Burma and the Philippines: struggling for democracy

In a move reminiscent of its coverage of the late Former Philippine President Corazon “Cory” Aquino’s political career, TIME magazine has recently featured on its cover not once, but twice in less than two months, another woman who is touted as an icon of freedom and democracy. Burma’s long suffering and recently released political prisoner, Aung San Suu Kyi is guaranteed enough airtime by a Western-owned, pro-democracy media outlet until “freedom” is restored in Burma (or Myanmar as the ruling generals would like everyone to call it).

I can’t help but be a bit skeptical about what TIME magazine wants to happen. Promoting democracy has always been a tradition of that prestigious magazine. But no matter how prestigious they are, they will always have their own agenda. I mean, after the fiasco in Iraq and the on-going war in Afghanistan, they should already realize by now that democracy is not for everyone. After all, hasn’t it been proven time and time again that giving full democracy to a people without the accompanying discipline, specially in an immature society, can only result in epic failure?

Just think about what happened to the Philippines after we were granted our so-called freedom after the so-called tyrant, the late former President Ferdinand Marcos was deposed in 1986. Freedom was just too much for a population with a majority of ill-educated star-struck ignoramuses.

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The situation was specially made worse in the Philippines by the fact that the country was without a leader who had vision or direction for its citizens but had plenty of an apathetic elite whose main goals in life were and still are, as the song goes, “to party like it’s 1999”. In short, the Philippines after Marcos was like a repressed child whose strict parents left for good. The child then ran amok and all hell broke loose.

Unfortunately, the lack of discipline and lack of foresight of the average Filipino only cemented our position among the list of countries belonging to the basket case category. As the recent 2011 Index of Economic Freedom report compiled by the Heritage Foundation noted, “the Philippines is one of the “mostly unfree” economies in the world due to pervasive corruption in the government, the weak judicial system, and unsound economic policies“.

Even a new survey coming from polling firm Social Weather Stations (SWS) showed that 24 years after the Edsa revolution, hunger is on the rise in the Philippines with “an estimated 3.4 million families, claimed to have gone hungry in the last three months because they lacked anything to eat.”

Considering that the SWS “survey” firm is owned and operated by family and friends of President Noynoy “Walang mahirap, kung walang corrupt” Aquino or PNoy, it goes to show that data describing poverty is hard to manipulate. The report also said that the above estimate “… was also four points over the 12-year average of 13.7 percent, but still far from the record high of 24 percent that hit in December 2009.” Needless to say, things haven’t really improved even after Marcos had gone.

All right, so 3.4 million hungry Filipinos may not be as bad as a third of 50 million Burmese people living below poverty line, but come on, we simply can’t ignore the fact that poverty in the Philippines is still a major problem and has the potential to get worse as the population balloons. The Philippines may not be under a dictatorship or a totalitarian regime like the Burmese but we remain imprisoned by our own culture of mediocrity. That, to me is even worse because it is so hard to actually pinpoint to Filipinos or make them understand that it is they who are the root of the country’s problems.

Comparisons between Corazon Aquino and Aung San Suu Kyi

Freedom fighters Cory Aquino and Suu Kyi can both be described as delicate in appearance and soft-spoken in manner. Burmese Suu Kyi is known for wearing flower blossoms customarily in her hair similar to how Filipino Cory consistently wore her yellow dresses in public. And while Suu Kyi is called The Lady by her followers, there are quite a number of Filipino cult-followers who strangely enough, consider Cory to be a saint.

Cory might not have been a political prisoner herself but her late husband and former Senator, Benigno Aquino Junior spent almost eight years in prison and three years in self-exile in the U.S. before he was assassinated in 1983. However, Cory’s suffering pales in comparison to how Suu Kyi suffered after being in house arrest for almost two decades, separated from her family in England and being unable to attend her own British husband’s funeral in 1999.

Perhaps this is why 65-year-old Suu Kyi commands respect from all over the world and is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, one of the numerous honours she has received from the international community due to her advocacy while Cory only bagged the title TIME magazine’s “Woman of the Year” award for her efforts.

