Columnists opined that it was the president’s first challenge as head of the country. Some eight Hong Kong nationals died this day last year during their trip onboard the Hong Thai Travel Services tour bus supposedly only around Manila.
Truthfully, the 22 Chinese and three Filipino tour guides did not get beyond Manila. They just reached the Quirino Grandstand when Rolando Mendoza, 55, announced a bus siege to scare the government until the latter give him his job back.
Mendoza was a former police officer. He was also recognized as one of the top 10 policemen in the country 24 years ago. He joined the police force in 1981, and became senior inspector in 2005.
But he was dismissed in February 2010 because the Office of the Ombudsman found him guilty of extortion. He allegedly asked for P20,000 ($443) from a drug suspect in 2008.
Early on the day-long siege, Mendoza was negotiating calmly with the police, organizing food and fuel for the air-conditioning of his hostages. He was even coaxed to free nine people.
Tensions grew, however, when Mendoza saw on TV that the Manila Police District (MPD) SWAT team were creeping on the bus. He also saw his brother being ‘treated like a pig.’
Furious, Mendoza shot two hostages and told the Radio Mindanao Network that he will kill the rest of the passengers if his brother would not be released.
The cops pumped the bus’ tires with bullets, broke the windows with sledgehammers, rip the doors off with a rope and forced the rear emergency exit open. At last, they thought of firing tear gas inside the bus, and a sniper managed to shoot Mendoza in the head.
Seven Chinese were already killed and eight Chinese were rushed in a hospital.
Tragic and deadly
Tourism Secretary Alberto Lim labeled the incident as ‘the deadliest attack on visitors in Philippine history.’ “It was the mishandling of the situation that caused this to happen. It is really tragic for the country as a whole,” Lim said in Bloomberg Television.
Hong Kong chief executive Donald Tsang criticized the handling of the standoff, too. How come the large group of police was just able to surround the vehicle for nearly half an hour?
It was "badly prepared and risky," according to Frederic Gallois, former commander of the elite hostage rescue unit of France. The police operation "visibly lacked adequate equipment and tactical competence."
“It’s not a terrorist act, but it will show how incompetent our police force is,” Toto Hilado, treasurer at Rizal Commercial Banking Corporation-Manila, was reported saying. It “was just diabolical,” Ian Bryson, a Singapore-based analyst for Southeast Asia and the Pacific at Control Risks, added.
A police officer was injured
Manila police commander Leocadio Santiago admitted that they had blundered amidst the dozens of bullets fired into the bus.
Police superintendent Nelson Yabut also claimed the tourists were being used as "human shields." An officer was shot and injured, too, causing his men to retreat.
"We did everything to negotiate and end this peacefully, but [Mendoza] gave us no choice."
The deaths cast a shadow on the government’s plan to double the size of the tourism industry, President Benigno Aquino realized. “One of our avenues for job generation is tourism. We intend to double the tourism figures from 3 million to 6 million. This obviously does not help.”
The Philippines had 3 million tourists last 2009. During the first four months of 2010, 107,708 tourists from Hong Kong and China arrived.
But because of the incident, the Hong Kong government advised its citizens to leave the country. It flew its flag at half-mast the next day, and its stock exchange observed a minute of silence at 9:50 a.m.
Why didn’t former ombudsman Merceditas Guitierrez listened first to the expelled police officer? Wasn’t saving 25 lives a valid reason enough for her office to grant Mendoza the benefit of the doubt and review his case?
Why didn’t authorities discuss what led Mendoza to risk the country’s tourism appeal until the next day? Was it the media’s fault that the rescue operation was criticized? Shouldn’t it be the police’s job to find out that there’s a television set in the bus? (Let alone an official regulation on how media should behave during hostage crises.)
How the police officials involved then were treated today? What should the country to improve on its rating with the Global Peace Index?