Manila’s hostage crisis

Paul Lau (Hong Kong, AC 10-12)

Hong Kong and the Philippines are two countries with deep ties; an estimated 140,000 Filipino migrants work in Hong Kong while the Philippines is amongst Hong Kong’s top travel destination. However, the recent hostage crisis has put relationships on hold with animosity and distrust from both parties. On the 23rd of August 2010, former senior inspector Rolando Mendoza hijacked a tourist bus of 25 people in a desperate attempt to win his job back. 12 hours later, following a ‘bungled’ and ‘incompetent’ rescue assault that required 90 minutes, Mendoza and 8 Hong Kong tourists lay dead while 9 others were injured.

It all began when Rolando Mendoza, a former officer who had been accused of robbery and extortion and was fired last year, boarded a Hong Kong tourist bus, shortly before announcing the hijacking. A 10 hour standoff subsequently unfolded with stop-go negotiations throughout the day. Neither side took the issue seriously; Mendoza told his hostages he would only hold them until 3pm while a tour guide was able to call the assistant customer services manager that he had been held hostage.

9 hostages were later released by Mendoza leaving 17 people on the bus, including himself. By this point in time, numerous TV stations had begun live coverage of events including TVB and Cable TV from Hong Kong. The BBC, CNN and Reuters also began reporting on the situation along with a handful of local stations. The media coverage continued as negotiations dragged on between Mendoza and Chief Inspector Romeo Salvador and Superintendent Orlando Yebra. Yebra later testified that “Officially there is no negotiation unit yet in the PNP [national police]”

In a letter delivered by Yebra, The Office of the Ombudsman refused to reinstate Mendoza but assured him that his case would be reviewed within 10 days, an offer that was reportedly also made over the phone. A second letter which reportedly indicated willingness to reinstate Mendoza to his previous position was not delivered because of a traffic jam. Despite numerous opportunities where snipers were correctly positioned to take out Mendoza, it appears no such directive was given and that negotiations were permitted to drag on.

Things began to turn nasty as the Manila Police District SWAT team arrived. Reportedly watching all of the police’s movement on live TV, Mendoza demanded that the SWAT team leave or have hostages shot.  The tipping point however appeared to be the handling of Mendoza’s brother, Gregorio Mendoza. Angered at his brother’s arrest for breaching police lines, Mendoza began shooting, later claiming to have shot two hostages.

As the police began their rescue operation, it became clear how badly prepared the police was. For one, a decision was made to utilize the MPD SWAT team instead of the more advanced Special Action Force, designed and trained for such events. The force was exposed as under equipped and under trained as they used the better part of an hour to enter the bus. The police struggled to open the door, even at one point tying a rope to a police vehicle only for the rope to snap. Finally, the use of teargas forced Mendoza to approach the main door where marksmen killed him.

As the horrid hostage episode drew to a close with 8 dead tourists and 9 injured; the story turned towards the botched rescue. Not only was a more advanced and better equipped SAF not used, questions were raised over why the police didn’t shoot or disarm Mendoza earlier on and why it took so long to break open the glass. Philippine Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, said on Friday that there was “a big possibility that there [was] friendly fire”.

Calls from Donald Tsang, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, were reportedly rejected because members of the Philippine President Benigno Aquino’s office did not recognize who he was. To add salt to wounds, Aquino said that he did not like the tone of Donald Tsang’s letter sent to him on Wednesday. Tsang’s office said that the letter set out issues he hoped the “independent, professional and comprehensive investigation” would explain.

An investigation is being carried out by the Joint Incident Investigation and Review Committee under the order of President Aqunio. The Hong Kong Police was initially invited to send a team to participate in the investigation only to be later told that they could only observe and comment on the investigation but not intervene. Bullet fragments were given to the Hong Kong Police by the Manila Police, only for them to be briefly detained at the airport in a highly political row because the Philippines justice department hadn’t given approval.

The hostage crisis has created a mountain of questions. Let’s hope the subsequent investigation can answer more questions than it creates.

-United World Colleges Student Magazine-

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