Yes, Cory too likewise commanded respect from all over the world but in her homeland, the Philippines, during the remaining years before her death, she was slowly losing her magic touch because her signature “People Power” revolution became some sort of a joke. The novelty of street revolutions was waning because it was routinely used to try and remove whoever happened to be the incumbent President.

People Power was used to remove former President and plunderer Joseph “Erap” Estrada from office during Edsa II and it was used but failed to remove former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (GMA) instead of using institutional measures enshrined in the Constitution which Cory herself was instrumental in installing immediately after she became President in 1986.

In their prime, both women held moral authority in their respective countries and claimed to have won national elections only to be denied leadership; Cory declared herself cheated in the 1986 Presidential elections and Suu Kyi overwhelmingly won the national elections in 1990. What happened next after both women were denied leadership is what differentiated the paths of the two women.

It had been rumored that Marcos finally agreed to leave Malacanang at the height of People Power revolt because the U.S. shifted its support to Cory Aquino paving the way for a Cory presidency. Such a claim seems closer to the reality that, perhaps, Aquino cultists should consider accepting in order for them to snap out of their trance-like beholdenness to the clan and end this notion of all credit for the rise of so-called Philippine “democracy” going to the so-called “Aquino legacy”.

Similarly, Western governments are giving their full support to Suu Kyi. She even has the “moral imprimatur” that helped bring Western economic sanctions against Burma’s military regime for their appalling human rights records since the 1990s.

Times have changed though. Before China’s rise, Western sanctions might have worked but the rise of China as an economic power has given Burma enough reason to ignore calls by the west to give its people the “freedom” they deserve. Instead of supporting the sanctions levied by the west to pressure Burma, China is actually cozying up to Burma perhaps after catching wind of its abundant natural gas, timber and minerals. “Already, resource-strapped China is building oil and gas pipelines across Burma to create vital artery to feed its economic engine” as quoted from TIME magazine. At that rate, given Burma’s proximity to and alignment with the region’s elephantine growth engine, we are even likely to see it surpassing the Philippines economically in the foreseeable future.

China’s position in the Asian region is paving the way for Burma’s military generals to continue what they are doing. And they might just be following China’s mantra: “economics trumps politics, prosperity precedes polls, and social stability prevails over individual expression“. Which is precisely the reason why they no longer see Suu Kyi as a threat to their regime. Besides, Burma’s generals are not above mowing down dissentors or protesters with machine guns. Suffice to say, Filipinos’ melodramatic emo approach to political dissent won’t work over there.

Western Intervention is not always good.

While I have nothing against Suu Kyi being on the cover of TIME magazine per se or any Western-backed media outlet giving airtime to advocating freedom for all humanity, I am not 100 percent in favor of promoting democracy in a place where it could only destabilize further.

Going back to Iraq, sure Sadam Hussein sucked. He and his minions had extensive atrocious human rights records. It was enough justification at the time for the U.S. to bomb the place to smithereens. But is Iraq any better after Saddam? At least Saddam had control over all ethnic minorities, all of which went on to fight one another for control over the country after Saddam’s demise.

Saddam even promoted a secular way of life — one in which Christians and Muslims got along fine. And then the U.S. just had to intervene. The result was more instability after the U.S. military discharged its oversupply of artillery, on hapless Iraqi cities. The U.S. military’s action was of course, in the guise of “looking” for and “neutralizing” those Snuffleupagus weapons of mass destruction.

What I’m trying to say is this: Western nations have a totally different culture. What works for them may not necessarily work for others. The American Presidential system, which the Philippines adopted, is one classic example of a system that simply does not work for our country and our culture because of our personality-based politics. Unfortunately, the electorate in the Philippines is too dumb to realize this, which is why we have been stuck with it since gaining our independence from the Americans.

