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‘Missed communication’ at Palace

By Christine O. Avendaño
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 04:41:00 08/27/2010

Filed Under: hostage taking, Grandstand Hostage, Foreign affairs & international relations, Diplomacy

MANILA, Philippines?Communication problems seem to be bugging Malacañang communicators, the latest wrinkle being Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang?s unanswered phone call to President Benigno Aquino III.

On television early Thursday, Secretary Herminio Coloma of the Presidential Communications and Operations Office appeared to be expressing doubt that Tsang actually called the President at the height of the hostage crisis on Monday.

But Communications Development Secretary Ricky Carandang was categorical: Tsang indeed called Mr. Aquino, but failed to reach him.

In an interview with the ABS-CBN news program ?Umagang Kay Ganda,? Coloma was asked by host Anthony Taberna why Tsang said he had been calling the President but could not make contact. (?Bakit po ang sabi ng Chief Executive ng Hong Kong, tinatawagan niya ang Pangulo ay hindi daw makontak ang Presidente??)

Coloma said he found this ?unbelievable? because Mr. Aquino was ?accessible at all times.? (?Di po kapanipaniwala yan dahil accessible siya sa lahat nang oras.?)

And then he added: ?Kung tumawag talaga sa kanyang tanggapan, tiyak namang matatanggap iyong tawag na iyon, at kung lumabas man siya ng panandali ay tiyak namang mare-reach din siya dahil dala-dala ng kanyang mga aides iyong mga teleponong maaaring magamit para makontak siya (If Tsang really called the office of the President, his call will be received. Even if the President left the Palace for a short while, he can still be reached because his aides are carrying the phones with which he can be reached.)?
Aquino unaware

Days earlier, Palace officials said Mr. Aquino was not aware that Tsang had called him but that when he learned about it, he called the Hong Kong official on Tuesday to express the Philippine government?s deep sorrow over the tragedy.

Tsang?s unanswered phone call to Mr. Aquino was reported by Agence France Presse and Reuters, as well as the South China Morning Post.

A few hours after the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported Coloma?s remarks on its website Thursday, he phoned to say he never implied doubt that Tsang had phoned the President.

He said what he found unbelievable was the report that Mr. Aquino was inaccessible during those crucial hours.

How it happened

Carandang, meanwhile, sought to clarify what had actually transpired.

He said Tsang tried to reach Mr. Aquino through the Malacañang trunk line at around 5 p.m. on Monday.

?Normally, when there is a high-level call like that, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) will notify us that there will be a call. That didn?t happen,? Carandang said.

And since Tsang?s call came through the Palace trunk line?which Carandang described as ?not usual??the President?s aide ?didn?t want to pass it on without some kind of verification.?

?So [the aide] told a secretary ... to put the phone down, ?and we will call you through our foreign minister,?? Carandang said.

The President?s aide then called up the aide of Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo to inform them of Tsang?s call and the Palace request to course his call to them, according to Carandang.

Romulo?s aide told Mr. Aquino?s aide: ?We will call you back.?

?The DFA claims it didn?t get in touch with him (Tsang) until 10 p.m.,? Carandang said.

By that time, Carandang said, ?it was too late? as Tsang had already issued his ?angry statement that he couldn?t get through to the President.?

Carandang made clear that contrary to reports, the aide knew who Tsang was when the latter made the call.

?[The call] just didn?t go through the normal channels,? Carandang said.

DFA narration

Asked about the turn of events, DFA officials said Romulo was instructed by the Palace on Monday to await Tsang?s call, which never came.

The officials asked not to be quoted because of ?the sensitivity of the subject matter.?

But they said this was what happened:

At around 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. on Monday, Romulo got a call from Malacañang with the instruction to take Tsang?s call. The Palace aide said he had provided Tsang the mobile phone number of Romulo.

Romulo waited ?for many hours? but the call never came. From time to time, he asked whether Tsang?s call had gotten through.

At around 10 p.m., Romulo received an instruction from Mr. Aquino to call Tsang; he complied.

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