by Imelda V. Abaño
The bloody military crackdown in Burma (also known as Myanmar) was bound to happen.
Some people called it "pure democracy" as hundreds of thousands of peaceful protesters joined with 10,000 of the Buddhist monks the entire nation reveres to stage the biggest pro-democracy demonstration in 20 years, demanding an end to 45 years of military rule. Many see the development as a critical turning point in Burma's history.This protest reminds me of the 1986 “People Power Revolution” in the Philippines, one of the most significant turning points in the history of my country. The Philippines had suffered under what was in reality the dictatorship of “President” Ferdinand Marcos since 1965. However, the People Power Revolution eventually pushed him out of office. Since then, the country has had four presidents. Initially, hopes were pinned on Benigno Aquino, Jr., the highly popular exiled Philippine opposition senator. He was expected to win by a landslide, but when he returned to stand for election against Marcos in August 1983, he was assassinated before he was even out of Manila International Airport.
However his widow, Corazon Aquino, then became the first woman to hold the presidency in the Philippines, as well as the first woman president in Asia. There have been three presidents since: Aquino was succeeded by Fidel Ramos, who was followed by Joseph Estrada, who was overthrown by the Second People Power Revolution on charges of corruption. Now another woman, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is president.
The Second People Power Revolution in the Philippines was staged in 2001 when after just 2½ years in office, a restive military and thousands of angry Filipinos toppled President Joseph Estrada who had been charged with massive corruption. Having since been sentenced to life in prison, he has been in detention for six years.
The demonstrations in the Philippines were successful as a non-violent revolution in part due to the support of the religious organizations - Catholic bishops, priests and nuns. Soldiers collaborated with the people because they would not beat up the pious as they prayed the rosary, swaying while holding lighted candles in the air and also giving them flowers during the protest.
So I ask myself, is this show of monk's power in Burma going to evolve along the lines of and with the same results that the Philippines' People Power Revolution did?
On August 15th, the military-ruled government of Burma decided to increase the price of fuel and gasoline and diesel suddenly doubled in price. The cost of compressed gas – which powers public buses - increased by a factor of five. In response, at first pro-democracy activists led demonstrations in Burma's main city, Rangoon/Yangon. When about 400 people marched on August 19th, it was the largest demonstration in years. Police moved swiftly to quell the protests, rapidly arresting dozens of activists. Nonetheless, protests continued around the country. The marches grew as the weeks progressed. Then on September 5th, after troops used force to break up a peaceful rally in the town of Pakokku, Buddhist monks started participating in the protests themselves, in large numbers.In the age of the internet and digital cameras, images of the spectacular protests in Rangoon/Yangon, the main city, spread across Myanmar itself, encouraging its people to become part of the protest. For a few weeks, it was only monks protesting, with intimidated citizens watching on the sidelines, cheering them on. But on September 24th, in response to a call from the monks for the public to join them, thousands converged in Rangoon/Yangon to form a massive protest. The government let the protests go on for about a week, then imposed a dawn-to-dusk curfew, during which hundreds of troops and riot police moved in ruthlessly.
Despite a simultaneous crackdown on the internet and cell phones, television still broadcast pictures to the outside world showing soldiers and police charging crowds with batons and using bullets and tear gas indiscriminately on both monks and other protesters.
Authorities acknowledged that government troops shot dead nine demonstrators and a Japanese cameraman. But witnesses testified that many, many more had died.
"We believe the death toll is higher than acknowledged by the government,'' Shari Villarosa, the top U.S. diplomat in Myanmar, told The Associated Press. "We are doing our best to get more precise, more detailed information, not only in terms of deaths but also arrests.''
On October 2nd the BBC reported, “The government sent troops to brutally suppress the protests. At least 3,000 people are believed to have died.”
Soldiers have now sealed off monasteries in the two main cities of Rangoon and Mandalay, locking the monks up to prevent them from joining any more demonstrations. Hundreds more were beaten and arrested as the soldiers took control of the streets.
