Healing the wounds, finally
COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - April 16, 2018 - 12:00am

A few days after a public spontaneous declaration of his “love” for President Xi Jinping of China, President Rodrigo Duterte did another surprise act. Almost eight years after the tragic bus hostage incident in Luneta where eight Chinese tourists from Hong Kong were killed, President Duterte made a public apology for the bungled police rescue operations.

The Philippine leader made the seeming “unsolicited” apology during extemporaneous remarks before the Filipino community in Hong Kong last Thursday. It was a stopover visit after the President attended the Boao Forum for Asia held in Hainan province of China.

Fresh from his official talks with the top Chinese leader, President Duterte took the opportunity of his official visit at the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region to issue the apology in behalf of the Philippine government. While the incident happened during the term of his immediate predecessor, it was not difficult for President Duterte to assume the obligation for the fatal outcome of the Luneta bus hostage rescue incident.

The President’s apology was roundly applauded by his audience, composed largely of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in Hong Kong. It was in apparent show of their appreciation of the unexpected gesture that could further improve their treatment there.

“There has been no official apologies for what happened during that incident... in August 2010. May I address myself to the Chinese people who are here: I apologize,” President Duterte told his audience. “From the bottom of my heart, as the President of the Philippines and on behalf of the Filipino people, may I formally apologize to you now. I guarantee you that this will never happen again,” he vowed. 

Incidentally, it was four years ago when former president and Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada made the first public apology for the Luneta bus hostage incident. Mayor Estrada flew to Hong Kong and made the formal apology on April 23, 2014, or less than a year after he took over City Hall from his immediate predecessor Mayor Alfredo Lim, one of the key figures in the bungled police rescue incident. Faced with threats to clamp down on over 60,000 OFWs in Hong Kong, Mayor Estrada’s apology saved the day for them.

The incident took place on Aug. 23, 2010 when a dismissed police senior inspector Rolando Mendoza hijacked a tourist bus with 24 passengers on board and commandeered it to be parked in front of the Quirino Grandstand in Rizal Park, or more popularly called as Luneta. For nearly 11 hours, the hostage-taking incident brought into the picture newly installed president Benigno “PNoy” Aquino III.

Confronted with the first major crisis in the fledgling PNoy administration, it ended tragically after Mendoza was shot dead by a police sniper but only after eight of the passengers were killed. The bungled rescue operation was blamed on the blunders and lack of training of the officers and men on the ground of the Philippine National Police (PNP).

Less than two months into office at Malacañang Palace, PNoy immediately ordered an investigation into this incident. During the critical hours of the hostage-taking, micro-managing PNoy motored to a restaurant nearby Luneta which then Mayor Lim, along with his then vice mayor Isko Moreno, transformed as command post to direct police rescue activities.

An inter-agency body incident investigation and review committee (IIRC) was created to look into the administrative lapses and criminal liabilities of all government personnel and private individuals who got involved in the messed up police rescue job.

The IIRC was co-chaired by then Department of Justice (DOJ) secretary Leila de Lima and the late Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) “acting” secretary Jesse Robredo. The IIRC was tasked, among other things, to recommend prosecution of any government or private individuals who may be found liable for the tragic outcome of the incident, subject to the review and approval by Malacañang.

Acting on the IIRC report submitted to him, PNoy announced in a press conference on Oct.10, 2010 his having approved the filing of charges against top officials, including Manila’s former police chief but cleared close friend former DILG undersecretary Rico Puno.

PNoy called for the initiation of administrative charges against Mayor Lim, deputy Ombudsman Emilio Gonzalez III and four police officers. “The message has to be sent... when you accept the perks and privileges of the office, the duties and responsibilities are equally accepted by you. You are responsible for your failure,” PNoy cited, referring to the policemen.

Malacañang referred the IIRC report to the House of Representatives “for appropriate action” on the case of then Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez after she was tagged as the reason why Mendoza – the hostage-taker – reportedly got enraged on her being unclear on his court petition for reinstatement to the police force.

In a memorandum issued on May 9, 2012, or almost two years after the incident, Robredo found Lim administratively liable for the mishandling of the situation that strained relations between Manila and Beijing. He recommended to PNoy the suspension of Lim for one month but was ignored.

The IIRC report failed to appease top officials of the HKSAR and tarnished relations of the Philippines not only with Hong Kong but also with Beijing. The Philippines was placed in black travel list of Hong Kong and Beijing as PNoy stood his ground against making public apology to the families and relatives of the slain and injured victims.

While it took a former president and now Mayor Estrada to prevent further damage of relations with HKSAR and China, the public apology made by former Davao City Mayor and now President Duterte would surely complete the healing of the wounds, finally.

Meanwhile, Lim and Moreno are reportedly planning to make a comeback at City Hall to contest the re-election bid of Mayor Estrada for a third and last term in office.

Unfortunately though for Lim and Moreno, it would be like opening up old wounds that could hurt their comeback bids.

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