law-enforcement blunder that embarrassed the Philippines before the world was watered down and rendered toothless.

Among the announcements made by the Philippine government in its recent joint statement with Hong Kong was that punishment had been meted out for the failed rescue, with three senior police officers reportedly demoted and the brother of the hostage-taker, who was involved in his own side drama during the 11-hour hostage-taking, dismissed from service.

Despite the mended rift, no real lessons will be learned from the August 2010 hostage crisis unless public officials—especially those enjoying the President’s confidence—are strictly held to account for sleeping on the job.

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TAGS: Editorial, Hong Kong, Joseph Estrada, Manila hostage crisis, opinion, Philippine National Police Director General Alan Purisima, Philippines, Rene Almendras
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