Villarosa said her staff had visited up to 15 monasteries around Yangon and every single one was empty. She put the number of arrested demonstrators - monks and civilians - in the thousands.
The response from abroad
The internet scenes of the protests and the violent response of the government brought the crisis to the attention of world leaders as they gathered in New York for the United Nations General Assembly.Like Burmese nationals and organizations living in other countries, the Free Burma Coalition-Philippines, a group of non-government organizations and individuals sympathetic to the Burmese struggle for democracy, staged a small rally outside of the Myanmar Embassy in support of the people of Burma.
"We're glad with the support the world has shown our monks. We only wish that the generals leading the junta listen to them for the sake of our country," they said.
Another group supporting the Burmese people here in the Philippines, the Partido ng Manggagawa (Workers Organization), said the crackdown only showed the failure of diplomacy and that the junta only cared about its survival and grip on power.
"If the junta is sincerely desirous of arriving at a national reconciliation for the sake of Burma, it must seek a workable formula. But what we see now is a government that is unwilling to cooperate and unable to initiate tangible democratic changes," said campaign coordinator Yuen Abana.
Boot Burma out of ASEAN
Philippine Senator Aquilino Pimentel, who is the Vice-Chairman of the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Caucus on Myanmar, denounced the ruthless suppression of human rights of the Burmese people by the military rulers of Myanmar.
Pimentel said that members of the legislatures of the nine ASEAN members (Philippines, Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand) should collaborate to press the Myanmar military rulers to effect the following:
• First, pursue reconciliation efforts among the peoples and ethnic tribes of Myanmar.
• Second, restore the human rights of the Burmese people.
• Third, hold free elections as the first major step to democratization.
Pimentel said it's about time ASEAN should impose sanctions on Myanmar in view of its continued failure to fulfill its promise to institute peaceful, democratic reforms.
"Unless the Myanmar military regime takes clear steps to democratize, the nine other countries of ASEAN should either suspend or expel Myanmar from ASEAN," Pimentel said.
Pimentel has passed a Senate resolution urging the United Nations Security Council to call on Myanmar to end its repression of the fundamental rights of the people of Burma and to cease using force against the peaceful, unarmed demonstrators.
Woman power for democracy
While in New York for the United Nations General Assembly, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has proposed to the third Women Leaders' Working Group led by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that they should employ "women power" to press for the release of detained Burmese pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi.In a statement, President Arroyo called on Burma to "return to the path of democracy and release Aung San Suu Kyi."
Arroyo suggested the world's women leaders write a letter as a group to the Burmese Government asking for Suu Kyi's freedom.
Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest since 1990, is the leader of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) in Burma. When parliamentary elections were held in 1990, the NLD won 392 of the 495 parliamentary seats. But instead of respecting the results of the elections, the parliament was dissolved by the military regime and Aung San Suu Kyi and other NLD leaders were incarcerated by the military.
The Philippines: from dictatorship to democracy
If democracy is defined simply as an exercise of public will, “people power” might be called its purest form.
In the Philippines, by 1986, the democratic system had failed and authoritarian regime had held control with an iron fist for more than twenty years. But twice in 1986 and again in 2001, people power movements restored democracy to the Philippines. And by ousting dictatorship to re-establish democracy, the Philippines moved forward and showed what the people can do.
There are obvious significant differences between Burma and the Philippines. If we talk for example about how People Power in the Philippines in 1986 managed to change the course of events, we must realize that Ferdinand Marcos had already lost control of absolute power because the military were very dissatisfied with how he was running the government.
On the other hand, in Myanmar the situation is the opposite: the military junta seems to have complete control of government troops and the police. There might be some reformists in the military but for the moment, the public seems to have been completely beaten back by the latest violence.
In fact, on October 2nd, UPI reported the first defection from the Myanmar military.
A colonel from Myanmar fled to Thailand Tuesday with his 17-year-old son and is seeking asylum in Norway.
