The story behind the headlines: Philippine politics after the hostage debacle

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The Southeast Asia Research Centre of City University of Hong Kong (CityU) organised a seminar on 22 September to look into Philippine politics after the recent hostage debacle. The seminar was hosted by Professor Mark R. Thompson from CityU’s Department of Asian and International Studies who has been studying Philippine politics for 25 years.

The hostage crisis has been headline news in Hong Kong and much of the rest of the world, with reports over the past weeks making the Philippines appear lawless, its police inept and its leadership indifferent. Thompson’s talk placed recent developments in Philippine politics and society in a larger context.

The murder of the Hong Kong hostages, as well as the notorious massacre of 57 relatives of politicians and journalists late last year, gives the impression that election-related killings and criminality in general have worsened in the Philippines, when in fact the opposite is the case.

With the election of Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III as president last May, replacing the much disliked Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the Philippines seemed poised to undertake major reforms. With its economy growing, fueled by new industries such as business process outsourcing, efforts are being undertaken to combat poverty and increase educational as well as further accelerate economic growth. By holding credible elections, the Philippines avoided the political polarisation plaguing Thailand.

But the badly mismanaged hostage crisis ended Aquino’s political honeymoon and raised questions about whether the high hopes for the country are justified. Although most Filipinos still seem to accept the administration’s sincerity about undertaking needed reforms, serious doubts have been raised about its managerial competence. The Aquino government is currently engaged in “damage limitation” both in the Philippines and abroad where its image has been tainted by the bungling of the hostage taking.

Professor Thompson also briefly discussed the report of the Investigation Review Committee (IIRC) on the 23 August hostage-taking. First presented to the government of China before it was released to the Philippine press (leading to criticism by some members of the Philippine Congress), the report recommended administrative and criminal proceedings be taken against key government figures including the mayor and vice mayor of Manila, the Manila police district chief and a key Aquino aid. Part of the report was not made immediately available to the general public (a delay which reportedly upset the head of the IIRC, Secretary of Justice Leila de Lima). While critics say it is incomplete, imprecise, and the investigative committee not independent enough, this preliminary report was quite hard hitting in its recommendations.

Professor Thompson also commented on the historic importance of ethnic Chinese in the Philippines. Many Philippine elites have ethnic Chinese roots (including the current president, the recently deceased Manila Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin, and the country’s national hero Jose Rizal). Unlike some other Southeast Asian countries where ethnic Chinese have historically faced discrimination, the Philippines has largely had an “assimilationist” experience, with ethnic Chinese generally integrated into the broader Philippine society. He thus saw little evidence of an ethnic dimension in the current hostage crisis.

In addition, Professor Thompson pointed to the significance of the approximately 130,000 Filipinos in Hong Kong, most of them domestic helpers. They immediately showed solidarity with the Hong Kong victims of the crisis, reacting in a “maternalist” manner as they work in the homes of Hong Kong families. They felt that they had been put on the spot by their own government’s mishandling of the hostage incident and there were reports of isolated incidences of maids being fired by their employers immediately after the kidnappings had occurred. There has also been criticism about a proposed cut back in Philippine government funding to help its Overseas Foreign Workers (OFWs), including those in Hong Kong.

New to CityU, Professor Thompson is the author of The Anti-Marcos Struggle (Yale, 1995) as well as a number of articles on the country’s politics including a forthcoming piece in the Journal of Democracy on the May 2010 Philippine elections.

Media enquiries:
Professor Mark Thompson, Department of Asian and International Studies (Tel: 6846 8714)
Michelle Leung, Communications and Public Relations Office (Tel: 3442 6827 or 9050 7507).

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