Holding up a mirror to a broken country

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 November, 2010, 12:00am

Two months ago, all of Hong Kong was caught up in a frenzy of anger, frustration and sadness stemming from the needless deaths of eight tourists and the wounding of seven others at the hands of a disgruntled former police officer in Manila who wanted his job back.

We now know from the report of the fact-finding committee appointed by Philippine President Benigno Aquino that Rolando Mendoza felt he was a victim of injustice and oppression. He was angry and frustrated that the Ombudsman's office for nine months ignored his repeated motions for reconsideration of his dismissal, violating its own rules of procedure.

The report makes it clear that there is plenty of blame to go around. Serious mistakes were made by the mayor, the vice-mayor, top police officers, the negotiator, the assault team leader - virtually all those involved in handling, or mishandling, the hostage crisis.

The entire report of the committee, headed by Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, has been released and makes fascinating, sometimes poignant, reading. It makes no attempt to shift the blame. Looking unblinkingly at the whole sequence of events from Mendoza's dismissal, it finds Philippine society itself was culpable; the incident shows the nation in microcosm.

Indeed, Mendoza himself seems to be Everyman: 'A man with a perceived injustice and oppression done against him, so common in Philippine society,' it says, 'cornered and forced to a murderous and insane mission, the incompetence and insubordination of a police commander, the aggravating vigilantism of a politician, the disregard for the proper use of a crisis system by the crisis responders, the reckless irresponsibility of media people'.

This is a description of a broken society. And yet, as the committee says: 'These are our own ghosts that we should now face squarely if we are not to repeat August 23, 2010.

'This is our society, this is our culture, these are Filipinos at their worst,' the report cries out. 'At some point in time, an oppressed Filipino crying out for justice may again snap and seize [people], in exchange for justice without him having to pay any amount ... but at the cost of human lives.

'For in truth, justice has become a commodity in this country, with no less than heartless bureaucrats in charge of its dispensation on the condition that they are paid to give what is already owed to a man, even to the shameless extent of asking it from a lowly policeman.'

The sympathy for Mendoza is manifest. 'This is our society,' the report says. 'It drives otherwise ordinary and simple men to turn into murdering monsters at a snap. Because they feel oppressed and need justice but are asked for money.

'They ask for redemption but are faced only with extortion. Officials without shame, policemen without competence, politicians without care, reporters without conscience, a nation without luck. Mendoza was only the instrument in the murder of eight innocent human beings.'

The report concluded with words of pure poetry: 'In this investigation, this committee looked into the hostage-taking incident and ended up looking into the nation's soul, and find that we are all equally guilty of pulling the trigger of the gunman. This is our country seen through a mirror, and that mirror was Rizal Park, August 23, 2010.'

Aquino said his administration would strengthen its ability to respond to future crises. Judging by the report, he will need not just to overhaul the country's security forces, but to transform its society as well.

Like Hong Kong, the Philippines has undergone a catharsis. Let us hope that both societies emerge the better for it.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator.