This week was supposed to bring good news for Filipinos: Miss Philippines, Maria Venus Raj, a farm girl turned fashion model, was a big favorite headed into Monday's Miss Universe final. The competition, a parade of flashy clothes, straight teeth and slick hair, is popular here; and the country is very proud of its two previous Filipina winners of the pageant. Wracked by two insurgencies, endemic corruption and poverty, the Philippines could do with more national heroes and good press. So, on Monday, Raj was the talk of the town. "Good luck to Maria Venus Raj! Proud to be PINOY!" wrote a fan on twitter (Pinoy is an informal term for Filipino). "Represent" said another.
Then, an ex-police inspector stepped on to a tourist bus with an M16 rifle.
At 10:00 a.m. on Monday morning, Rolando D. Mendoza commandeered a bus carrying Hong Kong tourists in downtown Manila. Mendoza was reportedly furious about his dismissal on corruption charges and demanded redress, at gunpoint. As the standoff progressed, television crews swarmed the scene and Manileños gathered in restaurants and shops to follow live footage. Many were still watching, hours later, when shots rang out, SWAT teams moved in and gunfire swallowed the vehicle. Mendoza killed eight people before the police managed to shoot him dead. Another victim later died in a hospital.
As Manila mourns the lives of the visitors, it agonizes, too, over what this means for the country. This was supposed to be a good year. The new president, Benigno Aquino III, nicknamed Noynoy, promised to clean-up corruption and crack down on crime. A fourth-generation politician, Aquino rose to power in a swell of popular support that is often compared, imperfectly, to Barack Obama's ascent. His election, like Obama's, was seen as the start of a new, more hopeful era. Though this may still prove true, the hostage crisis harks back to the country's troubled past. (Indeed, two days before Mendoza's rampage, Aquino marked the 27th anniversary of his father's assassination, an event that eventually swept his mother into the Presidency.) "We already have a bad reputation," said Zuriel K. Tan, a doctor from Quezon City. "Now what will people think?"
Hong Kong, for one, is outraged. "Fury in HK Over Manila Bloodbath," read a headline in the city's English-language daily, the South China Morning Post. The city, a semi-autonomous sliver of southern China, issued a travel warning and urged its residents to leave the the Philippines at once. Donald Tsang, the territory's chief executive, spoke with unusual candor on the matter: "The way it was handled particularly the outcome was very disappointing," he said. The Philippine consulate, meanwhile, was swamped by protesters bearing placards and petitions. Online, the tone was vicious: "SWAT = Sorry We Aren't Trained," was a common refrain.
In addition to Hong Kong and China, several other governments have issued travel warnings for the Philippines. And, though there has been no threat of trade sanctions, some businesses are bracing for a backlash. "I'm just waiting for it," said Joseph Rubio, a Filipino who does business in China. Aquino, the optimist, urged calm. "We should not just give up because of this one incident," he said.
Manila and, indeed the country is now engaged in a high-stakes blame game centered, primarily, on the police, the press and the President himself. The only consensus, so far, is that security forces botched the rescue. Gunshots were heard at 6:40 p.m. on Monday, but the SWAT team did not storm the bus until after 7:30 p.m. "How could it take them so long?" asked Mike Santos, 50, a customs broker. So far, four members of the SWAT team have been sacked and the head of Manila's police department is on voluntary leave pending an investigation.
The media have come in for blame as well. Footage from the standoff may have helped the gunman figure out what the police and the hostage negotiators were up to: he was reportedly watching himself and the would-be rescuers on the bus's onboard TV. He then supposedly started firing when he saw his brother being escorted from the scene. In light of the criticism, President Aquino said he may consider new "limitations" on the media. His office admitted, too, that there were "defects" in the handling of the crisis. These concessions, though, did not earn him absolution. He's been roundly criticized, at home and abroad, for his lack of visibility during the crisis.
On Wednesday, 48 hours after Mendoza boarded the bus, the blue, red and white vehicle still sat, shattered, in front of the grandstand where Aquino only recently delivered his inaugural address. There was a tidy floral display and a barricade, but no guards, only small groups of gawkers. They stepped over the tattered, yellow police tape and walked within feet of the bullet-scarred windshield. Some snapped pictures; most looked on silently. In an unseemly spectacle, police officers and students have posed for souvenir shots in front of the bus. Later in the day, President Aquino's office issued a statement asking people to refrain from photographing the crime scene.
This is surely not the fresh start Aquino, or Filipinos, had in mind. (The Miss Universe contest provided no comfort either: Venus Raj placed fifth out of the final five, after botching the answer to a routine pageant question.) Everyone, no doubt, wishes the world would look away.