For the sake of your own people and ours, explain

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 August, 2010, 12:00am

Hong Kong continues to mourn the eight people killed apparently needlessly in the bloody Manila hostage crisis on Monday. Family and friends directly affected by the tragedy may never recover from the loss. One woman watched her husband die before her eyes, before being told that two of her children had also been killed and the third seriously injured. For these victims, a public apology or inquiry may bring closure, but can never be enough to ease their pain. Anger has been directed at both the Philippine government and its police force for what appears to have been a botched attempt to rescue the hostages. On the face of it, millions of viewers around the world could be forgiven for blaming the police for their handling of the situation and levelling accusations of incompetence.

Much of this blame arises from the benefit of hindsight and may well be based on unconfirmed or inaccurate reports of the hostage situation. Negotiations during the day, which involved the release of nine hostages, appeared to develop peacefully. Still, before the Philippine government hits back at its critics it should dispel any myths about why the situation deteriorated so violently - by explaining why the police failed to prevent so many lives being lost. The administration of President Benigno Aquino will not be able to absolve itself from blame unless it can answer these questions.

But for the fact that they happened, the events of Monday would have been dismissed as too fantastical to be true. A discharged police officer, Rolando Mendoza, wanders freely around the centre of the Philippine capital dressed in full uniform and carrying an M-16 assault rifle, boards a bus and holds the 25 passengers hostage. The police cordon is breached by a drunken man wanting to help, and an unknowing cyclist. Mendoza's brother, a serving police officer, turns up carrying a firearm but is ignored despite his offer to help and wanders up to the bus himself, only to be wrestled to the ground and arrested. All of a sudden, shots are fired and the police move in, but are obviously hampered by their not being able to see into the bus. Meanwhile, Mendoza is able to see the movements of the police thanks to a live television broadcast he watches on the television in the bus. It doesn't take a security expert to point out that if police are going to attempt an entry, it must be immediate, decisive and successful or lives will be at risk. Yet viewers saw policemen clumsily smashing at windows for over an hour, failing to pull open the doors and, once they had, being repelled immediately by a spray of bullets.

One cannot underestimate the difficulties in handling a hostage crisis, and there may be legitimate reasons why the operation was conducted in such a way. If so, those reasons must be disclosed in a full report, and the relevant officials must take responsibility for any failings, otherwise it will be difficult to understand the logic behind many of the actions. One of the survivors noted that Mendoza was obviously antagonised by seeing his brother arrested. The decision to allow spectators and the media to remain within range of his rifle, resulting in several injuries, is also inexplicable.

Answers to all these questions should be given not only for the purpose of appeasing the Hong Kong public, but for the integrity of the new Philippine government and for its own people. After all, it is the people of the Philippines who must rely on its government and police for effective law enforcement on a daily basis. Tourism figures, diplomatic relations and stock market fluctuations pale in significance compared to the most basic responsibility of any government: protecting its citizens and its guests.