HK must have a role in Manila tragedy probe

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 August, 2010, 12:00am

Every day that passes raises new questions about the Manila hostage tragedy. The latest is why elite police commando units remained sidelined nearby while a police SWAT team bungled the rescue attempt. They can only be answered by a proper inquiry into every aspect of events, at which Hong Kong is officially represented. Anything less will not do justice to the victims and their families or the shock and grief felt by Hong Kong people.

Secretary for Security Ambrose Lee Siu-kwong says that if Hong Kong becomes involved in the investigation this would intrude on Philippines sovereignty, and that the Foreign Ministry in Beijing has advised it would be inappropriate. To be sure it would not be the same as joint operations between international law enforcement agencies. Lee says there is no precedent for it. Respect for sovereignty is indeed important. But it does not rule out a request to Manila to agree to take part in a joint, independent inquiry that takes into account the results of investigations in both places.

This would reflect strong sentiment among lawmakers who have made their views clear to Lee. As a result, Lee said the government understood the demand now and 'may' reflect it to the concerned parties. We trust that it will.

Something went terribly wrong. That much was evident from live television coverage. Mourning for the senseless loss of life is tinged by the bitter reflection that it need not have happened. Closure will, therefore, not come easily for grieving families, nor for our relations with the Philippines. To help reach it, an open inquiry must endeavour to find out how and why it happened.

Possible explanations abound for what triggered the sudden decision by bus hijacker Rolando Mendoza to open fire with an M-16 assault rifle on his hostages - when they had previously not felt in danger, and for the inability of Manila police to defuse the situation, or at least minimise loss of innocent life. But that is not good enough. Three separate inquiries already ordered are unlikely to clarify them satisfactorily.

Police in the Philippines are conducting their own investigation into their admitted manifest failure to protect lives. This amounts to police investigating police, which hardly inspires confidence in transparency, objectivity and impartiality.

In response to demands from Beijing and Hong Kong for a full report, Philippine President Benigno Aquino has ordered an investigation by the Justice Department and other government bodies. His administration is understandably anxious to deliver it quickly in an attempt to prevent the tragedy harming relations. But given the amount of evidence that should be collected from witness statements and forensic investigations, then correlated and assessed, that does not inspire confidence either.

In Hong Kong, the coroner has ordered autopsies on the eight victims, and a police investigation. If there is to be an inquest, it could result in verdicts of unlawful killing, accidental death or an open finding. But it would also be open to a coroner's jury to make recommendations aimed at preventing a recurrence of such tragedies that could include or imply criticism.

Separate inquiries could come to different conclusions and even fail to agree on facts. This would be regrettable. It is an extraordinary situation that calls for both governments to think outside the box. We need to know what happened. If both sides do not co-operate in a proper inquiry we may never get the full story.