Almendras: Palace did spade work in ending HK row

MANILA, Philippines –  A day after the resolution of tensions between the Hong Kong and Philippine governments on the 2010 Quirino hostage crisis, Secretary to the Cabinet Rene Almendras clarified the roles played by various groups in the nearly 7-month process.

In the narration of the Cabinet official, and in his response to questions fielded by the media at a news briefing in Malacañang on Thursday, April 24, he declined to give full credit to any particular group for the successful resolution of the row with Hong Kong.

Almendras said he began his role as “negotiator” in October 2013 after Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying met with President Benigno Aquino III at the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders' Meeting in Bali, Indonesia.

When Almendras first started talking to the Hong Kong side, Manila Councilor Bernie Ang, the city's main negotiator, was already in talks with Hong Kong officials. Prior to that, Manila had approved a resolution appointing Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada to represent city officials in apologizing to Hong Kong.

Almendras said with Aquino's approval, he reached out to Estrada and the Manila group to consolidate efforts and to ensure the alignment of negotiations from the Philippine side. Estrada agreed.

The Cabinet Secretary said it was Estrada himself who told Almendras' group to lead talks, and volunteered to "lie low." Estrada flew to Hong Kong a day before the resolution was announced.

"I did not ask him to stop what he was doing. With all due respect to Mayor Erap, it was he who said, 'Aba maganda na iyong nangyayari sa inyo. Okay, baka mas mabuti nga na medyo lie low muna kami so that you can proceed with what you are doing,'" he said.

(What you're doing is good. Okay, maybe it might be better that we lie low first so that you can proceed with that you are doing.)

Almendras said Estrada had apologized to Hong Kong then but it was rejected by the families. (READ: HK to Manila execs: Sorry not enough)

"Now let me put this into perspective. That was also around the time that Manila announced and there was a big media splash in Hong Kong about the apology, the solution of the Manila City, the apology of Erap. The problem was it was sort of turned down," he said.

Conflicting account

Estrada's decision to “lie low” in the negotiations became a turning point.

"It was a good turn out of events when the Mayor decided na 'Sige, lie low muna kami, proceed [kayo] (we will lie low, you proceed)'… I am grateful that the Mayor trusted me enough to say, 'Basta just let me know kung ano ang nangyayari' (Just let me know what is happening)," he said.

Even Ang, Almendras said, admitted he had reached a sticky point in his negotiations with Hong Kong, and "that he literally walked out of one of his meetings with some of the people he was talking to there."

Almendras also said he had signed a document two weeks ago, collating all discussions in the past months. This document was signed by both governments, he said, and finalized on the day of the announcement but he said it was virtually a "done deal" then.

Estrada then flew to Hong Kong on April 22 with 7 Manila City councilors. The final resolution was announced on April 23. During his trip, Estrada again apologized and it was accepted this time around by the victims and families.

Estrada’s apology in behalf of Manila was the only apology formally issued by the Philippines. Almendras said this time around, it was accepted by the families because of the "delivery and tone” of the apology.

There was no national apology despite it being one of Hong Kong's major demands. (READ: HK apology? No way, says Aquino)

Almendras also said that it was on Wednesday when he was able to introduce Ang and Estrada to the counterpart team in Hong Kong. Estrada, he said, came to Hong Kong without fully knowing what was about to happen.

"The Mayor was already in Hong Kong and he did not even know exactly what was going to happen, what time it was going to happen. I went to see him – I had lunch with him in his hotel yesterday. I was there at about 12 o’clock and that was the only time that I was able to explain to him in great detail exactly the sequence of events," Almendras said.

Erap's role

Meanwhile, Valenzuela Representative Sherwin Gatchalian who was part of the entourage that went to Hong Kong, praised the work of Estrada and Almendras, and said the "joint-effort" and "classic diplomacy" shown by the Philippine side was "laudable."

He emphasized though that Estrada "was the missing piece in finding closure to the Hong Kong-Philippine crisis."

