HONG KONG – The bloody hostage crisis in Manila that left eight Hong Kong tourists dead has generated sorrow and anger in this former British colony as protests grew over the handling of the siege.
Flags on government buildings flew at half-mast in mourning for the victims, who were part of a Hong Kong tour group, and the stock exchange paused for a minute’s silence at the start of yesterday’s trading.
The Chinese government also demanded answers from the Philippines and an explanation for its failure to resolve the crisis that led to Monday’s bloodbath.
Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said his government was “appalled” and telephoned his Philippine counterpart Alberto Romulo to voice concern.
“The Chinese government demands the Philippine government launch a thorough investigation into the incident and inform the Chinese side of related details as soon as possible,” Yang said.
In a separate statement, Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said China had already sent a team to Manila to deal with the aftermath of the tragedy.
“China has requested the Philippine side to take pragmatic measures to ensure life and property safety of Chinese nationals in the country,” he said.
As Hong Kong residents expressed outrage over the hostage incident, newspapers in the Chinese territory accused the Manila police of incompetence in resolving the standoff.
“The Philippines is one of the most chaotic countries in Southeast Asia,” said the Chinese newspaper People’s Daily. “A culture of colonization, autocracy and rapid changes in government have created all sorts of curious grievances in this country.”
Dismissed senior inspector Rolando Mendoza, armed with a M16 assault rifle and a pistol, seized the busload of 21 Hong Kong tourists and four Filipino guides to demand his reinstatement in the force.
The ordeal ended in bloodshed on live TV with police storming the bus and killing Mendoza after he had fired at the tourists, killing eight of them.
“Filipino police incompetent,” Hong Kong’s Ming Pao Daily News said in a front-page headline.
“Clearly, if local police used more decisive and professional rescue methods, maybe the bloody tragedy could have been avoided,” the Hong Kong Economic Journal said in an editorial yesterday.
The South China Morning Post called the killings “a wake-up call” for the Philippines to boost security and take gun-control measures.
At the Philippine Consulate in Hong Kong, a wealthy former British colony unaccustomed to violence, several dozen protesters chanted: “Strongly condemn the Philippine government for being careless about human life!”
A steady stream of protestors organized by political and civic groups marched to Hong Kong’s Philippine consulate – where police numbers were stepped up – to vent their anger over Monday’s events.
“We are very angry about how the Philippine government handled this case,” said Alex Tou, head of the Kowloon Federation of Associations, who led one group of 40 shouting demonstrators.
The Hong Kong government raised a “black” travel alert for the Philippines, urging against all travel to one of Southeast Asia’s most popular tourist spots.
“We demand that the Philippine authorities conduct a detailed and comprehensive investigation on the incident. They must provide a full account to us as soon as possible,” chief executive Donald Tsang said.
He also urged all Hong Kong tour groups in the Philippines to return home.
Hong Kong’s Liberal Party also expressed outrage over the incident.
“We are here to express our feelings, not only of the Liberal Party, but the people of Hong Kong. We condemn the Philippine government for letting this (hostage) incident happen. We are totally furious. This is the feeling of the Hong Kong people. We think that the event was handled unprofessionally,” said Victor Fang, legislative councilor of the Liberal Party.
The Liberal Party was among the groups that picketed the Philippine consular office in Hong Kong expressing their outrage over the incident.
Consul general Claro Cristobal said they had been swamped by protests since the crisis broke Monday morning.
Cristobal told a radio interview that even the email accounts of Philippine tourism representatives were swamped with messages from persons angry over the incident.
He said consulate general offices received several calls since Monday night, all demanding justice for the victims of the bloody standoff.
“Since Monday night, we have received all forms of communication and protests from various sectors of the Hong Kong community. They want our country to pay for the expenses of the victims’ families still in Manila,” he said.
Damage control measures
The Philippine government, on the other hand, defended its handling of the bloody hostage crisis.
President Aquino, faced with his first major crisis since taking office in June, said the incident showed the need for more police training and better equipment.
“How can I be satisfied when there were people who died?” Mr. Aquino told reporters in the midnight hours after the hostage incident.
The President said he would be sending a “high-level delegation” to Hong Kong to explain how Monday’s hijack crisis in Manila resulted in the deaths of eight Hong Kong tourists.
Vice President Jejomar Binay said he had been tasked by Mr. Aquino to lead the delegation to Beijing and explain the incident to Chinese government officials.
Binay met Chinese Ambassador Liu Jianchao at the airport in Manila and relayed the condolences of the Philippine government over the deaths of the tourists.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romulo added he was instructed to get in touch with his Chinese counterpart and relay Mr. Aquino’s message of condolence.
Communications Secretary Ricky Carandang said they are also concerned over reports of retaliatory actions against Filipino workers in Hong Kong following the hostage crisis.
Carandang told reporters there were already “anecdotal” reports about retaliatory actions against Filipinos working in Hong Kong.
But Carandang said there were no verified reports of actual physical threats against Filipinos.
