Why the Philippines bus hostage crisis isn't over for President Aquino

Whether President Aquino takes action against government officials for their part in the Philippines bus hostage crisis will shape the country's international image.

By , Correspondent

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    Philippines President Aquino speaks at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, on Sept. 23.
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Philippines President Benigno Aquino III faces a double-edged crisis of leadership when he returns next week from seven days in the US.

Besieged by critics at home and abroad he's under severe pressure to show his ability to deal decisively with bitter recriminations over his response to the hostage tragedy in August in which a former police colonel killed eight Hong Kong tourists on a tour bus after an 11-hour standoff.

China, extremely critical of the way authorities in the Philippines responded to the episode, is demanding action against government, police, and military officials for failing to resolve the crisis before it ended in the massacre of Chinese citizens.

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Now, however, influential Filipinos accuse Mr. Aquino of putting relations with China above the interests of his own country. They complain that Aquino turned over a full governmental report on the incident to the Chinese government before releasing it to his own citizens in hopes of getting Chinese officials to tone down complaints that have clearly soured relations between the two countries – and discouraged Chinese tourists from coming.

Nationalist sentiments have distracted from the investigation, but now Aquino must decide what to do about 13 people, including the powerful mayor of Manila, Alfredo Lim, whom a fact-finding commission recommends for disciplinary action. As questions about Aquino's competence mount, the severity of his response against those found responsible could have serious implications for his ability to lead.

“There’s a consensus that the people entrusted by President Aquino to handle the situation failed in their duties,” says Satur Ocampo, president of the minority leftist People First Party. “Now they are playing a blame game. It’s a simple question of incompetence of management.”

"Aquino was totally unprepared when he became president," says Ocampo. "These problems increase pressure on him to meet the high expectations of the people"

Who's responsible?

The commission to look into the hostage tragedy, formally called the Investigative and Review Committee, is recommending more than bureaucratic wrist slaps. It wants criminal charges ranging from dereliction of duty to failure to obey orders. Manila’s police chief was the first to feel the heat when he was dismissed in the middle of the hostage episode for deploying a police SWAT team rather than a better trained commando unit as ordered by Aquino.

Angry outbursts over the hostage standoff have managed to merge into an investigation of illegal gambling in which top government officials and politicians are suspected of having made huge profits. At the center of the scandal involving what is know as "jueteng," a numbers game in which thousands of poor people buy slips of paper in hopes of winnings that rarely materialize, is a senior official whom Aquino named to coordinate all the forces marshalled to deal with the hostage standoff.

The day after the commission placed primary responsibility on Rico Puno, undersecretary of interior and local government, for the hostage fiasco, his name appeared at the top of a list of a dozen people named by a retired archbishop in a senate hearing as having profited immensely from "jueteng," pronounced, "hwe-teng,"literally "flower bet." Denying all, Mr. Puno said he would extend a "courtesy resignation" to Aquino, whom he served as a consultant when Aquino was in the senate.

But the problem of corruption and lack of accountability goes beyond individuals, say analysts here.

“It’s all part of the culture of impunity,” says Vilnor Papa, coordinator for Amnesty International here. “It’s the system. It’s not just one government agency.”

'Tiptoeing to China'

By giving the report on the standoff to the Chinese embassy here, however, Aquino did succeed in answering some of China's demands. "We hope that the Philippine side continues to handle the aftermath in an appropriate manner," said a Chinese statement, "so as to console the souls of the victims and render comfort to the bereft families and injured Hong KJong compatriots."

Joker Arroyo, a member of the Philippine senate who battled Marcos on behalf of Benigno Aquino Jr. and served as Corzaon Aquino's executive secretary when she was president, has annoyed President Aquino by saying he’s running the government “like a student council" and accusing him of "tiptoeing" to China. The government, said Mr. Arroyo, was "very sensitive to Hong Kong" but "not sensitive to the sentiment of the Filipino society."

Aquino, elected president by a sizeable majority in May in a spirit of revulsion over dirty politics and misrule, put off a decision on what to do about the commission's report on the hostage standoff until his return, saying he wanted to be "fair." The suspicion is that he will compromise and continue to postpone defintiive action.

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