Resolving dispute was a 7-month tough ride - Almendras
MANILA - Cabinet Secretary Rene Almendras said the deal with Hong Kong that resolved the diplomatic row over the Manila bus hostage crisis will not set a legal precedent.
In a press conference in Malacanang, Almendras said the road towards resolving the issue with both the Hong Kong government and the families of the victims was a 7-month “long struggle,” with the Philippines paying close attention to cultural sensitivities.
He said the national government had to make the negotiations secret in the interest of the families of the 21 victims.
“The delivery and tone was even more important than the message,” he said.
In the end, the so-called apology, which he worded as “sorrowful regret and sympathy,” was the work of a lot of people both from the Hong Kong and Philippine sides.
The resolution finally came out Wednesday, even as other groups “still tried to scuttle this...with some people...still trying to agitate so that this will not push through.”
Almendras explained that the road towards the lifting of the sanctions against the Philippines started during the meeting of Hong Kong Chief Executive CY Leung and President Aquino back in October during the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Indonesia.
“During the course of their discussion, Chief Executive Leung explained to President Aquino what was happening to the victims… In the end, the decision of both was to reopen the issue and find a win-win solution,” he said.
The request of the Hong Kong government then was to appoint a point person who did not have any political motives.
“Unfortunately, I was chosen,” Almendras said.
He said the meetings with his counterparts started on that same day.
He said the President told him that the primary consideration for any deal should be the families of the victims and not “the politics in the Philippines, Hong Kong, geopolitical issues, etc.”
From October towards the end of the row, Almendras said he went to Hong Kong using his diplomatic passport.
Hong Kong earlier scrapped the visa-free privileges of Philippine government officials.
He said Mayor Joseph Estrada also agreed Manila would lie low while discussions were underway.
He said the meetings and discussions had to be kept under wraps.
“There were a lot of emotions, cultural issues relative to a final compromise,” he said of the toughest challenge he met.
He said both sides had to make the discussions secret on behalf of the families of the victims.
“If you only know the details, it [resolution] was really tough. There were 21 families of victims with different perspectives and opinions… Not one family speaks for the rest.”
A breakthrough on the government-to-government deal came two weeks ago, he said.
He feared, however, that the biggest stumbling block would be when he finally meets the families.
After meeting with the Hong Kong officials yesterday afternoon, Almendras and a delegation from the Philippines led by Estrada finally met with the families.
He said he had prepared “plans 2, 3, 4, 5" and "was not sure they would accept us. Even the Hong Kong government kept on telling us they’re not sure how the families will react.”
He said at least 5 families were present during the “solemn meeting” to give way to Chinese traditions. He said he had to consult experts on how to deal with such traditions.
Almendras recalled that the brother of the tourist guide who died spoke for the rest of the families.
“I heard every word he said. His brother then was promoting the Philippines. He was telling his countrymen to ‘Come to the Philippines.’”
He said he responded to the brother in a way that “towards the end, the sincerity was acknowledged.”
Quoting the brother, Almendras said, “We’re now turning a new leaf… It doesn’t mean it’s over because of the loss of lives… But there’s a moving on process.”
He said there were four demands from the families.
“On the issue of apology, I explained the complexities of issuing a national apology,” he said. Nonetheless, a letter signed by Philippine National Police Director General Alan Purisima was provided for each.
He also said a “token of solidarity” was given to them. He refused to call it “compensation.”
He denied the token of solidarity was worth HK$20 million. The process will be completed within the week, but not all families will accept the token, he said.
Almendras also said the government promised that actions will be taken against those negligent during the hostage crisis, as demanded by the families.
He also said he promised that actions will be taken so that the incident will not happen again.