Societies have a way of solving their own conflicts in due time. Western intervention often prolongs and exacerbates it. Sudan for example, is finally splitting into Northern and Southern Sudan after a half-century civil war that ended in 2005. East Timor is another country that emerged from the ashes of brutal conflict. They managed to secede from Indonesia after two decades of struggle. Ethnic strife resulted in the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s and gave birth to a half-dozen separate states.

The Burmese, for their part, are forced to unite under the leadership of the generals, of the leading junta. Without Burma’s military might, the place may be torn apart by ethnic violence similar to what happened in Iraq. Their history after the British left their colony in 1948 revealed that it is not a truly unified nation due to a population divided along ethnic lines. Suffice to say, who are the Western governments to say which situation is the lesser evil in Burma or for that matter, which situation is better for any other nation they hardly know anything about?

This is not to say that I favor Burma’s generals’ repression of their own people’s freedom. Life in Burma is not easy if you are not a member of the elite. After all, it’s been said that Burmese soldiers use rape as a weapon against ethnic women, and forced labor is common practice. The generals also seize land from farmers, and power outages are still rife even in Rangoon, which says a lot about the country’s economic instability. Also, millions of people are internally displaced because of ethnic fighting and forced relocations.

The problem is, Burma’s opposition leaders are not even united themselves. Just like in the Philippines, during campaign season, political candidates in Burma are just good at talking but they rarely discuss policies that will help fix Burma’s issues. The big question is: are they even qualified to replace the generals?

What about Suu Kyi? What kind of policies will she introduce that will pave the way for a more prosperous Burma? Or is she just focused on installing democracy and giving “freedom” to the oppressed? Although she is still revered as a symbol of hope, after years of being under house arrest, her political party is said to be beginning to crack under pressure.

It seems to be that the lack of planning and unity within her own political party is beginning to smell like the all-too-familiar “bahala na” attitude that marked the Cory years in the Philippines. Likewise, the Generals have guaranteed that Suu Kyi cannot run against them again after they conveniently changed their Constitution by adding a clause stipulating that Burmese citizens who are married to a foreigner cannot run for public office. The generals have also developed an ability to pretend she does not exist. She may as well be talking to a brick wall because her efforts to initiate dialogue have been largely ignored.

The Burmese people’s efforts to gain democracy certainly mirror the Filipino people’s own efforts to restore its democracy since 1986. Our experience in the hands of Marcos may not have been as bad as their experience under their military regime. Sadly though, even now the Philippines is still not functioning as a full-fledged democracy considering all the extrajudicial killings that transpire every so often and the allegations of human rights abuses committed by the authorities which includes the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the military.

Likewise, those who are critical of the government may as well be talking to a brick wall because the new Aquino government has been largely ignoring calls for real reform. PNoy even calls his critics the “noisy minority” which means he can hear his critics but chooses to ignore them.

Scarily enough, if we Filipinos let our guard down long enough, our situation might go into reverse and go the way of Burma, specially with a weak leader like PNoy Aquino. Our culture of impunity, which pardons military persons who go rogue, might eventually give way to a repressive military leadership. If that happens, surely we would have just wasted our so-called “freedom”. Then again, as the saying goes, “Easy come, easy go”.

This scenario is not too far-fetched with rebel soldier and now Senator Antonio Trillanes serving as a reminder to a future generation of would-be mutineers that all it takes is to have the guts to succeed in a military take over of the Philippines. And if you don’t succeed at that, Filipinos will not only forgive you, they will elect you Senator of the Republic, and its President will grant you “amnesty” even before you even ask for it. Bad guys do tend to come and go and then come back to fight another day in societies like ours.

Despite the comparison, I’m pretty sure Burma’s Suu Kyi is a very different person from Cory Aquino. She is after all a Buddhist, which might explain her level-headedness and realistic outlook. Not being Catholic is already a guarantee that you won’t see her asking for guidance from priests or religious cult leaders who each have their own agendas.

