Two theories seek to explain the events of August 23rd, but just how valid are they?
Amid the humiliation and recriminations following the botched operation to rescue the Hong Kong tourists held hostage on board a bus hijacked by a disgruntled ex-cop at Rizal Park, there are two theories often cited as to why it ended the way it did.
The first has to do with the ineptitude of the government in its handling of the incident stemming from corruption or factional infighting. The second has to do with the underlying institutional, social or cultural fabric among Filipinos that settles for half-measures and mediocrity.
In a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece Maria Ressa of the local broadcasting company ABS-CBN basically attempts to assert the former, while an article appearing in the Huffington Post (which I cannot seem to locate now) from the desk of a country-risk analyst formerly based in the Philippines makes the case for the latter. In my opinion these arguments are both flawed. Here’s why.
The Corruption and Infighting Theory
Lest we forget, the Quirino hostage crisis was sparked by the dismissal of an officer–an unintended consequence of the Philippine National Police and the Ombudsman ridding the service of the proverbial bad apple. The charge that the bungling of the incident was the result of a “corrupt government” ignores the fact that despite criminal proceedings against him being dropped by the complainant, administrative measures led to his dismissal from service.
The charge of ineptitude is not true. Well, not entirely. The Philippines is the country in Southeast Asia with the most experience in handling acts of violence targeting innocent civilians. I consulted the Global Terrorism Database which compiles statistics on this. Take a look at this chart and the accompanying table which shows incidents dating back to 1970. There were 2,741 incidents recorded over nearly four decades to December of 2008. After peaking in 1990, they declined over the subsequent decade only to experience an upswing beginning in 2000. In contrast, Indonesia recorded 513 incidents, while Sri Lanka had 2,498.
The mid-70s to the mid-90s were the decades of nationalist, socialist ideology: most of the incidents involved either the New People’s Army/ Alex Boncayao Brigade occurring mostly in Luzon with Manila being the primary location or the Moro National Liberation Front occurring mostly in the south. From 1995 onwards is the period of fundamentalist Islamist militancy: the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, Jemaah Islamiyah and the Abbu Sayyaf Group become more prominent with activity predominantly in the south and a few isolated cases in Manila.
Hostage takings and kidnappings were the fourth highest forms of attack (286 incidents in all) following after bombings and explosions (926), armed assault (803), and assassinations (509).
As a result of these incidents, there are units within the national security apparatus which not only have the knowledge, but the valuable experience in handling all sorts of public safety situations. However, the difference this time is that a former law enforcement officer was involved along with foreign tourists in an urban setting amidst the prying eyes of the media.
Without prior knowledge of how to deal with such a unique incident, authorities were confounded and got their wires crossed in trying to manage it as it spiraled out of control with the media coverage interfering with efforts to communicate with the hostage-taker. Unlike the hostage takings of tourists and foreign missionaries and aid workers abducted in the secluded south such as the Dos Palmas, Palawan incident, this was unchartered territory.
Mind you, the response rate here was no different than that of the US federal government during the attacks of 9/11 exactly nine years ago or Hurricane Katrina in August of 2005. One judgment call performed by local officials who were first on the scene was to waive the offer made by the national government to take jurisdiction over the case. Perhaps, this was a sign of hubris on their part.
Maria Ressa pinned the blame on factional infighting within the administration, when it was probably something more benign–the improper coordination and vague delineation of roles between local and national government units–that was responsible for government’s ineptitude. In the future, new protocols should be drawn up detailing when to elevate a crisis to the national level, in which case, local officials ought to relinquish jurisdictional authority and simply maintain public order and safety around the vicinity including crowd control.
The Cultural and Institutional “Defects” Theory
The “damaged culture” theorists would have us believe that poor institutions are responsible for everything that goes wrong in the country. In this instance, institutional factors may have been a bit too distant to have played a defining role. There is a common joke within policy circles that an analyst will often frame the problem in terms of what instruments he or she holds in his toolkit. For a political scientist, the problem is always political, for an economist it is always economic, for an anthropologist it is always institutional. The same may be happening here.
Consider this: Indonesia may have had fewer incidents (a little less than a fifth) compared to the Philippines, but it has had an equal number involving mass casualties of over 100 (two in all). Sri Lanka which has about the same number of total incidents has had eight involving mass casualties (four times the Philippines). The nation has had only four incidents involving more than 100 injuries, while Indonesia has had five and Sri Lanka has had 17. We can only conclude based on this that despite the high incidence of attacks, there is a lower propensity to inflict casualties or cause physical injuries in the Philippines.
It might mean that Filipino militants and insurgents are less willing to use human carnage as a means of getting their message across. It could also mean that Philippine authorities have been adept at appealing to their sense of humanity and fairness in pursuing their cause. It is easy to pin the blame on cultural or institutional factors when we fail to find a solid reason for certain problems. While I do believe that we cannot discount them, neither should we magnify their role.
For reasons just stated, I find the arguments put forth so far to explain the poor handling of the Manila hostage crisis to be unsatisfactory. To ensure that the failings and mistakes committed are not repeated in the future, we need to go beyond such habitual knee-jerk reactions. Having said that, the government might actually prove these theories correct in the way it responds to the investigative panel’s findings if it fails to heed them or take the necessary steps to address them.