By and large, the Philippines is a peaceful and safe place for tourists. As long as foreigners like myself stay away from the parts of Mindanao controlled by Islamic fundamentalists like Abu Sayyaf and separatists like the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the most you will have to worry about is getting your wallet pinched in a marketplace. In the last two days, that reality has been overshadowed by an isolated act of one disgruntled sociopath who hijacked a bus of tourists from Hong Kong, killing 8 of them before being taken out by a sniper. It is a tragedy for a lot of reasons, and it is going to have some sad implications for the country.
First, some background on what happened. A year ago, a former senior police inspector, Rolando Mendoza, was accused leading a group of four officers in beating a 25 year-old chef, forcing him to ingest shabu (like crack), arresting him and making him pay 20,000 pesos (USD ~$400) for his freedom. The father of the chef reported the case to the internal affairs office of the police department, who investigated the case. After harassment from the police, the chef withdrew his complaint, but the police ombudsman picked it up and fired the four officers and inspector Mendoza. Fast forward to two days ago, when Mendoza flags down a bus filled with Hong Kong tourists and asks for a ride somewhere. He then takes over the bus with an M-16, demanding the charges against him be dropped. After 11 hours of failed negotiations and a very public and very pathetic attempt by the police at storming the bus, Mendoza sprayed the bus with bullets, killing 8 people, including women and children.
No doubt, it is a tragedy because 8 people were killed. But there are much larger implications for the Philippines. For one thing, the entire standoff was televised live, including the final moments when Mendoza fired the shots. In one of the more memorable moments of the siege, one police officer smashes in the door with a sledge hammer, which proves to be too heavy as he loses his grip and watches it fly into the bus. He then reaches in to retrieve it and runs away. BBC news analyzes why the police failed, but to most Filipinos and anyone watching the live feed, the attempt was laughable. And the police released a statement explaining what went wrong:
In the wake of the incident, the Philippines National Police released a statement that included a laundry list of ways police on the ground fell down on the job, including: 1) poor handling of the hostage negotiation; 2) side issues and events that further agitated the hostage-taker; 3) inadequate capability, skills, equipment and planning of the assault team; 4)improper crowd control, and inadequate training and competence of assault team leader; and 5) non-compliance to media relations procedures in hostage situations.
So one incident perpetrated by a corrupt and deranged police officer and enabled by an incompetent police force has made the Philippines look like a lawless hotbed of violence.
The aftermath for the Philippines is grim. Hong Kong is absolutely furious. They blame the police (SWAT stands for “Sorry, we aren’t trained). The Hong Kong government issued a black travel warning, urging all residents currently in the Philippines to come home immediately. China has angrily called for an inquiry into the debacle, and the newly elected president, Noynoy Aquino, has sheepishly issued an apology and ordered a day of mourning. The politicians are blaming the police, the police are blaming the media, the media are blaming the politicians and the police, but no one is really taking the blame.
At the end of all this, President Aquino, who went into this with 70% approval ratings and was a beacon of hope for most Filipinos, comes off looking weak and ineffectual. Again, from CNN:
Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang’s complaint that he couldn’t get President Aquino on the phone also ratcheted tensions between China and the Philippines.
“It’s an isolated incident and I think the government needs to think of a way to make sure that’s understood — that there’s not some lawless situation in the Philippines and it’s not a terrorist act,” Hamlin said. “It involved foreign guests, who made it an international incident — it wouldn’t be resonating around the world right now if it involved only locals.”
In this region of the world, good relations with China are critical. I am sure things will get better, but President Aquino doesn’t come across looking like a reliable or competent head of state. The tourism industry will also be dealt a major setback, which is going to lead to lower revenues from Chinese and Hong Kong tourists, who vacation here in droves. Just a few weeks ago, a bus careened off a cliff in Sagada, one of the hotspots of tourism here, killing 41 people, including 21 Iranian tourists. The driver will be charged for criminal negligence. But, like the truth commission for investigating corruption in the Arroyo administration and the pending inquiry into what went wrong in this incident, it is just another case of closing the barn door after the horse is long gone.
And there are other issues as well. The police look incompetent and corrupt (largely true). And, like Thailand with the Red Shirt protests, the Philippines ends up looking unstable, dangerous, and backwards. The country is ashamed of what happened, and wants to make it right. Unfortunately, like the Maguindanao massacre and the bus crash, it is another example of the Philippines making it into the international news for the wrong reasons.