On August 7, 2011, the History Channel premiered its 48-minute documentary on the bus hostage drama that happened in Manila a year ago on August 23, 2010.
For a full week after the premier, this same documentary would be replayed every day, sometimes three times a day, on cable TV. There was no noise about it, barely any media mileage other than what looked like press releases from the History Channel itself, where the documentary is sold along with the rest of the channel’s offerings for August.
For a nation that prides itself in having a powerful online and mainstream media, for a nation that can pick on a private citizen like Christopher Lao, and an artist like Mideo Cruz, we sure as hell know when to keep something under the radar. We sweep it under the proverbial rug, so to speak, just in case we might also be allowed to forget it. Speak no evil, see no evil, hear no evil, means we cannot be seen as evil?
In the case of last year’s bus hostage tragedy, we might not be evil, but we sure are incompetent and unforgivable, unapologetic and downright wrong. And in light of this documentary, we are just all complicit.
Were we all just too busy? Or were we all not ready for this anniversary?
After all, this documentary written and directed by English filmmaker Emile Guertin is aptly titled The Manila Hostage Massacre, which can only be reminiscent of those Carlo J. Caparas movies circa 1990s. It would be too sensationalist for comfort were this not true: that hostage crisis ended not just in the tragedy of lost lives, it in fact ended with this one man, a police officer, being allowed to open fire on a bus full of tourists, all Hong Kong nationals.
This is the thread that’s in this documentary’s narrative, and it’s a thread that’s difficult to contest given the fact that hostage taker Rolando Mendoza is shown here to be someone who was so willing to cooperate, at least as far as his victims and the negotiators were concerned, at least early in the day when even those of us who were watching TV couldn’t believe his demands weren’t even being considered as valid.
Given this documentary’s timeline, alongside the voices of the men who were part of the negotiating and police team, and three survivors’ narrations, it becomes clear that Mendoza was in fact allowed to take control of this hostage situation, and no one from the outside could turn things around.
In fact, no one from the outside of that bus was in control, and here lies the premise of The Manila Hostage Massacre: what exactly were Philippine government officials, local and national, doing to resolve this situation?
The answers remain as clear as it was a year ago: government might have thought it was doing something, but none of it was enough. In fact, even the bare minimum wasn’t done: not cordoning off the area to keep the public at bay, i.e., at least keep Mendoza’s brother from walking straight towards the bus without anyone stopping him. Not controlling the media and insisting on a news blackout. Not keeping local radio station RMN from contacting the hijacker outside of the negotiating panel’s purvey.
Via this documentary it also becomes clear that the police did not at any point debrief the released hostages, because they were too busy trying to deal with the situation in the immediate vicinity, i.e., trying to get Mendoza’s brother into the police car, begging with media to stop taking live footage, and failing tremendously at both.
This is infinitely interesting because this documentary questions – matter of fact – the role the media played in the tragic end to the hostage situation; the lone media personality it gets to interview is Erwin Tulfo. Yes, the same Tulfo who admitted in the Senate Investigation on the hostage taking that he was in fact in a three-way phone conversation with Mendoza when the man got all riled up and opened fire in that bus. This same Tulfo is given the air time to re-write history and make himself a hero in this documentary, and no one, not even the policemen who were interviewed, pointed a finger back at him.
After all, the local policemen in this documentary – save for the negotiators who admit to having failed – were taking this chance precisely to defend themselves, too, in the way that Tulfo was. Of course in the process, they cancelled each other out, because the bottom line becomes: who was responsible for the lack of control, who decided to take their dinner in the midst of the crisis, who was out of reach and could not be bothered to visit and talk to the victims of this hostage taking?
In The Manila Hostage Massacre, the finger is pointed at the Philippine government, that thread that allowed Ronaldo Mendoza to open fire on a bus of innocent tourists traced straight to command responsibility.
In the end, it was very clear that not only was there no control, there still isn’t any control here, a year hence. In that sense it’s no surprise that the demands of the survivors for compensation, for a public apology, for justice remain unmet.
We are told we are a forgetful people with very short memories. In the case of the Manila hostage massacre, forgetfulness seems to be the least of our problems, as we are led down this path of refusing responsibility and absolute shamelessness. This might be a version of government’smatuwid na daan, but that doesn’t make it right.
This was originally written for and published in GMA News Online, August 23 2011.