Should gov’t apologize to HK hostage victims?

Anyone who has ever gone abroad on a tour can easily imagine the terror, shock and trauma that the victims of the hostage-taking incident at the Luneta went through on Aug. 23, 2010. They had come for a holiday. Though brief and hectic, the trip afforded them a pleasant break from routine. But nothing prepared them for what happened on the day they were supposed to fly back to Hong Kong. The tour bus that was taking them around for a final glimpse of Manila was seized by an armed person in police uniform. He had grievances against his government and threatened to kill all of them if the authorities did not grant his demands. This was a nightmare they had seen in the movies, but now they were living it.

If you were in their place, you would understand why no amount of sympathy could console you, and why no compensation can possibly dull the pain and the grief you still feel. You have lost a loved one in this awful incident. Each time you think about it, you cannot help but rage over the failure of the police to secure the release of the passengers without anyone being hurt. In hindsight, it seems so simple. Someone must take responsibility for this incompetence.

You demand justice. In your view, justice must come in four ways: first, a formal apology from no less than the President of the Philippines; second, just compensation for the victims; third, sanctions for the public officials who bungled the rescue; and finally, an assurance from the government that everything will be done to prevent such tragedies from happening again.

Something is not quite right about these demands. Never mind that their tone is arrogant. But, they also suggest that Philippine authorities have done nothing to express sympathy and solidarity with the victims of this unfortunate incident. They paint a picture of official indifference and callousness, of a government that is ignorant of its functions, and of a country that is unconcerned about its relations with other nations. This is far from the truth.

Manifestations of sympathy and regret, both from government and the private sector, over this shocking incident poured instantly. The Manila police received the most scathing criticisms from the Filipino public itself. No institution in recent memory has ever been so mocked and humiliated. A transparent and free media reported everything they considered newsworthy, completely unmindful of the damage such openness could do to the country’s image.

The government quickly launched a comprehensive investigation of the incident to pinpoint lapses in the handling of the hostage-taking incident, as well as to assign responsibility and culpability. The inquiry was broadcast live on national television, and was concluded in record time. A number of high-ranking officials were recommended for sanctions. Some of the charges were dismissed or downgraded in accordance with due process.

The Aquino administration, which assumed the reins of government barely two months before the incident, offered to dispatch a top delegation to China to offer its sympathies and to explain what happened. Unfortunately, the official delegation could not be received. But before the year ended, the tourism secretary went to Hong Kong to reiterate the Filipino nation’s sympathies, as well as to offer financial assistance to the victims and their families. Except for the kin of one of the victims, the rest of the affected families graciously accepted the government’s gesture.

None of this, of course, completely erases the injury and the emotional distress that came with this tragedy. It may take a while before the gap it created between Filipinos and the Hong Kong people can be fully repaired. Both sides must reach out to one another in full respect for the dignity of the other. Like an open wound that can be infected, this gap can be exacerbated by opportunistic elements on both sides. Particularly dangerous are those that exploit unexamined racist feelings that feed off the lowly position Filipino maids occupy in Hong Kong society. Chauvinism and resentment are corrosive and must be resolutely discouraged.

We have many weaknesses as a people, but lack of compassion has never been one of them, particularly where foreign guests are concerned. We go out of our way to accommodate, serve and entertain visitors, even when some of them act as if they have left their manners at home.

The Philippine government did not organize that ill-fated tour. As in most countries, tourist travel is arranged by private companies, many of them usually in partnership with foreign firms. What the state strives to do is create an environment in which tourists and locals alike can feel secure. Yet, no travel is ever risk-free. A tourist can be mugged, swindled, raped, kidnapped, or even murdered anywhere in the world. Because of one sad experience in a country, one may swear never to come back. That is perfectly understandable.

But, you can’t blame an entire nation for the act of one deranged individual or criminal, or for the failure of the police to stop him. Nor can you demand an official apology or compensation from government for the misfortune that fell on you as a tourist. Every country aspires to draw tourists to come for a visit. But gone are the days when governments could take responsibility for everything that happens in their territories. Today’s nations are more complex. In their highly differentiated systems, no single part can represent and speak for the whole on all matters.