Hong Kong Revokes Philippines Visa Exemption Over 2010 Hostage Crisis

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HONG KONG – From February 5, officials and diplomats from the Philippines visiting Hong Kong will not be able to enjoy the 14 day visa-free exemption they currently do, Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying told a press conference yesterday.  The move is in response by Hong Kong to a tragedy in Manila over three years ago, when eight Hong Kong tourists were killed and seven others injured in a hostage situation that lasted over 10 hours.  The Philippines’ President Benigno Aquino III has consistently refused to make an official apology for what he sees as the actions of a lone gunman, leading to tension between Hong Kong and the Philippines.

In August 2010, after senior police inspector Rolando Mendoza had been dismissed from the Manila Police District, he boarded a tourist bus armed with an assault rifle, in an attempt to get reinstated.  The rescue attempt lasted over an hour, and ended after Mendoza was shot and killed.  Hong Kong has alleged that it was the poor handling of the incident by the Philippines’ officials that led to the victims’ deaths.  The Hong Kong government placed a black travel advisory warning (the highest warning level) on the Philippines, cautioning Hong Kong residents that the country posed a “severe threat” and advising that all travel be avoided.

Back in November, Leung had warned that he would take necessary actions to apply sanctions if concrete steps had not been taken to resolve the issue within a month.  While talks were delayed after super typhoon Haiyan devastated the Philippines, Hong Kong persisted with its threat of sanctions — a decision for which it has been widely criticized.

The visa-exemption revocation will affect the 700 to 800 officials and diplomats who visit Hong Kong from the Philippines every year.  From February 5, they will be required to apply for a Hong Kong visa in advance, in accordance with the Hong Kong Immigration Department’s normal procedures. Accredited Philippine consular officials in Hong Kong will be unaffected, according to Secretary for Security Lai Tung-kwok.

Leung described this as the “first phase of sanctions”, indicating that the government could take further action if necessary.  Trade sanctions and tightening of employment permits have also been raised as further possibilities.  Bilateral trade between Hong Kong and the Philippines reached US$8.2 billion in 2012, and there are more domestic helpers in Hong Kong from the Philippines (156,000 in 2012) than from any other country.

This is the first time Hong Kong has imposed sanctions on a foreign country.  The Special Administrative Region (SAR) has limited powers in dealing with matters of foreign relations, so commentators observed that the sanction must have been approved by China.  Relations between China and the Philippines have been strained recently over claims to waters in the South China Sea.

Official talks between Hong Kong and the Philippines commenced in October 2013.  The victims and their families have demanded that the Philippines government issue a formal apology, provide compensation, penalize the relevant officials for mishandling of the affair, and implement measures to protect tourists’ personal safety in the future.  Mr. Leung observed that positive progress had been made on three of those four fronts.  In November 2013, an undisclosed sum of compensation was given to 36-year-old victim Yik Siu-ling, who required facial reconstruction surgery in Taiwan after being shot during the hostage crisis.  Moreover, around 15 police and other government officials who had been responsible had been charged in relation to the incident.

However, the most important of the demands, an apology, had yet to be made.

“The Philippine side is still unable to meet the demand of the victims and the families for a formal apology despite many rounds of discussions,” Leung said. “The response is unacceptable.”

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