Manila and Myanmar

Taking Responsibility

A Burmese exile in Bangladesh, wearing Suu Kyi's portrait as a hat, protests Myanmar's military junta
A Burmese exile in Bangladesh, wearing Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's portrait as a headdress, protests abuses by Myanmar's military leadership (Photo: Jewel Samad/AFP).

Filipinos and Philippine governments used to be totally indifferent to their Asian neighbors, in the past being first and last focused on the United States—or more specifically, that fabled land called “America.”

America, said the Filipino writer in exile Carlos Bulosan, was in the heart. Because it certainly wasn’t in the pineapple plantations of Hawaii, the streets of San Francisco, the apple orchards of San Joaquin Valley, or the canneries of Juneau, Alaska. In those places in the decades before World War II, what Filipino immigrants found was not the America of equal opportunity, human rights, and freedom, but the America of racism, bigotry, and exploitation, manifest in a dollar-a-day wages, building signs prohibiting the entry of dogs and Filipinos, and an occasional lynching, one of which Bulosan vividly describes.

But blame that focus on arguably the most successful colonial experiment in history, which embedded in the hearts and minds of the Filipino millions a vision of a country superior in every respect and of whose mythic prosperity they wanted so desperately to be a part.

This focus was enhanced by, and was inevitably reflected in, Philippine foreign policy, which for decades after 1946 remained tied to the United States, until, in the 1960s, the Philippine Foreign Secretary Salvador Lopez noticed that the Philippines was not only part of Asia, but that its immediate neighbors were also on the threshold of great changes and Philippine fortunes were inevitably tied to the region.

Thus began efforts like Maphilindo, the precursor of the ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations], which indeed developed into the grouping that, among others, has made Filipinos more aware of their neighbors. However, the Philippine media, always an accurate gauge of popular sentiment, habitually ignore even the most important events in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand unless they involve Filipinos, in contrast to Thai media, for example, which devote space and time to Philippine events.

That seems to suggest that Filipino parochialism toward its immediate neighbors still persists, unless the Philippine media are this time lagging behind their audience. Despite that putative parochialism, however, the Philippine export of workers to more prosperous Malaysia and Singapore has forced Filipinos to pay more attention to those countries and even to Thailand, where a corps of Filipino managers and civil-society leaders have taken up residence in the last 10 years.

Which brings us to Myanmar.

Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, must be the least interesting and least-known country in Asia to Filipinos, despite its being a member of the ASEAN, and despite its being a country where Filipinos can travel without a visa.

The Philippines does have an embassy in the capital, Yangon, formerly Rangoon, and I know of at least one Filipina doctor who was assigned to the Myanmar hinterlands by the international medical NGO Doctors Without Borders to treat the usual Third World diseases. But few Filipinos know much about Myanmar, except possibly what the poet of British imperialism Rudyard Kipling wrote about the road to Mandalay when Burma was still part of the British empire.

It’s not hard to see why. Filipino parochialism may be giving way to the pressures of working abroad, but Myanmar is so poor there are no OFWs [Overseas Filipino Workers] there, and it is no prime mover in Asian, or even Southeast Asian, affairs. Mostly what Myanmar moves are drugs—heroin from the Golden Triangle, much of which ends up in the United States to fuel and compounds that country’s humongous drug problem.

The drug issue helps explain U.S. antipathy to Myanmar’s generals. The drug problem is a national security issue for the United States, which suspects that Myanmar’s military leaders are at best indifferent to eradicating the menace or, at worst, are in league with the drug traffickers or are themselves in that category.

The Burmese military has been in power since 1962, despite its promises of free elections. A military junta headed by Senior Gen. Than Shwe currently rules Myanmar. Over the last several days Myanmar has been in the news because of the junta’s detention of Aung San Suu Kyi, head of the National League for Democracy (NLD), who was the Nobel Peace Prize recipient in 1991.

Suu Kyi has been detained since a clash last May 30 between her followers and pro-government mobs, who are said to have beaten to death at least 75 of her supporters. The Myanmar junta blames Suu Kyi and the NLD for the violence.

The NLD won Myanmar’s last free elections in 1990 but was never allowed to assume power. Instead, Suu Kyi has been kept under house arrest for nearly all of the last 13 years, and NLD members arrested, detained, and otherwise harassed by the military. Following the May 30 incident, the United States has issued calls for Suu Kyi’s release—it has issued no demands for regime change—condemning the May 30 incident as the work of government-affiliated thugs. The United Nations has sent an envoy to the country to negotiate her release as well. The envoy, as of this writing, was cooling his heels in Yangon, hoping to see General Shwe [U.N. envoy Razali Ismail met Suu Kyi on June 10, described her as being “in good spirits,” and called for ASEAN and the world to pressure Myanmar to release Suu Kyi—WPR].

Observers are pessimistic that these and even other forms of pressure can work on Myanmar, which for decades has largely ignored international opinion. Despite its refusal to relax its iron grip on the country, the junta in fact succeeded in 1997 in getting Myanmar into the ASEAN, thanks, among others, to the Philippines, which, despite its history and democratic traditions, decided to lead the campaign for Myanmar’s membership.

Although there were suspicions that the real reason for Philippine support was the interest of certain Filipino-Chinese businessmen in investing in Myanmar, the argument of the Ramos government at the time was that ASEAN membership would help moderate the junta’s excesses, since it would have to live up to its responsibilities as an ASEAN member.

Myanmar’s membership was similarly supported by such countries as Singapore and Malaysia, despite its driving a wedge between ASEAN and the European Union, which appropriately regarded Myanmar membership in ASEAN with distaste and dismay.

The EU has since been vindicated. The junta’s actions have turned out to be the opposite of what Ramos and others expected. Apparently encouraged by its 1997 victory, the junta has since been even more aggressive in suppressing dissent. Among other initiatives, it forced more than a thousand members of the NLD to “resign” last year and once again placed Suu Kyi under house arrest in mid-2002.

There are no signs that it is relenting in its policies of suppression, and in a statement timed with the arrival of U.N. envoy Razali Ismail at Yangon, it blamed the May 30 violence on Suu Kyi’s and the NLD’s “course of confrontation,” despite evidence that the mob that attacked NLD supporters had been in trucks following Suu Kyi’s motorcade from Yangon to a northern town.

What have Filipinos got to do with all this? Plenty. As a prime mover in its being accepted for Asean membership, and therefore as a party to the Myanmar junta’s even more aggressive assault on its own people since, the Philippines has a responsibility to do what it can to “moderate” the junta’s excesses—as it said in 1997. In one more fit of political and moral positivism, however, it has instead been silent on the events in Myanmar, despite the noises the Arroyo administration’s U.S. patron has been making.

Only a few months ago that same administration had sanctioned the use of force against the government of Iraq. Now it can’t utter a single word of protest against the Myanmar junta’s latest act of repression.

Luis V. Teodoro is editor of the Philippine Journalism Review.