Tuesday, August 31, 2010

READING BETWEEN THE LINES (How to read President Aquino’s statement in the aftermath of the tragic Manila hostage crisis)

By Siesta-friendly

We’ve seen the entire hostage crisis of August 35, 2010 play out on our tv screens and are now bothered with tons of questions.  President Aquino’s statement a few hours after the hostage crisis is telling of the government authorities’ disastrous mindset that led to the tragedy.  The official statement recounts the hostage-taker’s temperament and the government’s actions during the crisis. Nowhere is there an indication that they were alarmed that innocent people were being held hostage by a fully armed ex-police officer.  Their focus was more on the hostage-taker (Rolando Mendoza) not the rescue of the hostages.  And nowhere is there any mention of possible lapses in judgment on the part of the government or the police.  But the subject and wording of the statement reveals such lapses in judgment.   It really seemed to be all about Mr. Mendoza and what he wanted or was happening to him, not about the hostages’ safety and rescue.

Below is President Aquino’s official statement[1] in verbatim followed every now and then by our interpretation of his words in bold italics –

With the rest of the Filipino people, I wish to offer our deepest condolences to the families of the victims whose lives were lost in the hostage situation at the Quirino Grandstand because we failed to regard their safety over and above the hostage-taker’s demands.  I have nothing to say to the other hostages who did not die and only suffered injuries and lifelong trauma.  The Secretary of Foreign Affairs has conveyed our deep feelings of sorrow to the Foreign Minister of the People’s Republic of China and the people of Hong Kong through Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang since they have been unable to contact me nor did I want to call them up and apprise them of what was happening from the time the crisis occurred.  I have tasked Secretaries Soliman and Lim to provide everything necessary for the recovery and return home of the survivors (because we clearly cannot provide for any one’s safety in this country) as well as to take care of those who tragically died tonight (which is the least we could do considering we failed miserably to protect them while they were still alive).. I have directed the fullest cooperation with the Hong Kong authorities and the People’s Republic of China authorities who are on their way to the Philippines because they understandably don’t trust us.

From the onset of this incident, the hostage-taker seemed to be non-belligerent, as shown by the release of hostages. As to the hostages’ conditions, we had no idea until they were killed or injured.  As you know, the rules of hostage-taking say that as long as the hostage-taker is non-belligerent, he is harmless and shouldn’t be disabled, even if there are several opportunities to do so.  These were encouraging signs. And we were not discouraged at all that he continued to hold hostage innocent men, women and children while he was himself heavily armed. 

We were going to wait him out.  And let the hostages suffer for as long as necessary especially since we didn’t even know what they were going through anyway. The idea was to let the ground commanders who are the experts in this field handle the operation with minimal interference from people who are less expert.  And since they are experts, they can’t be wrong. So when the ground commanders gave minimal interference to media personnel, the latter who are not experts are to blame for whatever went wrong.

But the situation deteriorated rapidly when, during the course of the negotiations, he was given the letter of the Ombudsman in which she promised to personally review his case even though he demanded that his case be decided on immediately thus making the letter meaningless to him.  As he was reading the contents of the letter, while talking to an unknown individual on the cellphone, he became increasingly agitated.  But he still seemed to be non-belligerent. So we didn’t do anything.

The presence of his brother also added to the tension.  Media coverage of the presence of his brother added more tension.  But the fact that the presence of his brother was allowed in the first place is no one’s fault.

At this point, he threatened to kill a hostage. The police decided to remove the brother from the scene. And as the negotiators were departing, the negotiators were shot at.  Still, no assault was made because he seemed to be non-belligerent.

Media coverage of his brother being taken into custody might have further agitated the hostage-taker.  Although media coverage was left unhampered by the ground commanders who are the experts in this field, its still the media personnel’s fault .

Shots were fired. They seemed to be warning shots, as there was no audible indication of tumult or chaos to show that the hostages were in immediate danger.  That the bus was big and airconditioned and the hostages were probably scared and played dead may have been why there was no audible indication of tumult or chaos, but that’s not the point. And because we weren’t monitoring the media, we failed to be informed that he told a radio station that he had already shot 2 of his hostages and that the shots and screams of hostages were heard over the radio.

Nonetheless even though the circumstances called for an assault, the negotiators tried to establish contact with the hostage-taker but they were unsuccessful as the cellphone of the hostage-taker was continuously busy and we didn’t want to assault him without talking to him first and he also refused to answer the throw-phone provided for him by the authorities (we forgot he was still busy on the other line).

The escape of the driver, combined with his reports that the hostages were being harmed - I am conveniently forgetting that his exact words were that they were all dead - and because we didn’t disable him when we could, forced the assault to happen.  But the police force’s fear of bodily harm to themselves forced the assault to happen in 90 minutes of slow motion.  While the police force’s fear of bodily harm to any one forced the assault to happen with the use of 1 sledgehammer no one could handle and a few bullets which may or may not have hit a hostage or two. When the vehicle began to move, and with reports that he had hand grenades, a decision was made to immobilize the vehicle as it would have made the situation even more dangerous by exposing more of the populace to the danger since our police force cannot assault a parked bus what more a moving one?

As we know, the incident tragically ended in the deaths of eight innocent civilians whom we always assumed he would not hurt because he seemed to be non-belligerent.

We expect more of the facts to come to light when my government and police force begin to accept the truth of our incompetence and I have ordered Justice Secretary Leila de Lima and Secretary Jesse Robredo to thoroughly lead this review because no one trusts the Philippine National Police to do it. 

In the end, we are not at fault for according the utmost patience to one of our own especially because he seemed to be non-belligerent even though he took a busload of people at gunpoint (with an M16 no less) and eventually shot at his 15 hostages and killed 8 of them including 1 child.  He caused this to himself, with the help of his family members and the media.  If a similar hostage situation were to happen again tomorrow, we would act the same way since we have not found fault in our actions except in maybe allowing full media coverage.

[1]   (1/3) noynoy aquino 1st live press conference on hostage crisis (full) 08-24-2010 . (2010, August 26). Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YZZNPASyFn0


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