Manila, Philippines — President Benigno S. Aquino III admitted on Thursday that, in hindsight, he could have taken “a more active role” in handling the August 23 hostage-taking in Manila but believed at that time that the situation was being handled by “experts.”
Aquino said he had depended on the capability of the officials of the Philippine National Police (PNP) who had been on top of the situation, particularly Director Leocadio Santiago, National Capital Regional Police Office (NCRPO) director and former head of the elite Special Action Force (SAF).
“I should have taken a more active role (in the crisis) despite my belief that Santiago would oversee (Chief Superintendent Rodolfo) Magtibay properly,” the President said when asked about what he was doing when the hostage crisis began.
He said he learned about the hostage situation around 11 a.m. while he was going through the government’s 2011 budget proposal and efforts to curb the spread of dengue.
In complying with the standard procedure to keep the hostage crisis at lowest level of government, he said he relied on the competent experts on the ground to deal with the matter but insisted on them to ensure the safety of hostages.
He admitted that he was at fault at trusting too much the reports he received from concerned officials about efforts to resolve the crisis, which turned out to be false.
He said officials on the ground informed him the SAF would be sent to resolve the situation but such deployment was not made.
“Buong araw, mataas ang kumpiyansa natin (The entire day [of August 23], we had high confidence [in the experts handling the situation]),” said Aquino, adding that he was monitoring the events the whole day.
The President said he thought the hostage crisis would end peacefully following the assurances made by Santiago and Magtibay on the ground.
However, when Senior Police Officer 2 Gregorio Mendoza, the brother of hostage-taker Senior Inspector Rolando Mendoza, started to be manhandled on nationwide television, Aquino decided to go to the scene from Bahay Pangarap, where he had been watching the live coverage.
“Napikon na ako nang husto… Naubos na pasensya ko. Hinanap ko si Magtibay, si Usec. (Rico) Puno… itinuro ako sa Emerald (I was already miffed. My patience had run out. I looked for Magtibay, for Undersecretary Puno… I was pointed to Emerald (restaurant, where heads of the crisis management group had gone at that time),” the President said.
He said he went to the restaurant after he saw the bungled rescue operations on television.
He expressed frustration over the way the police officials on the ground dealt with the crisis, including the slow and clumsy assault on the bus.
When asked if officials will be held responsible for the bungled handling of the hostage crisis, Aquino said that there are officials who should be accountable.
Magtibay, ground commander and Manila Police District director during the crisis, has already requested to retire early from the police force, Aquino said.
The President, who has taken responsibility for the way the government dealt with the crisis, admitted wishing he could have taken a “more active role” in the hostage crisis, expressing regrets over the deaths of the hostages.
“First thing I will admit is I am not perfect and I can learn,” added Aquino, who has committed not only to improve the state of the police force but also repair the country's ties with Hong Kong and China.
“Our government is now focused in taking the necessary steps to prevent this tragedy from ever happening again. Let me just say this incident will not define this administration. In the end my administration will be judged on what we have accomplished and what we will accomplish in the coming years – a reduction in poverty and the restoration of a government that is honest in its efforts to build a better nation,” he said.
But he still pledged that his government will take appropriate steps, including the provision of training and equipment for the police, to prevent a repeat of the lapses in crisis situation.
Wisdom to prevail
Meanwhile, Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Liu Jianchao has expressed his belief that the Chinese and Philippine sides have the wisdom to deal with the August 23 hostage-taking incident “in an appropriate manner so as to turn challenges into opportunities for achieving a sound and stable development of China-Philippine relations.”
The Chinese envoy's statement came after his meeting with Aquino III last Wednesday at Malacanang.
In the meeting, Liu reiterated the strong relations of the People's Republic of China with the Philippines even as the Chinese government seeks justice for the victims of the hostage incident.
He urged the Philippine side to press ahead with the investigation and produce a comprehensive and fair report.
“We acknowledge what the Philippine government and people have done so far, and hope that the Philippine side presses ahead with the investigation and produces a comprehensive and fair report, which tells the truth, upholds justice, and becomes something that can be drawn upon for handling similar cases in the future," Liu said in an official statement.
Liu revealed that, for his part, Aquino said that the Philippine government attached great importance to developing friendly relations and cooperation with China.
"He stressed that the Philippine side will work closely with the Chinese side to go ahead with the investigation without unprincipled protection and cover-up. He looked forward to the concerted efforts by the two sides in striking a proper settlement of the related issues and moving on with Philippines-China relations," Liu stressed.
The Chinese envoy said they both agreed that the two sides will further strengthen mutually beneficial cooperation to strive for continued development of China-Philippines strategic and cooperative relationship.
A seeming gag order is now being implemented in the Manila Police District (MPD) in the wake of the bungled hostage incident as reporters were kept in the dark on THursday on another hostage incident that took place inside a businessman's house in Paco, Manila.
Reporters tried to get a report on the supposed robbery-hostage incident at the house of Linda Chua, a Filipino-Chinese businessman, at 1512 Merced Street, Paco in Manila at around 6 a.m. but case investigator, Senior Police Officer 1 Glenzor Vallejo, said that they first had to get a clearance from the MPD-Station 5 commander Frumencio Bernal.
The Manila Bulletin tried to ask for permission to Bernal as adviced by Vallejo but he said not to write the story since it will be another de-merit on their part.
“Nasa sa iyo yan kung irereport mo yan o hindi. Pero sana wag na lang kasi bebengga sa amin yan. (It is up to you if you will write the story but it will again be a demerit on our part),” the official said in a telephone interview.
Genalyn Kabiling, Manila Bulletin