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Making Sense of the Bus Hijacking Deaths in Manila [Essay]

26 Aug 2010

By now, you’ve likely heard about the tragic hostage incident in Philippines, which transpired — as if a cruel joke — just in time for the climax of the Hungry Ghost Festival. Little pity will be extended to the ghost of disgraced ex-cop Rolando Mendoza, who reportedly took the lives of eight Hong Kong tourists aboard a tour bus in Manila this past Monday. For Hong Kong citizens, hardly have violent events of this shocking magnitude occurred so close to home; needless to say, emotions are running high.

Naturally, the media covered the 11-hour drama as it played toward its fatal conclusion, inciting both anger and mourning as observers struggle to make sense of the violence. And as the details of the bus siege and its frustrating aftermath begin to trickle in, a more complex picture begins to emerge.

For many, the immediate impulse was to say, in truest N.W.A. fashion, “fuck the police.” As anyone witnessing the live televised event over the course of the day will tell you, the 200-man SWAT team called to the scene was slow to move, seen crouching beside the bus for well over an hour in an attempt to gain entry to the bus.

What’s more, whether the eight victims were murdered by Mendoza or by the SWAT rescuers themselves is unconfirmed; Philippine National Police spokesman Agrimero Cruz told reporters that ballistic tests are currently being conducted to see whether the killings were a gross blunder on the part of the police force. Interior Secretary Jessie Robredo acknowledged that police had handled the situation shoddily, noting “poor handling of the negotiations, and that the assault team was inadequately trained, equipped and led.”

The bungled training of the police force can only reflect poorly on the recently elected Philippine President Benigno Aquino, who kept noticeably mum during the course of the crisis. Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang said that his calls to Aquino went unanswered on Monday, and were only returned the following day. According to Philippine officials, communication channels with China are conducted via the foreign ministry in Beijing, which in turn facilitate meetings between Philippine and Hong Kong representatives. An appalling bureaucracy characterizes two governments’ disconnected relation, which no doubt contributed to the frustration, brewing slowly and surely.

The largest danger, however, perhaps lies in the backlash.

The Financial Times draws a comparison to the United States’ media criticism of the September 11th terrorist attacks, noting that “while Americans were able to find solace in the heroism of New York fire fighters, the people of Hong Kong were instead shocked by the bumbling rescue operation.” Though hardly comparable, certainly there were faint echoes of that type of impassioned, patriotic response. The government was quick to offer psychiatric and medical care to the returning survivors, and led three minutes of city-wide silence to honor the dead. On the Internet, Hong Kong communities also rallied to memorialize (and also scrutinize) the tragedy.

This is all well and good. But often inseparable from the sadness is anger: Already, reports of Chinese employers firing Filipino domestic workers have begun to circulate. Elizabeth Tang, chief executive of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, noted that helpers “can be sacked without explanation under Hong Kong labor law…that’s why we’re worried about people venting their anger and frustration against domestic helpers.”

Click to continue reading: Filipino citizens posing for photos in front of the bullet-riddled bus — as well as a Pinoy-programmed game — have done little to conciliate Hong Kong’s outrage at the tragic death of eight tourists in Manila this Monday.


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6 Comments leave one →
  1. 29 Aug 2010 11:25 PM

    I suspect that a lot of the anger that people feel is actually secretly directed at themselves, because they were morbidly curious enough to watch the entire saga unfold on live television only to lose their innocence. My biggest gripe is actually with the media, or the police’s lack of control over it–it’s said that Mendoza went berserk after he saw his brother get arrested on the live TV feed inside the bus. Aren’t there rules about this sort of thing?

    Also, it really does no justice to those who died when people post those pictures of the happy posers in front of the bus. It does nothing but incite racial hatred. It’s really weird that this event has created such a nationalistic moment in Hong Kong…

  2. Eunice permalink
    27 Aug 2010 2:10 AM

    Comparing this to 9/11 is too much of a stretch. 9/11 had far reaching political and social consequences that this shooting could even begin to achieve. The truth is, in Hong Kong, all the vices of the media are magnified because it is a relatively small region. And the public loves a good scandal – that’s why tabloids sell so well here.

    Besides the victims, Mendoza’s family deserves a lot of sympathy as well. Both his son and his wife handled themselves stoically in front of the cameras, and they kept apologizing for his actions.

  3. Laurel C permalink
    26 Aug 2010 2:17 PM

    Is “Mendoza” a typo?

    You’re right about the “occasional racism” though. It’s one of the few things that make me sad about Hong Kong when I go home. My residential complex seems to have made it its goal to exclude helpers from being anywhere near facilities, almost as if to prevent them from using them and so that residents don’t have to see them around. The different country clubs around town also always have “no helpers and drivers beyond this point” signs as well. It’s terrible.

    • 26 Aug 2010 2:29 PM

      Oh my god, good catch. Fixed! And your comment about the signs — how is that actually legal? That’s ridiculous.


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