Dolores Balladares, chair of the United Filipinos in Hong Kong, said they had heard a similar story about the sacking of a Filipino maid and were trying to verify it.
Balladares said they were concerned that Hong Kong’s growing outrage towards the Philippine government would affect the livelihood of the 150,000 Filipinos, most of whom work as domestic helpers in the financial hub.
“I hope there will be no backlash against the Filipino community in Hong Kong. No one wanted this tragedy,” she said.
She said Filipino groups in Hong Kong would hold a press conference today to express their concern over the tension and pass their condolences to the victims of the hostage crisis.
In Manila, the flag fronting the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) building was flown at half-mast in mourning for the eight Hong Kong tourists killed during the hostage crisis.
The Philippine National Police (PNP) also defended their action but promised to review all events leading to the deaths.
“There will be an internal audit. We will look at whether what we did was right,” PNP spokesman Chief Superintendent Agrimero Cruz said.
“Of course what happened was far from ideal. Nevertheless, we are congratulating our personnel because despite the lack of equipment... they risked life and limb,” Cruz said.
Television showed some police commandos lacked helmets and appropriate communication equipment, and the team had no ladder vehicle to help climb aboard the seized bus while storming it – shortcomings that, according to security experts, hampered a speedy response.
Security experts were baffled and angered by the Philippines’ handling of a hostage crisis in which a lone gunman was able to monitor ill-coordinated police operations live on television.
“The fact that there was essentially live video was mistake number one,” said assistant professor John Harrison, a homeland security analyst at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
Harrison said there should have been a media blackout to deny the hijacker feedback on what was going on around him.
Instead, he was able to follow events – including frenzied speculation by serving and former police chiefs appearing on Philippine networks – via the bus’s internal TV.
Hong Kong newspapers bemoaned missed opportunities by the Manila police to end the siege much earlier, including a moment when the gunman waved from the bus door.
Dennis Wong Sing Wing, an associate professor of applied social studies at City University in Hong Kong, said the police operation was “really shocking” to watch as it unfolded live on TV.
“I am very angry about their unprofessional performance,” he said. “They are indirectly responsible for the deaths of the Hong Kong people.”
Wong said the policemen assigned to end the hostage taking appeared to lack modern weapons and communication equipment, and as a result were hesitant to attack the gunman, who was armed with an M16 assault rifle.
Wong criticized the negotiating tactics employed by police, saying they failed to calm the hostage-taker down and hear him out.
A retired Philippine military official who wrote a counter-terrorism manual and now runs a security consultancy said the police had enough expertise and equipment to deal with such an incident, but they were not put to use.
“We have everything, except the execution was poorly done,” he said, declining to be named.
He was critical of the stop-go negotiations and “tentative” assault launched after gunshots rang out from inside the bus, adding that the police should have disabled the TV monitor early on.
“Contact (by negotiators) should have been constant. It’s the talking that does a lot,” he said.
“When you order an assault, it has to be an assault. There is no such thing as a tentative assault,” he said. “If 10 policemen have to die, they have to die in that assault.”
The retired official believed many of the policemen on the scene, some of them seen crouching without any body armor behind patrol cars, did not appear to be fully trained Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) personnel.
“They just put helmets on certain people,” he remarked.
Trial judge Jaime Santiago, a former SWAT officer, told ABS-CBN that police failed to impose crowd control in the hostage site and panicked after hearing gunshots from the bus.
“They should have put a tactical force, SWAT snipers and an assault team on standby during the negotiation so that if the hostage-taker started harming people, they would act,” Santiago added.
Santiago noted the failure of the police team to react properly after the negotiations went haywire.
As negotiations got underway where the bus was parked, the outcome at first looked promising with Mendoza freeing nine hostages.
Then the situation unraveled. Mendoza demanded a signed promise from the Ombudsman that his case would be reviewed, but its delivery was delayed for hours, partly by Manila’s notorious traffic, and when it finally arrived he rejected it as insufficient.
Police made an initial attempt to board the bus after Mendoza grew agitated while talking to his brother.
The Filipino bus driver later managed to escape and reported that Mendoza had fired at the tourists. Mendoza was then shot in the head, police lobbed tear gas into the bus and commandos stormed the vehicle by smashing windows and the backdoor with sledgehammers.
Police managed to rescue eight passengers during the ordeal, many of them wounded and one of whom later died in hospital. Mendoza and seven passengers were lying dead, one of them slumped on the bus steps.
“I hid under a seat (when the gunman started to fire),” Wang Zhuoyao, 15, told reporters from a hospital bed.
“Then the police dispersed gas. People in the bus were struggling. I could hear that many people couldn’t breathe.”
A freed hostage who gave only her surname, Ng, told Hong Kong reporters that she saw her husband killed by Mendoza after he tried to subdue the gunman.
“He was very brave. He rushed forward from the back of the bus. He wanted to prevent the gunman from killing people. He sacrificed himself,” she said.
She said that Mendoza at first “did not want to kill us, but since the negotiation failed, he shot to kill people.” –