MINDANAWON ABROAD: Manila Hostage: A Lesson in Crisis Management. By Ava Patricia Avila and Jet Olfato

SINGAPORE: The hostage crisis in Manila took place in Quirino grandstand.  The grandstand commemorates the Philippine democratic struggle, where elected Head of State take their vow of office, and across the street is Rizal Park where the statue of the national hero stands.  As the country struggles for recognition in the global scene, with President Benigno Aquino at the helm of its fiscal and socio-political path to recovery, the incident revealed the many flaws embedded in the country’s security regime and crisis management strategies.

Bloodbath in Quirino

On 23 August 2010,  expelled police officer Rolando Mendoza hijacked a busload of Hong Kong tourists, which ended  with the death of 9, including that of the hostage-taker himself.  Mendoza, a decorated Manila police officer dismissed for his alleged involvement in drug-related crimes and extortion, demanded reappointment in the service.  Negotiations led by police enforcers took place but collapsed when the suspect’s brother was arrested. Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) operatives were positioned to attack but failed to contain the situation.

As the 11-hour standoff concluded, the shocked public was left with unanswered questions and emotional condemnations.  With the Philippines already marred by turbulent politics, how can the country move forward from this failure in crisis management? How can it gain back the trust of the international community, especially Hong Kong and China, as bilateral tensions continue to escalate?

Tactical Errors

In a country troubled by criminality, insurgency and terrorism, hostage taking is not something that is uncommon, especially in the south, where Abu Sayyaf has made it their bread and butter to hold civilians for ransom.  In fact, Filipino military troops, who has partnered and trained with US Special Forces, are highly knowledgeable in the necessary crisis response tactics.  However, the detachment involved in the recent hostage crisis was one that was oddly unprepared, even though the Philippine National Police (PNP) has the elite SWAT and Special Action Force (SAF) units to deal with such cases.

The tragedy placed international spotlight on the competency of the Philippine law enforcement sector to effectively manage crisis situations.  In any setting such as what transpired, the top priority is, at all times, to secure the safety of the hostages.  What aggravated the outrage of the public are the numerous missed opportunities of the hostage response team, which might have led to a less number of casualties and a more acceptable outcome.  However, the lack of resolve from the police team, the indecisiveness of the leadership, the absence of swift tactics and actions – exposed the Philippine law enforcers to strong denouncements from the global audience, who were closely scrutinizing the event as it unfolded.

The extensive media coverage earned substantial airtime in local and global networks, which in itself is a potentially disastrous blunder in highly sensitive situations. And, as it turned out, it had indeed been a contributing factor to the over-all failure of the crisis response.  For one, it allowed the Philippine police force and SWAT team to be exposed to very detailed dissections from an emotional and critical audience. More importantly, the media presence interfered with a delicate operation where caution and precision is required, as every surrounding factor has corresponding effects.

Something that seems to have been forgotten during the negotiation was the need to pay more attention to the psychology of dealing with the hostage taker.  Typically, lives are at risked of violent deaths at the hands of depressed, homicidal, suicidal or cold-blooded individual, oftentimes in the midst of a chaotic and uncontrolled environment. What happened in Manila was a reflection of this. Experts advised that the resolution of a hostage crisis requires the use of every type of communications strategy by a skilled practical psychologist as negotiator or backup negotiator.  Most negotiation teams in Philippine hostage situations have been headed by government officials, police officers, politicians, media people or even showbiz personalities.  While successful outcomes have occurred in some of these cases, it would not hurt to heed the suggestions of specialists.

Refocusing on Crisis and Post-crisis Management

The strategies and courses of action that authorities would take following a crisis are almost as important as the tactical actions during the crisis itself.  With confidence over the ability of Philippine authorities to deal with the crisis and its aftermath on the line, the government has to deal with pressures from two fronts – the disgruntled Filipino public and the displeased Hong Kong government.

The post-crisis scenario would serve as a test for an administration that was freshly installed only two months back.  All eyes are now on President Aquino, as the public anticipates reforms to be undertaken in response to the various glitches in the crisis management system.  The incident not only underlines the necessity of upgrading police competency, it also allows an opportunity to dissect the system of adjudication in the country – which was essentially the grievance of hijacker Mendoza. Also, the hostage crisis response should be able to surface vital legislative policies that would guide the actions of police officers, media, and government authorities during similar situations.

Apart from the obligation of the government to placate the demands of its citizenry, the hostage incident would place into trial the capacity of the Aquino administration to manage its diplomatic relationships with Hong Kong and China, where the general outcry is more emotional and possibly turning out to be hostile. As the Hong Kong citizens expressed their strong dismay through various rallies and protests in the Philippine consulate, the Hong Kong and Chinese authorities have sought a thorough and impartial investigation to be conducted.  There are indications that the hostage crisis might impact on the relationship between Philippines and Hong Kong – whose manpower and business trade had always been traditionally strong.  The task therefore of the Philippine government is to guarantee the well-being of Filipinos in those countries, while at the same time, focus on promptly restoring amicable diplomatic relations.

What Now?: Reforming Philippine Crisis Response

The members of the political opposition, foremost among them the allies of former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo who is now a congressional representative, quickly seized on the opportunity to use the alleged inefficiency as a bullet against the Aquino leadership. While squabbles in the political arena continues, and as finger-pointing ensues, a look into enhancing crisis responses must take precedence over unproductive politicking.

Before the year ends, budget for 2011 will be approved and it is hoped that the proposed allocation of US $209 million for defense will be managed well.  As the country is rebuilding its image, investigation must continue at all levels including the police, media and other government agencies involved. This is an opportune time for long-term creative approaches and solutions to be recognized and implemented where necessary.

(Mindanawon Abroad is our way of linking up Mindanawons abroad with their roots in Mindanao. Ava Patricia C. Avila of Davao is now based in Singapore as  an Associate Research Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. Jet Olfato is a Research Associate at the Nanyang Business School).