The announcement yesterday that some of the Hong Kong hostages killed in Manila last month may have been killed by ‘friendly fire’ is a painful reminder of the global embarrassment the incident caused. And the damage it could do to the Philippines’ international relations.
Although the incident was initially a domestic law and order problem, the deaths of nine Hong Kong tourists ended up thrusting it into global awareness. And the anger on show in the aftermath of the tragedy made something abundantly clear—if the two-month-old government of President Benigno ‘Noynoy’ Aquino fails to conduct a thorough probe of the incident, and if the police officers responsible for the rescue blunder aren’t punished, the issue could do lasting damage to the country’s relations with Hong Kong and China.
The basic facts of the case point to the culpability of the police. The drama, much of which unfolded live on TV, lasted for 11 hours, with the police failing to appease the hostage taker or secure the release of the bus passengers. When the police finally decided to force their way inside the bus, it ended with the violent death of nine Hong Kong tourists. Indeed, yesterday, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima is reported as saying that some of the hostages may actually have been hit by police bullets. The botched rescue operation, which was beamed live around the world, exposed the inadequate preparation of the Philippine police for a crisis.
But if the police bungled their jobs, it has been President Aquino who has been at the receiving end of some of the most pointed international criticism. Aquino was taken to task for: his apparent absence during the crisis and failing to form a committee to immediately monitor and resolve it; failure to take a phone call from Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang, who was obviously eager to be briefed about the situation; and for ‘smiling’ on TV when he visited the crime scene a few hours after the bloody ordeal had ended.
On top of all this, the site where the hostage crisis took place was in the same location that Aquino took his oath of office and delivered his inaugural address just two months prior—a moment when Aquino promised Filipinos that they could once again dream and become proud citizens of the world. Two months later, the Philippines (and Aquino) have become a laughingstock.
The incident has also rocked Aquino’s plan to make his first 100 days in office a sort of a preview of what to expect from his government over the next six years. Instead of aggressively pursuing his anti-corruption programme, which was his major election platform, Aquino is now expected to redirect his focus to convincing Filipinos and the rest of the world that he’s a capable leader.
But aside from proving his competence, Aquino also has to swiftly repair strained relations with both Hong Kong and China. Immediately after the hostage incident, Hong Kong issued a travel advisory against the Philippines and the Chinese vice premier cancelled his trip to Manila. The Philippines has to complete its probe if it wants to appease angry citizens and officials in Hong Kong and China, many of whom believe it was the inefficiency of the Philippine police that led to the death of their fellow citizens.
But securing justice for the memory of those slain isn’t the only goal for the Philippines. Officials also want to prevent anti-Filipino sentiment in Hong Kong and China—both major destinations for Filipinos seeking employment abroad—from fermenting. In addition, the Philippine government also has to be able to reassure the international community that it’s ready to defend the security of tourists and foreigners.
This is by no means the first time that the Philippines has become entangled in messy issues involving its neighbours. In 1995, for example, it downgraded its diplomatic ties with Singapore after a Filipina domestic worker was executed in Singapore for murder. For many years, relations between the two countries were chilly, and there were knock-on effects for Filipinos employed in Singapore. The Philippines government doesn’t want a repeat of such tensions, which could see restrictions placed on Filipinos working in Hong Kong, or further discourage its citizens from visiting the Philippines.
And the crisis could also have an impact on the Aquino government’s foreign policy by pushing the administration closer to the United States if China isn’t appeased. Aquino, in fact, recently cancelled trips to Vietnam and Indonesia, although he plans to follow through with his scheduled visit to the United States later this month.
The other option for Aquino is to forge closer ties with China, as a kind of apologetic gesture over the hostage blunder. But he can’t do this without upsetting the US, which considers the Philippines as a reliable ally as the US and China vie for supremacy in the region.
It’s a genuine dilemma for Aquino, and one he would have had no idea he was going to encounter when he first heard about the unfolding ‘domestic’ tragedy in Manila.