Hong Kong leader Tsang’s phone calls stopped with President Aquino’s aides


Calendar August 26, 2010 | Posted by raissa robles
Raissa Robles and Fanny W. Y. Fung
Updated on Aug 26, 2010
A South China Morning Post exclusive

[NOTE: I am posting this with the permission of my editor. Just to clarify, I did talk to foreign affairs spokesman Ed Malaya to get the department perspective but he declined to comment. ]

It was the case of the telephone calls that didn’t get through.

An anxious Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen was never put through to Philippine President Benigno Aquino on Monday. Despite at least two phone calls, Aquino’s aides did not tell their head of state that Hong Kong’s leader needed to speak to him.

This is how it all started:

It is 4pm – the hostage crisis has lasted for more than five hours. Tsang, watching the drama unfold on television, is desperate to contact the new Philippines leader.

Some time after 4pm, Tsang’s staff dial the main line to Malacanang Palace. They try again about four hours later. Both times they speak to an Aquino aide, but the president does not get the messages. Later that night, with eight Hongkongers dead, Tsang is close to tears at a press conference. He demands an explanation. “I hope the Philippine government can give me a full account of what happened.”

An account of that breakdown in communication between Hong Kong and Manila emerged yesterday, with Malacanang admitting it had passed on the responsibility of handling the phone calls to the Department of Foreign Affairs, according to protocol. Hong Kong, after all, does not handle foreign affairs, Beijing does. The department’s envoys did not follow up that night.

Tsang eventually got to speak to Aquino the following day, after the latter had met the Chinese ambassador.

Ricky Carandang, who heads the Presidential Communications Group, said Aquino was not aware of the first call because he was in a meeting and because the call came in through the palace’s main phone line with no prior notice. Carandang said the caller was an aide of Tsang, and an aide of Aquino answered the phone. He said Aquino’s aide knew who Tsang was, but was unsure it was really from his office.

The palace contacted the Foreign Affairs Department to set up a phone call through Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo, in what would be diplomatic protocol. Presidential spokesman Ed Lacierda said he phoned Romulo’s spokesman Ed Malaya to convey the request to arrange a conversation between Tsang and Aquino. No word came back, so Lacierda tried to phone Malaya again three times but could not reach him. The department declined to tell the Post why no one returned Tsang’s calls that night.

After his telephone conversation with the president on Tuesday, Tsang said in a video posted on the internet: “The first thing he told me was that he was sorry for not having called me back [on Monday] because he was then busy commanding the operation.”

But citing unnamed sources, Filipino journalist Ellen Tordesillas had a different take on the debacle. She said Aquino had “told his staff [that day] that he won’t be taking any calls unless it’s extremely important. When Tsang called, the one who took the call didn’t know who Donald Tsang was. Following the instruction, the staff member did not pass on the call to Aquino.”


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