Fatal Explosion in Manila

An explosion Friday afternoon in a Metro Manila shopping mall left at least 9 dead and more than 100 injured. Investigations into the cause of the explosion are ongoing, but authorities have announced traces of high explosives were found on the scene and fingered the Abu Sayyaf Group as a prime suspect.

I was shocked and upset to read the news. But hardly surprised. At risk of sounding like a wingnut conspiracy theorist, I have to say: the timing of this attack is just way, way too convenient.

The already unpopular President Arroyo recently got busted for distributing sacks full of cash to legislators. These “cash gifts,” ranging in value from about US$4,000 to US$10,000 were distributed at the presidential palace during a meeting of allied politicians, with the fairly transparent goal of buying their loyalty as a new round of impeachment attempts reaches congress.

Unable to deny the incident after a few legislators spoke to the press, the administration’s attempts at damage control have bordered on the ridiculous – claiming that such “cash gifts” are standard rewards for a job well done and therefore nothing scandalous, arguing that the money came from private rather than public funds and is thus not subject to scrutiny, and asserting that President Arroyo was not actually in the room when the “gifts” were handed out and consequently should not be linked to them.

Needless to say, these explanations are a bit unsatisfactory, and quite a lot of people are quite upset by this latest episode in a long, long string of corruption scandals. And this time, the opposition is not only from the left or the middle class, but also from soldiers, who have recently been denied even the pittance of a $3 bonus they should be entitled to for combat pay because of a “lack of funds.”

In short: it’s a perfect time for a public tragedy -- preferably an act of terrorism -- which can rally the troops and the public around the president, and which will justify declaring of a state of emergency, putting the capitol under tight surveillance, banning large public gatherings and pressuring the media.

And look what just happened: an explosion in the heart of Metro Manila, at a shopping mall that caters to middle-class and upwardly mobile urban professionals (a core constituency for the anti-corruption movement).

I really don’t have any idea what happened, but it seems like the situation breaks down like this:

Could it have been the Abu Sayyaf, or a similar group?
Absolutely. There is definitely a precedent for terrorist attacks in Manila by forces in opposition to the state. This is not even the first time Glorietta Mall has been attacked -- in May 2000, a homemade bomb damaged a pedestrian bridge in the complex and injured 12 people. Moreover, the Abu Sayyaf has claimed responsibility for past bombings in Metro Manila, the most fatal a 2004 attack on a ferry in Manila Bay that killed over 100 people, and the most recent in 2005, when a bus in Makati, a mall in GenSan City and a bus station in Davao were attacked simultaneously.

Could the administration be responsible?
Absolutely. The first thing that comes to mind is the Plaza Miranda bombing in August 1971, the apex of several months of attacks all bearing (to quote Alfred McCoy’s “Closer than Brothers”) “the fingerprints of a military operation,” which killed 9 and injured 3 opposition senators at an opposition rally, and provided Marcos with the pretext for suspending the writ of habeas corpus and declaring Martial Law. I’m not saying Arroyo has necessarily reached a Marcos-esque level of depravity, but the hundreds of activists salvaged* on Arroyo’s watch bear profound testimony to this administration’s absolute disregard for human life when making decisions about regime maintenance. Furthermore, when opposition to Arroyo crested in February 2006, a conveniently timed and very ambiguous coup plot was “discovered,” which allowed Arroyo to declare a state of emergency, target opposition and independent media, and crack down on leftist leaders.

Another possibility?
The initial reports of police inspectors on the scene pointed to an explosion triggered by tanks of LP cooking gas in the mall. It was not until several hours later that authorities announced that traces of C4 explosives were found on the scene. Again, it makes perfect sense that conducting forensic work of this sort would take a couple of hours. But I’m unwilling to entirely rule out the possibility that the explosion was a freak accident that is now being cynically manipulated by the government.

I suspect we will never know what actually happened. But I can say, without a shadow of doubt, that regardless of who is responsible and why, this terrible incident has played directly into the hands of the Arroyo administration.

* [n.b.: salvage: Taglish slang for the practice of torturing political opponents to death, then leaving their mutilated corpses in public places to further terrorize the population at large – which is, revealingly, common enough to require its own word]

For footage of the aftermath of the explosion, with commentary in Tagalog, see: