Former president Estrada cancels HK holiday

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 August, 2010, 12:00am

Former Philippine president Joseph Estrada cancelled a holiday to Hong Kong this weekend - saying it would be insensitive - as he fumed over the mishandling of the hostage tragedy.

The movie star turned politician questioned the 'conspicuous absence' of Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim - a political rival - in the crisis.

Estrada had planned to arrive in Hong Kong last Thursday and stay until tomorrow.

He watched the hostage saga live on television and was left confused as to who was in charge. 'It was very strange because the mayor of Manila did not show up. He has been the mayor for a very long time and usually in instances like this, he is at the forefront of things. But this time his conspicuous absence during the 11 hours of this crisis was a big surprise.

'Maybe he was too afraid or nervous to do anything. I really don't know. But this is the first time [in an incident like this] that he didn't appear. Usually he's the first one to be out there in the middle.'

The Philippine Department of the Interior and Local Government confirmed that Lim was the head of the crisis management committee that handled the hostage tragedy. A Philippine government source said yesterday that Lim intentionally kept a low profile so as not to exacerbate the situation. If Lim had spoken to the media last Monday, it could have angered the gunman, the source said.

It was Lim who initially ordered that disgruntled hostage-taker Rolando Mendoza be investigated in 2008 over an incident which resulted in Mendoza being dismissed from the police force, forfeiting all benefits.

Estrada also accused Lim of ordering the arrest of the gunman's younger brother, Gregorio, who was brought in by the authorities last Monday to try to pacify the hijacker.

The gunman said he would kill hostages if his brother was arrested. Gregorio was taken into custody after police found a gun on him and 11 minutes later shots were fired inside the hijacked Hong Thai tour bus.

'His decision to have the hostage-taker's brother arrested was a very wrong move,' Estrada said. 'It encouraged the hostage-taker to fire when he saw his brother was being harassed. That triggered it all off.

'I felt so bad at how everything was handled. This was an international incident with CNN and the BBC broadcasting our every move around the world. It did so much damage to our image.'

Lim denied ordering the arrest of the gunman's brother. He said yesterday he only ordered that he be brought to a command post at a police precinct 100 metres away.

There is no love lost between Estrada and Lim. Estrada backed Jose Atienza, Lim's opponent, in the election for Manila mayor in May.

'Maybe he was just too old for the job,' Estrada, 73, said referring to Lim's handling of the hostage drama. Lim will be 81 in December.

Lim is known in the Philippines as 'Dirty Harry', after the movie character made famous by Clint Eastwood, whose vigilante style of justice brought results. In the 1980s Lim cultivated this image during his time as chief of the Manila police district and soon moved into politics.

Estrada is a frequent visitor to Hong Kong. When in town he stays at either the Kowloon Shangri-la or the Conrad Hong Kong in Admiralty.

'I cancelled my trip to Hong Kong as a way of expressing my condolences. I just personally considered it inappropriate and insensitive to take a holiday there after such a tragedy.'

Estrada has also faced criticism over the handling of a hostage drama.

On April 23, 2000, the Muslim extremist group Abu Sayyaf snatched 10 European tourists and 11 resort workers off the Malaysian island of Sipadan and took them to the southern Philippine island of Mindanao.

The victims were released three months later after the Libyan government reportedly paid US$20 million in ransom, which the Estrada government denied.