Bus massacre inquest has served its purpose

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 March, 2011, 12:00am

An inquest cannot make sense of violent death, or heal the physical, psychological and emotional scars of survivors and those left behind. But it can begin the process of closure they need in order to move on with their lives. In that respect, the inquiry just concluded in Hong Kong into the Manila bus massacre did all that could be expected under the circumstances to serve that important purpose.

The aim of an inquest is usually to determine the cause of death and to formally record who died and how. Regardless of whether a death is found to be accidental, or the result of a culpable or lawful or unlawful act - as in this case - or the finding is left open, a coroner or a coroner's jury can also make recommendations that might help prevent a similar tragedy in the future.

This case was unusual because, despite the dire plight of Hong Kong hostages held by a sacked policeman and the Keystone Kops-response of his former colleagues, all televised live to a global audience, there was little point in making recommendations to foreign authorities. They have no obligation to listen. Indeed, the Philippine authorities have already held their own inquiry, after which recommended charges against several officials were watered down to administrative sanctions. That raises the question of what was to be achieved by the government ordering a local inquest. But no one has seriously questioned the need for it. Hong Kong people were not only horrified by the tragedy but outraged by the way it unfolded. The public generally sympathised with relatives' demands for answers. In the circumstances, there was an understandable measure of distrust, since vindicated, in the Philippine authorities to be seen to conduct a fair, full and open inquiry.

The local inquest gave relatives their day in court and answered some questions, if far from all of them. That was always going to be unlikely so long as the Hong Kong authorities were relying on the Philippines to co-operate. In the event, statements from the Philippines inquiry were read out, but few witnesses were made available to answer questions. The inquest has done little to clear up doubts about the armed rescue operation and whether the hostage-taker fired all the fatal bullets, whether everything medically possible was done for the victims in the immediate aftermath - and about the inquiry itself. But it has put them in sharper focus. It can only be hoped therefore that the Philippine government takes a good, hard look at the findings, particularly about the inept handling of negotiations with the gunman and the time taken to subdue him. It remains to be seen if they are of any help to relatives in claims for compensation. Hopefully, though, it will ease Hong Kong people's sense of concern and grievance.

There is nothing to be gained by maintaining the black travel ban on the Philippines, now a counterproductive sore point in bilateral relations. It might even have been helpful to the scope of the inquest if it had been lifted earlier. Amid the initial confusion it made some sense, but it has become apparent the tragedy was an isolated incident. There is no longer any reason to keep it in place.

One lesson to be learned is that the Philippines remains far from the only country not as safe as Hong Kong. Amid the freedom in this day and age to travel and enjoy holidays where we like, the tragedy is a reminder that many places do not have the same safeguards of law and order, the rule of law, advanced medical and emergency services and advanced infrastructure. The freedoms, rights and safety we treasure cannot always be taken for granted.