Philippines: 12-hour hostage drama plays out on TV

MANILA, Philippines — It couldn’t have happened at a worst time for President Benigno S. Aquino III of the Philippines. And it couldn’t have happened in a worst place either.

Barely two months earlier, Aquino had stood on a stage a few meters from where Monday’s hostage drama unfolded, to take his oath of office as the 15th president of this Southeast Asian nation. In his inaugural speech on June 30, Aquino promised ordinary Filipinos that change was about to happen, that his government would serve the people. The days of an uncaring government, he said, would end on that day.

Rolando Mendoza, the 55-year-old ex-cop who took hostage on Monday a bus full of Chinese tourists, may not be considered an ordinary Filipino. He was a bemedaled police officer and, by his account to journalists who had a field day interviewing him while the crisis played out, he valued being a cop so much that he’d be willing to die for it.

He also had a score to settle. When a case was filed against him that led to his dismissal from service – he had been accused of extorting money from a hotel chef suspected of using drugs – Mendoza thought, according to his relatives, that he had been wronged.

“He wanted to be heard,” said Vice Mayor Isko Moreno, who tried to negotiate an end to the standoff. “He felt he was not given a fair shake.”

When the government’s response to his demands — he wanted to be reinstated to his old job, complete with the usual benefits — was not to his liking, Mendoza became agitated as he held the 15 hostages at gunpoint, using an Armalite rifle. (He had released earlier in the day nine hostages, including three children and a sick man.)

When he saw his brother, also a police officer, being violently taken into police custody in front of television cameras and claiming that the police were about to kill him, Mendoza grew more agitated and started firing from inside the bus.

When the bus driver, whom he had handcuffed to the steering wheel, managed to escape, all hell broke loose. The heavy rain and the thunderstorm in some parts of Manila added to the sense of gloom that enveloped the entire nation.

Police commandos moved in, smashing the bus’s windows and windshield with sledgehammers and throwing tear gas canisters inside. When the smoke cleared, most of the hostages lay dead or injured; officials said later that eight hostages had died, six had survived and one was in a critical condition. A body believed to be Mendoza’s was slumped by the bus door, killed, according to news reports, by sniper fire.

In a press briefing shortly after midnight of Monday, Aquino was not particularly condemning of Mendoza. He even promised to look into the dead cop’s problems to see if the system had failed him. “We were going to wait him out,” the president said, referring to the fact that the standoff lasted 12 hours. His tone during the presser was more forlorn than judgmental.

The hostage crisis was one of the major tests for the new president.

And it came at a time when the Philippine National Police is under fire in the wake of the airing of video showing a police officer torturing a robbery suspect. In the video, a naked man is shown writhing in pain on the floor of a police precinct, the string tied to his genitals being yanked by a man said to be a cop. It was a horrific display of sadism that galvanized even more the police force's poor reputation.

The hostage drama captivated – and angered – many Filipinos, with many of them blaming the media coverage for the way it played out. “Do not let this shit in Luneta trend on Twitter,” wrote Carlos Celdran, a popular tourist guide, on Twitter and Facebook four hours after the drama began. “This f****r wants publicity. Let’s not give it to him.”

Eight hours later, Celdran’s fear came true: four of Twitter’s “trending topics” were about the hostage-taking, not counting the two on “Philippines” and “Filipinos.”

Many Filipinos like Celdran were worried about the impact the drama would have on the Philippines, a country that counts tourism as one of its top earners. While some were offended by such attitude – “worrying about the country's international image is kinda like fussing over a blood stain on your shirt when you're bleeding internally,” went one tweet — it wasn’t entirely misplaced.

Barely hours after the crisis, Hong Kong’s Security Bureau issued a “severe threat” alert, advising all its citizens to “avoid all travel” to the Philippines. It may have been just prudent action on the part of Hong Kong, as the president framed it, but it was a blow nonetheless.

Other Filipinos dismissed the whole thing with their usual sense of humor.

“Hostage over. Miss Universe 2010 tomorrow. Good night,” James Andrian, a culinary student, said on Facebook.

If only Monday’s terror were that simple to set aside.