Shame on politicians using Manila tragedy for their own ends

Stephen Vines says threat of sanctions is not only wrong, but won't work

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 November, 2013, 6:59pm
UPDATED : Friday, 08 November, 2013, 7:05pm

The Hong Kong government and some of its more unlikely allies are threatening to turn the Manila bus killing tragedy into a farce. Three years after Hong Kong residents were killed and injured during a bungled hostage rescue, officials are working on a plan to penalise all the people who were not involved in this tragic event.

Details have not been revealed but a one-month deadline has been set for retaliation, which could include measures such as curbing the import of Philippine domestic helpers, ending the visa-free entry regime for Philippine visitors, and goodness knows what else.

Among the most vocal proponents of this retaliation offensive are pan-democrats who should know better. Piling in behind them are the usual band of opportunists who see no tragedy as being too small to ignore if there is a chance of furthering their political careers. And now the hapless Leung Chun-ying administration has seized on this as a possible way of restoring its battered credibility.

They want President Benigno Aquino to apologise and insist that large sums of cash are paid to the victims and their families. Imposing sanctions on hapless Philippine citizens will not work. In fact, it is likely to be counterproductive.

One of the reasons for Aquino's popularity in the Philippines is that he cleverly plays the nationalistic card and has acquired a reputation for standing up to foreigners. He has already demonstrated that standing up to tiny Hong Kong is popular and risk-free.

The great brains in the Hong Kong government think the best response to this intransigence is a range of measures that will reduce the growing tourist business with the Philippines and penalise both employers and domestic helpers who work here. Could there be a better example of self-inflicted damage?

Lurking behind this stupidity is a suspicion that the demands for apologies and compensation stem from a racist attitude towards the Philippines.

When Hong Kong travellers suffer fatal accidents on the mainland, not least because of failures in safety regulation, the administration does not even hint at demands for redress. Nor does it do so when Hongkongers suffer disaster in other countries where the authorities are at least in part responsible for their fate.

There are no excuses for the way the hostage crisis was handled by the Manila police force: but what realistically can be done? First of all, the families of those involved have already indicated an unwillingness to accept compensation payments in line with those that are made in the Philippines. Do they really think that any government will volunteer to pay more to foreigners than to local people?

Secondly, there has in fact been an apology, by Joseph Estrada, the mayor of Manila, even though he was not in office when the tragedy occurred. Will another apology, by Aquino, make that much difference?

Frankly, we are now entering the realms of absurdity. I am not criticising the people who are directly involved in this affair but there is plenty to criticise in the stirring and posturing of those who are only involved for their own political ends.

The current administration has sunk so low in public esteem that even opportunistic gestures like this are unlikely to help it gain ground. And what can be said of the unholy alliance it has formed with its usual opponents?

It may be unfair to set a higher standard of behaviour for democrats who campaign for justice and human rights for all. However, you cannot set out your stall with these goods on display and expect no one will notice when some of the goods are taken off the table because they might earn a higher price by being withdrawn.

The time has come to be aware of the damage caused by those exploiting this tragedy.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur