A Filipino Greek tragedy

(From left) A scene from Inside: Manila Hostage Massacre showing the bus driver; the actor who plays gunman Rolando Mendoza.

At the end of the drama, played out on the streets of Manila and broadcast worldwide, eight Hong Kong tourists and a Filipino gunman lay dead.

More than a year on, The New Paper speaks to Mr Micah Fink, an award-winning producer and director, who has made a documentary titled Inside: Manila Hostage Massacre.

It traces how former senior police inspector Rolando Mendoza took 21 Hong Kong nationals and four Filipinos hostage aboard a bus in Rizal Park in the heart of Manila in August last year. It will be shown tomorrow at 11pm on National Geographic Channel.

Mr Fink spent more than seven months tracking down and interviewing the people caught in the thick of the siege, including the surviving victims, the gunman's family, the police officers, the officials and members of the media who were involved.

He said that he was surprised by how willing and eager people were in giving their side of the story.

Although Philippine authorities received widespread criticism for their mishandling of the hostage situation, Mr Fink felt that it was not the fault of a single person or organisation.

Instead, the tragedy represented a failure of the system as a whole.

He said: "The police officers, the politicians, all the people on the ground, they did not plan to mess things up. It was not their intention to fail in the jobs they were doing."

The people and organisations involved were simply "sucked into a vortex" by the little missteps along the way, he added, which culminated in a catastrophe.

Describing the incident as a Greek tragedy, Mr Fink said that he was drawn to making a film about the incident as he wanted to examine the role the media played in the hostage crisis.

Investigators inspecting bullet holes on the bus hijacked by a disgruntled former police inspector in Manila in August last year. He shot dead eight Hong Kong tourists on the bus before he was killed by police commandos.

"Mendoza essentially staged a media event," he said.

"He knew what to do to get the media's attention. He staged the event in a public place and made sure the media would be there. The media walked right in. We did everything that he expected."

Not only was Mendoza interviewed by the media during the hostage-taking, he also watched events live from the TV on the bus so he knew what the police were going to do next.

The media's part in the unfolding drama is not unique, Mr Fink said. During the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, Indian police were worried that TV footage would give their positions away.

Former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) deputy assistant director Danny Coulson who lent his expert opinion in the documentary told TNP that although the hostage crisis was a local event, it had important international ramifications.

He said: "Things can still go wrong even when there is a system in place to deal with these things. "Mistakes made in the Philippines were not unique to the Philippines."

Mistake

One mistake, said Mr Coulson who created and commanded the FBI's Hostage Rescue Team, was to deploy the police to deal with Mendoza.

He said: "They like Mendoza, he's one of them. He's a decorated police officer who's trying to get his job back. They sympathised with him."

Now, the new 200-strong Crisis Action Force has been set up to handle hostage rescue.

But this comes as cold comfort for those who lost their loved ones in the crisis.

Mr Tse Chi Kin, whose brother, a tour guide, was among the victims, said: "We are still angry. Families were torn apart, children were orphaned."

Catch it on TV

What: Inside: Manila Hostage Massacre
When: Nov 20, 11pm
Where: National Geographic Channel (StarHub TV Channel411)

This article was first published in The New Paper.