At the very least Suu Kyi’s message to the Burmese people is simple: “My very top priority is for people to understand that they have the power to change things themselves.” Her statement gives me the impression that she doesn’t look like the type of person who will breed children who make it a point to remind other people of their father and their mother’s sacrifice.

27 Replies to “Burma and the Philippines: struggling for democracy”

  1. daaaaang!…whaaaat??? … oh no! this is a flawed comparison… santa ate cory was a full pledge dictator during her time… after marcos downfall, flipland had no functioning govt…. no law… santa ate cory was IT, the head of a “revolutionary govt” aka dictatorship… she shreded flipland constitution and replaced it with the current 1987 version of the constitution aka “articles of oligarchy”…

    1. Burma and Philippines are struggling with democracy.  Here is where the difference lies, Burmese are involved, Philipphinos are not.  Burmese are so involved that it deserves worldwide coverage.  Philippinos are so apathetic that international media has already given up. :) 

  2. Thank you again for another excellent commentary on the dismal state of things in Pinas, and the suspect motives of the West in promoting so-called ‘democracy’ – but only certain societies for reasons only they keep to themselves, and certainly not for the overall benefit to those societies own peoples (so why not promote real democracy in, say, Saudi Arabia, etc.?). Lee Kuan Yew understood what Singapore needed more than anything else over forty years ago and ignored the calls for ‘democracy’ and relentless criticism of his authoritarian regime by the West – and look where his country is today – on an equal footing with those exasperating Western governments! China’s leaders are also learning from the example of Singapore – and from the poor one of the USSR, among others – and forging their own path to economic progress regardless of the already tiresome calls for ‘democracy’ by the West.

    Meantime, Pinas continues to regress while under the invisible thumb of the US – and in the hands of the selfish, short-sighted, and often incompetent sectors who continue to hold power in the country.

    1. daaaang! what is this all about “the west in promoting so-called democracy/anti US rhetoric” thingy?… one question and be honest in your answer: if the countries’ borders are removed or taken down, where do you think majority of its people will head to?… won’t be china… or singapore…. or saudi arabia… or ussr…

      1. Well of course, if everybody’s happy, who’s going to complain? 😀 It’s not like the Chinese are being imprisoned in their own country as North Korea does. I have talked to young people when I was there and they are actually expressing their views freely, views that are not necessarily pro-government, and nobody arrests them.

        And media? Chinese media makes a lot more sense to me than ABS-CBN-GMA. I actually liked watching tv there, news reports have no avalanche of trash opinion from “experts”, just plain facts. And to be honest, they are not always pro-government. People can actually discuss issues rationally, and not be influenced by the showbiz inclined emo news reporting that we have in pinas.

        For me, “communist” order is still way better than “democratic” chaos.

        1. In no particular order:
          It’s not like the Chinese are being imprisoned in their own country as North Korea does.
          Remind me where Liu Xiaobo’s dissent landed him, regardless of how worthy it was for the Nobel Prize?

          Well of course, if everybody’s happy, who’s going to complain?
          I’m reminded of Brave New World. Huxley effectively wrote that long as the people are showered in material pleasure the effectively “love their servitude.” They have no reason to complain if they feel ‘harmonious,’ which lets their leaders get away with, say, not recognizing that the Tianamen Square massacre in 1989 actually happened. Or creating mobile execution buses.

          And exactly how ‘anti-government’ are we talking about? I can understand how people are trying to find out exactly what their Communist Party stands for after more than 60 years in power. Maybe they want their government to actually fight China’s infamous bureaucratic corruption or provide better working conditions.

          As long as the government can keep the opposition fragmented, they have nothing to worry about.

        2. Lookit, Filipinos are democratically and religiously irresponsible.  Religiously, Filipinos cannot separate fantasy from reality, AMERICANS DO.  Democratically, Filipinos abuse their freedom under the guise of religion than for the good of all.

    2. Thanks Sareet L 🙂

      Democracy is a political form of government in which governing power is derived from the people. It does not work in the Philippines because majority of the population is ill-educated. Which is why they get suckered into voting for incompetent but popular public officials.

