Hong Kong is right to keep black travel alert on the Philippines

Alice Wu says the travel alert on the Philippines should stay until victims of the Manila hostage crisis get the justice they deserve

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 August, 2013, 4:04am

It has been three years since the Manila hostage crisis, yet survivors and victims' families still wait for the justice they deserve, and so the Philippines remains "black" on the Hong Kong government's travel alert list. Some see it as nonsensical, since the travel alert has done little to get the Philippine government to budge. Certainly, it has proved ineffective.

Sure, the new Manila mayor (and the country's ex-president) Joseph Estrada apologised for the tragedy last week. But it's puzzling since the apology wasn't his to make. Whether it was sincere is irrelevant. All Estrada can be sorry for is his president's and his predecessor's inability to say sorry.

Estrada must know that his apology is technically inconsequential. And while all this talk about what he would have done may well be true, it has the additional "virtue" of being self-serving; highlighting where Alfredo Lim failed and how he would have handled it better is a terrific public relations move. It was a perfect image-building opportunity and Estrada capitalised on it.

The apology should have no effect on Hong Kong's travel alert, which really shouldn't be much of a cause for controversy. Over 100,000 Hong Kong tourists visit the Philippines every year, even after August 23, 2010. So, it is clear it hasn't deterred Hongkongers from visiting a country whose authorities have proved - in their handling of the hostage crisis - to be completely inept and incapable of protecting innocent lives in hostage situations. Every year, enough Hongkongers choose to look past this gross negligence and gross incompetence.

Sure, the actions of key players who could have ensured a much better outcome on that tragic day have been criticised. But that's little reason to assume steps have been taken to better protect tourists. There are risks associated with travelling to the Philippines; travel warnings have been issued by other countries, for reasons like "increased terrorism activity".

The four basic demands of the survivors and relatives of victims remain unanswered: an official apology by the Philippine government; compensation; punishment for the officials responsible; and, improved tourist safety. And as they press on with legal action, the least the Hong Kong government can do is keep the travel alert.

The treatment by the Philippine government of the fatal shooting of Taiwanese fisherman Hung Shih-cheng by the Philippine coastguard in May stands in stark contrast to its silence on the hostage crisis. In that case, the Philippines issued a formal apology, agreed to pay compensation to Hung's family, and homicide charges have been recommended - and it took less than three months following the incident for these to happen.

We're not blind to the geopolitics that makes Hong Kong's three-year-old tragedy different from that of the Taiwanese fisherman's. It may seem nonsensical that politics should stand in the way of human lives. Call it nonsensically necessary if you want, but without the victims' demands answered, the travel alert remains. Removing it would not be politically viable.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA