President Benigno Aquino III on Friday received a rude shock from the first hearing of a Malacañang committee investigating the bloody climax of the Aug. 23 hostage crisis at Luneta, forcing him to immediately reassert control of the Philippine National Police.
Friday’s hearing of the presidential fact-finding committee chaired by Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, and the one that followed on Saturday, unfolded a national leadership vacuum in responding to the hostage-taking that left eight of 22 Hong Kong tourists dead in a bungled police rescue action.
The hearings also revealed the Aquino administration coming unstuck by frictions between the national crisis management committee and the local crisis committee, the latter taking orders from Manila City officials led by Mayor Alfredo Lim.
Both hearings revealed that Mr. Aquino, who had been mostly invisible at the height of the crisis, had only marginal influence in making strategic decisions to end the crisis and had lost control of the situation and of the crisis management committees, as well as the key Department of Interior and Local Government, as officials of the national government, Manila city government and police units squabbled over jurisdictional issues and over tactical approaches to rescue the hostages.
In the midst of this administrative chaos, Mr. Aquino on Saturday announced that he was temporarily taking over supervision of the PNP from the DILG headed by Secretary Jesse Robredo. Mr. Aquino also announced “full responsibility” for the rescue fiasco, saying that “at the end of the day, I am responsible for everything that has transpired.”
The crisis pushed the Aquino administration close to an early Cabinet shake-up as public calls mounted for dismissal of a number of senior officials with ministerial responsibility over the police.
The heat is centered on Robredo, who faces threats from members of the Commission on Appointments of Congress that his appointment to the Cabinet might not get the commission’s confirmation.
The tensions between Manila officials and the national government were revealed by Manila Vice Mayor Isko Moreno. He testified on Saturday before the fact-finding committee that the local crisis committee appeared to have abandoned the hostage crisis at its most crucial hours. He said he left the local committee’s command post at Manila’s Rizal Park after Mayor Alfredo Lim had departed.
Government in disarray
The first committee hearing had more damning results in picturing the Aquino administration’s disarray in responding to the crisis.
As early as July, when the President appointed Robredo as head of the DILG, he had stripped him of his supervisory powers over the PNP.
Mr. Aquino directed Robredo to concentrate on providing social services, while delegating the task of supervising the police to Interior Undersecretary Rico E. Puno, who had no experience in police supervision.
Robredo has been under fire for having failed to provide leadership in resolving the crisis. At the hearing, Robredo said he was left “out of the loop” in the effort to rescue the hostages.
Puno had earlier been designated by the President to handle police matters. This early carve-up of powers of the DILG led to the paralysis of the department when the crisis broke out.
At Friday’s hearing, Puno revealed he had only a blurred understanding of his functions and responsibilities as deputy of Robredo, under the delineation defined by Mr. Aquino.
In reply to questions by committee members, Puno described the 11-hour Luneta standoff as a “local hostage-taking situation,” that could be handled by the police district director and the city mayor.
In defining the hostage-taking as a “local” situation, Puno sought to shift the responsibility of the bungled rescue to the local crisis management committee from the national crisis committee.
Puno was not sure whether the national crisis committee or the local committee had jurisdiction.
Asked whether it occurred to him that the majority of the hostages were foreign nationals, and in the light of this fact, he would consider the event as national crisis that would give jurisdiction to the national crisis committee, he said, “No, sir.”
Puno also said he was not aware of the international implications of the crisis in which hostages were foreign nationals.
He further said while the national crisis committee did not consider the international ramifications of the crisis, the committee was on standby and was prepared to take over in case it was elevated to a national crisis. “It was the local crisis committee’s call,” Puno said.
De Lima was disturbed by the assessment. “The mind-set was this was a local incident,” she said.
This perspective influenced the level of response to the crisis.
Suggestions of cronyism
Eyebrows were raised when Puno admitted he was not trained to handle hostage situations. “I am not capable of handling hostage situations,” he said. “I am not trained to do that.”
This raised questions: If he had no experience and training on hostage situations, what was the basis of the President’s decision to designate Puno as DILG undersecretary?
Puno is known to be a shooting buddy of the President. Both he and Mr. Aquino are gun enthusiasts. Puno was appointed interior undersecretary for peace and order on July 5. He claims he had “verbal instructions from the President to oversee the PNP.”
Puno said his role was to serve and give support to the police in terms of logistics and manpower. Did he do this during the crisis?
There are suggestions of cronyism or old boys network in the designation of Puno as interior undersecretary.
Puno was then Senator Aquino’s consultant at the Senate committees on public order and safety and on illegal drugs from 2007 to 2009. According to a profile provided by Malacañang, Puno was “responsible for the successful campaign of Senator Aquino in 2007, as he was overall ground commander during the campaign.”
Best siopao in town
At the height of the hostage crisis, confusion arose over blurred jurisdictional issues involving national and local crisis committees.
A sort of “command post” was set up at Emerald Restaurant on Roxas Boulevard, reportedly at the behest of the President, where it was reported he visited and had conferences with Lim and PNP officials directly involved in the rescue operations.
After the standoff in the negotiations with the hostage-taker, Lim moved over to Emerald Restaurant reportedly after he was summoned by Mr. Aquino. Emerald Restaurant is reputed to have “the best siopao in town.”
Presidential Communications Group Secretary Hermino Coloma needlessly issued a statement that although Mr. Aquino had taken full responsibility for the bungling, he would not resign because he has “a clear mandate.”
No one is calling on Mr. Aquino to resign. Nonetheless, the chaos in the administration’s response to the hostage massacre is eroding public confidence in the President’s ability to cope with crises. He is losing his huge political capital of public goodwill.
Amando Doronilla, Phil. Daily Inquirer