      Those who promote democracy in countries that have a poorly educated population are maybe misguided.

  3. This reminds me of the lesson during our student exchange program in the US. There was a topic called “Can Democracy be exported?” The lecturer said that this cannot be done well and citing Iraq as an example. Gotta find my notes on this. haha

    1. There’s a famous line from “The West Wing” TV series. I think it goes: “The presidential system is the most dangerous export of the US.” 😀

  4. It’s like a never ending cycle that will continue on and on to the generations to come. Apathy is rampant and ignoramuses run rampant across the country. Will we ever learn?

  5. I think the UN should have finished Saddam back in 1992. At least then the Shiites wouldn’t have been distrustful of US intentions (after all, GWB the First promised to help them, then didn’t, leaving them to be suppressed) and maybe they would have found the weapons of mass destruction.

      1. Well, it’s not like America is no stranger to that sort of situation themselves. It’s like how few knew about Barack Obama before the 2007 presidential primaries. Suddenly, he’s the President.

        Besides, back in ’92 they probably would have been able to find someone to lead Iraq that wasn’t completely unknown to the Iraqis. Not that I can put a name to it, they probably got executed in the interim before the 2003 invasion.

  6. The Filipinos were against NATIONAL IDENTIFICATION SYSTEM because of “privacy” issues.  WHAAAT?  Is there such a thing as “privacy” in the Philippines?  They go to America, apply ID in DMV, come back here and show it off to friends.  I JUST DO NOT GET IT !!!!!  HA!HA!HA!HA!  They want a State ID in America but not Philippine ID.  They want made-in-vietnam-bought-in-America Nikes but not made-in-vietnam-bought-in-the-Philippines.

  7. Cory Aquino and family have herr Hacienda Luisita and the Cojuangco-Aquino business interests. Auung San Sau Kyi does not have any Hacienda and business interests in Burma.
    Democracy is an overly used word, by Superpowers; to justify their present-day Imperialism…

    The two political figures are very much different…I think the interest here is Burma’s Natural Gas. Not its political advancement. Like Iraqui Oil being secured by the U.S….

  8. I just don’t like China’s style of government and policies. Many things are banned and yet they are still available there without much hassle(so what kind of ban is it?). You can’t access the internet unless you’re 18 and above. Piracy is rampant. I am a lover of the arts (literature, video games, music, comisc/manga, etc.) you see and i want to be a game designer in the future. From the artist’s point of view, freedom of individual expressions is of utmost importance and censorship and control are the greatest enemies.

    This is what you most AP posters forgot. You always see things in the political perspectives. The arts have always defined my life and i don’t want a government taking my freedom of expression away from me.

    1. @Lorenz

      I don’t think you are the only one who does NOT like China’s style of management but hey, the Chinese have to live with it. I guess the inconsistencies you see between their policies and what the people actually do is an indication that the society and its government is at a crossroads. The people were isolated from the outside world for a long time and now that they have opened up and their economy is booming, people are slowly being exposed to more things that they can handle. They are probably taking in too many things all at once and still need to figure things out as they go.

      I don’t like piracy too but they have a different perspective on it and not even the indignation from western nations can stop them. Piracy is what drove their manufacturing industry to where it is now. They copied and copied until they became good at it. You can’t even tell now which one is genuine or fake. I personally don’t like pirated DVD’s because I love my films and I like watching it using genuine copies.

      When someone wants to copy your work, there’s very little you can do about it other than slap him or her with copyright infringement laws. Then again, people have a way of going around that law. I touched on this topic on my plagiarism article: Plagiarism and Filipinos: the words can mean the same thing.

      The thing is Lorenz, just because you see us write about something like a particular behavior for instance, it doesn’t necessarily mean we are endorsing it. Most of the time we are merely stating facts and our own observations. There is no need to be frustrated when you read something you don’t agree with. You just need to politely clarify things you are unsure of.

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