The Rescue That Wasn't in Manila

The spectacularly fouled up rescue of Hong Kong hostages from a bus in Manila on Aug. 23 wasn’t the first time the Filipino military and police have made a major mess of a hostage situation, and it almost certainly won’t be the last, given endemic structural and societal problems with the Philippine law enforcement community that trump even their lack of equipment and training.

As live TV cameras stayed glued to the scene, former senior police inspector Rolando del Rosario Mendoza was killed along with eight tourists in an assault that has attracted worldwide criticism. The SWAT team, labeled by locals as “Sayang Wala Akong Training" (“It’s too bad I don't have any training” in Tagalog), attempted to break the windows of the bus Mendoza seized with a sledgehammer. The M16 rifles they carried were too long to be wielded efficiently inside the vehicle. The entire operation had an air of delay followed by panic as it stretched on from morning until the bloody nighttime finale. A whole litany of problems has been identified that caused the failure.

Longtime observers of the Philippines, however, say the bigger problem is that the institutional structures that should govern such crises usually do not work because loyalty is only to family, friends and classmates. Police protect each other if they can, as do soldiers in coups – an important issue in Mendoza’s case. A decorated officer, he had been fired after being accused of extortion, robbery and harassment, a series of charges that probably would fit a great many of Mendoza’s colleagues and inspire their sympathy. The police see themselves as collegial, whether those surrounding the bus knew him or were friends or not.

There is no organizational hierarchy that trumps this group loyalty. In effect the country lacks the fundamental ability to build working public institutions that respond to something other than feelings and personal and group allegiance. That too often includes the media, who because many were friends with the police, were allowed to get so close to the action that they were able to betray police tactics to Mendoza, who was watching the event live from inside the bus. Police didn’t even bother to put up crowd control barriers to keep anyone back.

“Crisis situations in the Philippines, such as kidnappings and hostage takings, normally involve multiple parties with different and sometimes competing perspectives and interests,” says a report by Pacific Strategies and Assessments, a country risk consultancy based in Manila. “In addition to the law enforcement and emergency units onsite, different politicians and other power brokers also join the frenzy, trying to portray themselves as crusaders and/or lead in resolving the crisis.”

The military has repeatedly had coupsters, communists and jihadis seemingly surrounded, only to have them slip away – sometimes raising suspicions that they had bribed the officials to let them go.

In 2001, for example, the military surrounded a Basilan hospital in which an American missionary couple, Martin and Gracia Burnham, had been held by Abu Sayyaf Muslim rebels. The Burnhams had originally been captured at a resort in Palawan and would be held for 14 months along with 18 other Filipino and foreign tourists in the mountains. The rebels who held the couple were tracked to the hospital in June of 2001. Under the full gaze of a flock of media on live television, officials announced that the rebels were surrounded and would be arrested. The next morning, they were gone, their hostages in tow.

Ultimately, officials caught up with the rebels in Zamboanga del Norte. In the shootout Martin Burnham and a Filipino nurse, Ediborah Yap, were killed. It is uncertain whether Burnham was shot by the military or by the rebels. There have been countless other cases where the same result has prevailed, to the everlasting embarrassment of the armed forces and police.

“Instead of facilitating the victim’s safe release, the number of parties involved often provokes jurisdictional disputes and creates an unclear command and control environment that only adds to an already tense and confused atmosphere,” the PSA report says. “Throw in a large and increasingly pervasive and sensationalist media apparatus vying for the rights to the same story, and the results are real problems with sensitive information control and reporting accuracy.”

The report cites an equally chaotic atmosphere in 2007, when a military mutineer named Antonio Trillanes and a small band of colleagues took command of the Manila Peninsula Hotel in an effort to bring down the government of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. In an astonishing scene, government security forces drove an armored personnel carrier right through the front doors of the hotel and into the lobby in their attempt to capture Trillanes.

“The media literally rampaged and destroyed the lobby in its stampede to get the best photo op,” the report says. “Several culprits actually escaped the scene, using media credentials borrowed from the media horde.”

In a uniquely Filipino turn of events, Trillanes was eventually jailed for leading the coup – the second in which he had been involved – and successfully ran for the Philippine Senate from his jail cell. Some 11 million people voted for him. He remains both in prison and in the Senate, although there is an effort underway by his senatorial colleagues to have his custody transferred to the legislative body so that he can join deliberations.

In the confusion that ruled Monday’s hostage mess, “the Philippine government lacked any semblance of control or a coordinated strategy to address the situation,” PSA found. It remains unclear even now who was in charge.

“Observers note that the situation had turned for the worse after a local politician — an actor and Manila vice mayor — and Mendoza’s relatives joined the fray.” Their participation negated any leverage the negotiators had started to build with the hostage taker.

In addition to this lack of command structure, PSA and a variety of other sources have pointed out that despite decades of aid, particularly from the United States, the police and the military are woefully under-equipped to handle not just hostage situations but almost any problem. Vast amounts of money have been drained away by endemic graft and corruption. As long ago as 2000, it was estimated that as much as 30 percent of the national budget is lost to graft every year. That affects procurement of military gear.

As the scene unfolded on the bus, it became clear that officials lacked bulletproof vests and weapons that would allow for a proper assault. They also had no flash grenades, which are used to stun both hostages and attackers long enough to put the culprits out of business.

Ultimately, PSA notes, “the Philippine government lacks the resources and equipment to conduct ongoing training in these esoteric areas to keep skill sets sharp. The results are confusion and half-baked strategies and tactics when the unexpected happens like the seizure of the bus.”

There is nothing in the PSA report, or in any of the other reports that have emerged from the crisis, that would indicate this is anything but the normal state of affairs in the country.