Families of Manila hostage crisis victims need closure, above all

Mike Rowse says it's cynical of politicians to agitate for reprisals

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 October, 2013, 3:09am

The death of eight Hong Kong citizens during a botched hostage rescue in Manila three years ago was a tragedy. What is happening now is fast turning to farce.

Let us be clear about the facts. The hostages were shot and killed (some others were injured) by an ex-police officer, possibly high on drugs, who was protesting against his dismissal. Prime responsibility must rest on his shoulders, and his alone, because he pulled the trigger.

The fact that the situation deteriorated to the point that the now deceased gunman opened fire owes much to the incompetence of a number of Philippine officials subsequently identified in an official inquiry report. They fully deserve the criticism heaped upon them, and the disciplinary action taken against some of them. They have been exposed as professionally inept, though not responsible in a narrow criminal sense.

In the immediate aftermath, a senior Philippine national figure should have made a full and sincere expression of regret. However, most seemed to be too busy denying their own role in the rescue fiasco.

Contrast the Manila situation with what has just happened off the coast of Lampedusa, in Italy, where over 300 illegal immigrants from Africa drowned after their boat capsized.

No official was in any way to blame for the tragedy but the Italian prime minister was nevertheless so shocked by the loss of life that he has arranged a state funeral. The local mayor wept openly, as well might we all.

So where does this leave us three years on from our own incident? Some relatives of the deceased seem to have set their hearts on a full formal public apology from President Benigno Aquino. They have been encouraged in this approach by some of our lawmakers.

There is only one problem: Aquino has stated emphatically, on the record, that he is not going to make any such apology. We are free to draw our own conclusions on what this shows about his character and personality, but, as he is the elected head of state in another country, there is not much Hong Kong can do about it.

But our legislators seem to be competing with each other to come up with lunatic schemes to force the Philippines to submit. We must press Beijing to raise the issue at the highest diplomatic levels (this from members who normally bridle at the slightest intimation of central government involvement in our affairs). The problem here is that this is not a matter of foreign policy between states; any intervention could therefore only be informal in nature.

We must have a trade embargo, or put high tariffs on Philippine exports, or both. The problem here is that Hong Kong is a founder member of the World Trade Organisation and any such action on our part would clearly be ruled unlawful.

Don't worry, now there's another terrific wheeze: stop Philippine helpers coming here by not approving new contracts and not renewing the contracts of those already here. The loss of remittances will hurt the country and Aquino will be forced to eat his words.

Really? We can't hit the strong, so we are going to take out our frustration on the weak? What would that say about our character and personality?

Never mind the impact on tens of thousands of Hong Kong families who rely on their helper for support with child or elderly care, enabling both spouses to work. What about the impact on tens of thousands of honest, hard-working Filipino helpers whose families rely on their income?

What our leaders should be doing is comforting the bereaved, helping them recover from their loss and finding closure, not stirring a pot that will never boil. In short, we all need to grow up.

Mike Rowse is managing director of Stanton Chase International and an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. mike@rowse.com.hk