James To Kun-sun: A lawmaker's long road to justice

Lawmaker has devoted almost three years to helping relatives of the 2010 bus siege victims to resolve the dispute with the Philippines

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 April, 2014, 6:05am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 April, 2014, 6:05am

James To Kun-sun still remembers conversations he had with relatives of victims of the Manila bus siege killings on the eve of its first anniversary.

"They contacted me just three days before they were to go to the Philippines for their campaign," the Democratic Party lawmaker says. "They had already booked the plane and everything else at the time. They said, 'Lawmaker To, we would really like you to come with us.'"

To eventually said yes. And that was the moment that he got involved in a long-standing dispute between Hong Kong and the Philippines.

Born in Hong Kong, To has a bachelor of laws from the University of Hong Kong and has worked as a solicitor.

He was a founding member of the United Democrats of Hong Kong in 1990. The party later merged with another one, the Meeting Point, and became the Democratic Party in 1994.

He became Hong Kong's youngest legislator when he was first elected to the Legislative Council's Kowloon West constituency at the age of 28 in 1991. In his more than two decades in politics, To has seen a lot.

On August 23, 2010, disgruntled former police officer Rolando Mendoza, armed with an M-16 assault rifle, stopped a tour bus in Manila's Rizal Park. Mendoza had been honoured as one of the Philippines' top 10 officers in 1986. But in 2008 he was dismissed for alleged involvement in drug-related crimes and extortion.

In a bid to demand his job back and have his name cleared, he took hostage the 22 Hongkongers on the coach. The 12-hour siege that ensued eventually ended in a bloodbath - Mendoza, 55, shot dead eight people before turning the gun on himself.

When the crisis happened, To was at a party retreat, where Democratic Party members were setting their goals for the coming year.

"At first I thought it was going to be OK. But then Mendoza opened fire, and it all went downhill from there," To said. "I was deeply shocked."

The families of those killed, along with the survivors, spent the first year after the incident demanding an apology from the Philippines. They then decided to fly there for the first anniversary of the tragedy to demand justice. To said the families needed someone to help them on the trip, but they did not know who to approach.

"They said they feared some lawmakers would only take advantage of the situation for their own political gain," he said. "I asked them why they did not fear I would do so. They said they would wait and see."

It was this blind trust that bound them together for the next two years and eight months until the matter was finally resolved last Wednesday.

By that time, To, the survivors and the victims' families had flown to Manila to meet lawyers about the possibility of suing the country, had held countless meetings with Hong Kong officials, and worked on numerous campaigns to resolve the stand-off, including collecting signatures from the public.

To said he knew they would not stand a chance of winning a lawsuit against a country because of sovereign immunity, but felt he needed to do something.

"For the event's second anniversary, we collected more than 40,000 signatures in just two days," To recalled. "I have been in politics for more than 20 years and I can tell you it was crazy. People were queuing outside Sogo. They were angry about what had happened."

The families never once thought of giving up their battle for justice, To said.

For Tse Chi-kin, brother of slain tour guide Masa Tse, there was a reason he refused to give up - Masa's eyes remained open when he tried to close them upon retrieving his body. In Chinese culture, it means a person did not die in peace.

Last Wednesday, the families reached a resolution with the Philippines during a visit from Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada and cabinet secretary Jose Rene Almendras. The country expressed its "most sorrowful regret and profound sympathy" over the tragedy.

Although they fell short of using the word "apology", To said Estrada and Almendras had used it in a meeting with the families. The verbal apology was unexpected, he said.

To said he did not know for sure what the turning point was, given that Philippine President Benigno Aquino once said he could not issue an official apology because "the act of one individual ... should not be construed as an act of the entire country".

But if he had to guess, To said, he would put it down to the example they gave that it took Taiwan just three months to get an apology from the Philippines over a similar crisis.

Last May, Filipino coastguards shot dead a Taiwanese fisherman in waters claimed by the Philippines. Taiwan imposed sanctions, including a ban on new Filipino workers, and Manila apologised in August.

"Taiwan did it. What about the superpower China?" To said, explaining that Taiwan's success exerted pressure on Beijing to step up its effort to resolve the dispute in Hong Kong.

The day after the resolution was reached, To posted a message on Facebook: "We thank the public for their support over the hostage incident. It is now over … starting from this afternoon, we will focus on the Lamma Island tragedy and push the government to release the report."

To was referring to the 2012 ferry collision off Lamma Island that claimed 39 lives. For him, it's another battle for justice that he is in for the long haul.


James To Kun-sun

Age 51

Education LLB, University of Hong Kong

Professional qualifications Solicitor of Hong Kong Court

Career highlights
Founding member of the United Democrats of Hong Kong in 1990, which became the Democratic Party
Became Hong Kong's youngest lawmaker in 1991