"If not for his persistence and resolve, the negotiations between Hong Kong and the Philippines would have taken a different political dimension. After all, the classic diplomatic approach of Mayor Erap and the effort of Secretary Almendras were indeed fitting and appropriate,” Gatchalian said in a statement.

He also said Estrada "made the mission successful" because he "was a former Philippine president who went out of his way to apologize for the 2010 Manila bus hostage crisis."

"As a former president and local chief executive, Mayor Estrada believes that the City of Manila has enough weight to extend an apology appropriate to his political status," Gatchalian said.

Asked how crucial Estrada’s presence was in resolving the row with Hong Kong, Almendras said, “It helped.” 

When pressed to answer the question – whether the former president’s presence made a difference at all – Almendras said he had signed the final agreement two weeks ago, when the Cabinet official made a day trip to Hong Kong. 

"Erap’s presence was helpful because there are many audiences, okay? Your audience are the families, the Hong Kong media, the Hong Kong opposition, their NGOs. And each of them were asking for something else. Things like that," he said.

He said that the Manila City government did what the national government could not do, referring to the resolution it passed last year. 

“It helped. The objective was to try to address as many of the issues that was across the table,” he said.

Asked if Estrada’s stature as a former president helped in the negotiations, Almendras quoted some Hong Kong media as saying that “there was not enough seniority [among the officials] because he was only a mayor.”

“It’s not representative of the Filipino nation, or something to that effect,” he said, quoting Hong Kong media.

Estrada's camp has not responded to Rappler's request for a reaction.

Hong Kong had been infuriated by the Philippines' response to the August 2010 hostage drama, in which a former local police officer hijacked a Manila tour bus in protest of his relief from the service. Eight people from Hong Kong were killed and 7 wounded in a bungled rescue effort by Philippine security forces.

No government money

In coming to a resolution, the 4 demands made by the victims on apology, compensation, sanctions against responsible officials and individuals, and tourist safety measures were adequately met.

On the compensation issue, a statement released by both governments said the Philippine government would give "an additional token of solidarity" to victims or their families "as a most sincere gesture of compassion of the people of the Philippines." The statement did not give any details about the cost.

Almendras refused to disclose an amount, but said "not a single cent" of the compensation was taken from the Philippine or Hong Kong government. The money, he said, was sourced from private individuals form both countries who wanted to help end the row or help the families and the Philippines.

Earlier, Cable TV News reported that the Philippine government will offer HK$1.5 million (P8.6 million) for each of the deceased and HK$3 million (P17.3 million) for the injured in a compensation package which would total HK$20 million (P115.3 million).

Almendras said the amount was "inaccurate" but would not tell reporters if the total sum was more or less, citing respect for the families.

He also said those who were open to accepting money are expected receive their compensation within the week.

'Man of his word'

Now that the government to government issues have been settled, Almendras said the current process is is now "addressing individual concerns of the families."

"As we speak, the Hong Kong government is still interacting with other family members who [were] not present there. Letters are being delivered, documents are being turned over, exchanged and hopefully signatures are being generated so that we can finally bring this to a closure," he said.

Almendras said the families who he met have been satisfied, with at least one victim even extending her gratitude to Aquino. Almendras also quoted Leung as referring to Aquino as a "man of his word."

The Cabinet Secretary said the talks took so long because "there was a lot of emotion and a lot of sensitivity to families and persons that were going to be involved" and "there were 21 victims, 21 families, 21 lives, 21 different perspectives, 21 different opinions" to deal with.
"When we say it was tough it was because not one family speaks for the rest and not one issue can be resolved in a similar way to everyone across the table," he said.

"So to a certain degree, it's not one size fits all. Every single consideration, every member of the family or every victims’ family had to be put in place."

He also clarified that the resolution marks the end of the issue, and both sides agreed there no longer be further demands made by either sides.

"This issue is done. Once and for all completely, absolutely done. That was the resolution. Of course even us, when we were going into this, we wanted to make sure our own interest was also satisfied," he said.