MANILA HOSTAGE TRAGEDY
By John McBeth, Senior Writer
HONG KONG'S anger over Manila's handling of Monday's hostage crisis may be understandable, but it hardly justifies the call for the immediate return of all Hong Kong citizens and a formal warning against travel to the Philippines.
An incident such as this, involving a single individual, can happen anywhere - and often does, in the United States, Australia, even China. It is a far cry from the bombings and other attacks carried out by committed religious fanatics, which may well be repeated.
What seemed to anger Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang as much as anything was his failure to get Philippine President Benigno Aquino on the telephone until hours into the crisis.
The travel warning will almost certainly take its toll on the Philippines' already fragile tourism industry. Taken together with the killing of a South Korean several days earlier, the warning will create the impression that the country is going through another of its periodic waves of violence.
It does not help when news reports describe the Philippines as 'one of the most dangerous places for foreigners in Asia', as one did recently. How relative is that? In four years of travelling around the entire gun-happy country, I never had a problem.
As in many of these situations, outside perception is often far removed from reality. Take, for example, Thailand's frequent coups, with large parts of Bangkok remaining unaffected, or the riots that wracked an otherwise peaceful Seoul in the mid-1980s.
Even during the violent coup attempt of 1989, which left Manila's Makati business district in the hands of rebel Scout Rangers, it was still possible to get to the airport and travel around the rest of Manila without being in harm's way.
Anyone can get unlucky, anywhere. Sadly, in this case, a busload of tourists found themselves at the mercy of a disgruntled and suicidal police inspector, in a tragedy which left eight of them dead.
Armed with an M-16 assault rifle, the much-decorated Rolando Mendoza almost certainly chose the bus at random to press his demand to be re-instated after being fired for extortion and robbery. There is no question the Philippine National Police (PNP) mishandled a situation which, at the beginning at least, looked as if it could have had a happy ending. Mendoza even released nine of the 25 hostages in a show of goodwill.
The 120,000-strong PNP did not have its A-team on the scene. In fact, one of the many morbid jokes doing the rounds in the Philippine capital has it that the smartest police officer there was the hostage-taker himself.
While the PNP have US instructors to train Scout Ranger and Marine counterterrorism units, as well as Special Weapons and Tactics (Swat) teams, they are largely ineffective because individuals are routinely moved elsewhere to train others.
The government also lacks the resources and equipment to ensure ongoing training - a short-coming which also affects Indonesia's Detachment 88 counterterrorism unit, and which became an issue with the Indian police in the wake of the 2008 carnage in Mumbai.
Said Mr Scott Harrison, a retired senior US Central Intelligence Agency official who heads Pacific Strategies & Assessments, a regional security consultancy: 'The results are confusion and half-baked strategies and tactics when the unexpected happens, like the seizure of the bus.'
Added another security specialist: 'There are two issues endemic to the PNP - lack of resources and poor leadership. Time and again we have seen the poor leadership issue manifest itself during major security events.
'It is almost as if high-level senior management training abroad, including at the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, is more of a trophy exercise than the learning and application of the course content.'
One crucial problem in the latest drama was the way jurisdictional turf squabbling resulted in the suburban Luneta police, and not the National Capital Region headquarters, being in charge of crowd control.
As it was, the inept police tactics and the cultural proclivity to do nothing because of the fear of making a mistake were matched by an abject failure to rein in Manila's notoriously rabble-rousing media.
Mendoza, by most accounts, watched the coverage on the bus television set and knew every move the police made, effectively removing the element of surprise, often crucial in such stand-offs.
An even more tragic mistake was the decision to involve Mendoza's brother Gregorio, a traffic policeman, in the negotiations. When the brother became agitated and was hustled away, claiming he was under arrest, Mendoza appeared to lose control of himself.
Security analysts say that while the police showed courage in trying to board the bus, they lacked the sort of short-barrelled assault weapons needed to follow the attack through.
They then wasted too much time smashing the windows and the doors of the bus with sledge-hammers, when frame charges would have done the job much more effectively - if they had had them.
They also failed to seize several opportunities to disarm or shoot the gunman, who at one point was standing openly in the bus doorway talking to negotiators. All is fair when lives are at stake.
Above all, critics are asking why the easy decision to give in to Mendoza's narrow demands arrived at the end of the 10-hour drama. By then the shooting had started and it was already too late.
It is still unclear whether he executed the eight victims or they died in the police fusillade. One thing is certain: There will be endless finger-pointing by all sides in the days and weeks ahead.
[There are several issues here.
Media and press freedom. These freedoms are NOT absolute. The media has a duty to inform. It may have the option to sensationalise but that is not a right. And certainly it is not at the expense of safety, security, and operational priorities.
Police tactics and competence. Training, SOP, proper equipment. Essential emergency services need to be constantly trained, and effectively equipped and trained to use the equipment properly. This requires budget. The problem arises when the country is poor and budgets get cut and funding is sporadic at best. Training then becomes ad hoc, equipment are either not maintained or fall into disrepair, and elite squads lose their edge and their purpose.]