Can P-Noy Tackle Filipino Impunity?

Philippine President Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III's announcement Monday that as many as a dozen people may be charged with negligence or misconduct in the aftermath of the Aug. 23 hostage fiasco that killed eight Hong Kong tourists in Manila sets up a major test of his new administration's resolve to end generations of impunity for top officials and the well-wired rich.

The man Filipinos have nicknamed P-Noy told reporters he will consider an official report and then decide whether to approve charges against Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim, a former police chief who was a close political ally of the president's mother, and former Manila police chief Rodolfo Magtibay, who resigned in the aftermath of the mess. Aquino said he would make the call after he returns in a week from an official visit to the United States, where he flew after meeting the press.

The charges were recommended as part of a government probe that cited at least eight major gaffes in the 11-hour hostage standoff as millions of people watched on live television, including in Hong Kong, where outrage continued to spread in the wake of the disaster, frightening Filipino domestic helpers in the territory who have borne the brunt of citizen wrath. The debacle has also strained relations with the Chinese government, which also demanded an investigation.

The blunders included Magtibay's refusal to deploy an elite commando unit, instead depending on his own local SWAT team despite the president's demand that he do so. He and Lim were also cited for leaving the scene during negotiations for lunch at Manila's Emerald Garden Restaurant. In addition Lim was named for ordering the handcuffing of the brother of the hostage taker, Rolando Mendoza, which was said to have precipitated Mendoza's decision to start killing hostages. Mendoza, 55, a decorated officer early in his career, had been fired from the force for a variety of charges but police did not retrieve the assault rifle he used to seize the bus.

Whether the government acts on the charges would be a major departure from past practice. The family of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who looted the country of a hoard reported at anything from US$5 billion to US$100 billion, has escaped punishment. Joseph Estrada, president from 1998 to 2001, was convicted of taking as much as US$81 million in kickbacks and illegal numbers-racket payoffs but was pardoned by his successor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who herself has been accused of looting the treasury of billions of dollars.

It took many years before the soldiers accused of murdering Aquino's father, Benigno, Jr., in broad daylight on an airport tarmac in 1983 were finally convicted of murder (The last of them were pardoned and released in 2009). But no mastermind of that crime, the most famous murder in a country where killing almost seems like a national pastime, has ever been conclusively found.

The current trial of Andal Ampatuan Jr., arrested for ordering the murder of 57 people including 31 journalists in Maguindanao in November 2009 continues, with Ampatuan resting in an air-conditioned and comfortable cell. One cynic said the trial could last 200 years.

Human rights and journalism organizations have repeatedly condemned the Philippines for its culture of impunity, citing a long history of unsolved extrajudicial assassinations of reporters and political activists.

In his June 30 inaugural address, Aquino told his audience: "To those who talk about reconciliation, if they mean that they would like us to simply forget about the wrongs that they have committed in the past, we have this to say: there can be no reconciliation without justice." He said his government would "defeat the enemy by wielding the tools of justice, social reform, and equitable governance leading to a better life. With proper governance life will improve for all. When we are all living well, who will want to go back to living under oppression?"

Aquino himself was shot and nearly killed in a coup attempt against his mother, Corazon Aquino. Several generations of military coup plotters have been allowed to continue, often simply being returned to duty. Two repeat leaders are now serving in the Philippines Senate, although one is doing so from his jail cell.

However, public officials rarely if ever step up to take the blame. The current situation is no different. Immediately after the report on the bus shootings was delivered, officials started shifting blame. At a Congressional hearing last week, senators led by one-time human rights campaigner Joker Arroyo accused the press of disloyalty to the nation for broadcasting the disturbing images to the world.

At the top of the list of those saying it wasn't his fault was Mayor Alfredo Lim, who won the nickname "Dirty Harry" during his trigger-happy reign as Manila's police chief. Lim broke into tears during a Manila City Hall press conference Tuesday in which he defended the police involved in the disaster and questioned why he had been included in the list of officials responsible.

"You cannot rely on anybody except policemen and soldiers who are paid to die. No other professional will offer to sacrifice their lives for you ... Every time they step out of their homes, one foot is buried in the ground," Lim said, pounding on the table. He called the report a "shotgun blast" that hit everybody involved in the attempt to get Mendoza out of the bus.

Manila vice mayor Isko Moreno said those who should be investigated weren't the police but rather those doing the investigating. Moreno said Justice Secretary Leila de Lima had issued an unfinished report on the incident. Those involved "risked their lives, did their duties and were working diligently during trying times," he said and were the ones now being charged, instead of those who did nothing at the height of the crisis.

Other critics said the Malacanang palace was keeping the report a secret to protect others culpable in the attack. Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda denied there was any plan to protect anybody. "We are not hiding anything. We will release the two reports in fairness to those people named," he told The Inquirer newspaper.

Aquino ordered Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa and Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Eduardo de Mesa to study the report, by the Incident Investigation and Review Committee, saying he would read it on his return from the US. It is then to be released to the public along with his administration's recommendations.