Myanmarese Col. Htaly Win, 42, his son, and Norwegian journalist Hans-Joachim Schilde entered Thailand by crossing a river bordering Myanmar.
The group were assisted by guerrillas from the Karen independence movement of eastern Myanmar and escorted to Bangkok by a Thai colonel and a Karen officer, the Aftenpost report stated.
Norway hosts several refugees from Myanmar and broadcasts a radio and TV station "Democratic Voice of Burma" from Oslo. Moe Aye, a journalist in Myanmar tortured for six years by the military junta for an article he wrote, runs DVB.
On the same day, in an article entitled, “Cracks emerge in Myanmar military unity,” Asia Times Online reported,
There are indications that the ruling State Peace and Development Council's (SPDC's) top two generals are at loggerheads over how to proceed in the aftermath of the crackdown.
SPDC second-in-command General Maung Aye reportedly opposed using force against the tens of thousands of monks who took to the streets, bringing him into conflict with Senior General Than Shwe, according to sources close to Maung Aye. Some soldiers in the old capital of Yangon and the city of Mandalay last week reportedly refused to obey their senior officers' commands to attack or shoot at protesting monks, according to diplomatic sources in Yangon. Several aid workers in Mandalay reportedly witnessed soldiers there refusing to open fire when ordered by commanding officers.
"If the current crackdown results in more bloodshed, a mutiny within the 400,000-strong armed forces is a distinct possibility," said Win Min, a Myanmar analyst based in Chiang Mai, Thailand. "Family members of the grassroots soldiers are suffering from increasing food and fuel prices like the people who are demonstrating, though top level officers are getting amazingly rich."
Only the primary leader and Noble Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been confined to house arrest for 12 of the past 18 years by the country's military leader Senior General Than Shwe and his fellow generals, and her supporters continue to voice their demands for democracy. And at least the world beyond Burma’s borders is listening. According to the New York Times News Service, a UN envoy to Burma met yesterday with both the leader of the military junta and the leader of the democratic opposition, Aung San Suu Kyi.
The envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, met first with the country's military leader, Senior General Than Shwe, bringing a message of outrage from the outside world at the crackdown that began last week.
Gambari then flew from the country's remote, militarized capital, Nyapyitaw, to the nation's main city, Rangoon, where he met for a second time with Aung San Suu Kyi, whom he had also visited on Sunday.
These alternating visits raised hopes that he might be fostering some kind of rudimentary dialogue.
But one Western ambassador cautioned against expecting immediate results:
"I don't expect great changes to come from Gambari's visit," said the diplomat, who spoke anonymously according to his embassy's policy. "I expect the opening gambit of the generals to be a very tough one. But in the longer term, I think this is not going to go away. It is important to keep the pressure on them."
Rangoon was grimly quiet during Gambari's visit.
There was no immediate word on the content of Gambari's visits. He is due to report back to the Security Council on his return.
So to me our experience in the Philippines is a very important lesson for Burma, because despite the power the military demonstrates, they cannot resist the political power of the people forever. And this time the most revered group in the country, the Buddhist monks, and the UN, and most of the outside world, are supporting the Burmese people. In the Philippines, the people, by banding together and persisting in their demands, were able to take over leadership and assert their will. I only hope that the thousands in Burma who have recently protested the brutal dictatorship under which they have been suffering for so long will find the heart and the determination and perhaps the alliances abroad that will finally set them free.
For some of the latest images of the atrocities committed in Myanmar, visit the Democratic Voice of Burma website. Viewer discretion is advised - the images are both graphic and disturbing. - Ed.
About the Author
Imelda Visaya-Abaño, began her journalism career in 1998 as a reporter at the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the leading daily newspaper in the Philippines. Her areas of interest are women and children's issues, science, environment, health, agriculture and education.
In 2002, Ms. Abaño was honored as the Asian Winner of the Global REUTERS-IUCN Media Awards on Environmental Reporting.
Ms. Abaño vows to continue serving her community through balanced news and fearless views. She believes in better journalism for better communities.