It Is Burma's Time now
Forum on Democratic Leaders in Asia Pacific, Seoul, Korea
June 23, 1999
In May this year, leaders of Burma's opposition came to the Philippines to step up their campaign to mobilize for Burma's long and bloody campaign for democracy. They felt they had to work faster and harder because developments of the past-two years have not been very kind to the cause of Burma's freedom.
In 1997, the Association of Southeast Asian nations over-rode civilized world opinion and accepted junta-ruled Burma as a member on the premise that "constructive engagement" would prod the military junta to relax its grip and undertake serious measures for democracy.
It is now 1999. It appears that the regime of the Burmese junta is more entrenched and more cruel than ever. Appeasement seems to have emboldened it to further consolidate power and worsen its methods of control. The campaign against the main opposition party of Nobel Laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has grown even harsher. Leaders of the National League for Democracy, which won a landslide victory in the elections for parliament in 1990, continue to be hounded by the Army. Oppositionists are routinely arrested; roughly questioned; and severely restricted in their movements.
In the meantime, the junta continues to set in motion several courses of action to build up the illusion that Burma is indeed on her way to democracy. The favorite showcase is, of course, the national convention called to draft a constitution – a process that has taken all of seven years, with no indication that a free constitution will ever really be produced.
This "sham" constitution, as Suu Kyi's group calls it, along with other trappings of democracy, have been used – by those who benefit from dealing with the junta and by those who want, for peace of mind, to hear the last of Burma's horror stories of human-rights abuses – to justify the continuation of the policy of constructive engagement. Or appeasement.
It is time to call a spade a spade, for time is running out on the Burmese people.
Parallels with the Philippines
In trying to grasp the depth of desperation in the Burmese call for help, I try to envision my own country still under a dictator today, in 1999.
I try to imagine what life would be like if the 1986 People Power Revolt at EDSA happened but did not end as fortuitously as it did. What if the Army had obeyed the orders of Marcos and General Ver to fire into the crowd of hundreds of thousands at EDSA, and the crowd had been cowed?
What if, even though the February 1986 snap elections had clearly shown Mr. Marcos cheated and the opposition had won, the Army had barred our way to power, rather than joined us in restoring democracy? What if, like the NLD leaders, we are unable to convene, a decade after the elections we won, and are endlessly hounded by the minions of the military junta?
What if, like the NLD, we could not draft the 1987 Constitution that was overwhelmingly ratified by the largest turnout of voters in history in a free referendum?
I could go on and on and it would only deepen my conviction; that, clearly, something is very wrong here. As a world, almost entirely free following the EDSA revolution, prepares, for the new millennium, the Burmese people remain trapped in a form of bondage that can only remind us of Moses and his people in Egypt, to build monuments to Pharaoh's pride or the junta's tourism program.
Something is very wrong when a country in the heart of a region completing democratic change still cannot have its elected leaders govern it but must remain under the terrifying grip of those who usurped their power. Something is very wrong in a wired world in the age of information when one country still cannot enjoy basic press freedom, or any of the inalienable rights and liberties common to all people.
It is not for any lack of trying that is clear. Like the Filipinos – perhaps even more than the Filipinos – the Burmese people have paid their dues for freedom. Not just the thousands who died fighting for independence, but the untold thousands more who resisted the Stalinist rule of Ne Win and the thousands more who were shot point-blank when the Army stole their election.
On the eighth day of the eighth month of 1988, the people of Burma got out from behind the Eighth Ball, as they say in billiards, to demand the democracy they had won in the polls. Workers, students, farmers, journalists, and later, even monks, government workers and policemen and soldiers declared one strike after another.
They had their own version of what we Filipinos chanted then: Tama na, sobra na, palitan na! – "enough already, too much already, time to change" – as we called on Marcos to step down. The Burmese people filled the air with shouts of “Do-a-ye! Do-a-ye!" meaning, "our country is our business" – not the Army's.
But two weeks later, the tide turned. The Burmese people thought they had won, but the Army started to fire into the, crowds. Those who fell got the bayonet.
One of the survivors, Ko Htun Oo, then 18, recalled: "One of my friends was shot in the head right there, in front of me. Two girls and a monk were shot next to him."
The soldiers went on a killing spree – shooting nurses, doctors and patients – in the Rangoon General Hospital, where many of the wounded had been taken.
How could this happen when victory was so close? Maybe, said one Filipino veteran of EDSA, they waited too long. EDSA took all of four days. Yet it seemed an eternity to us. In fact, we almost lost it on the second day. As we all prematurely rejoiced over the false report that Mr. Marcos had left the country, we learned an hour later that General Fabian Ver had sent out troops and tanks to strike at the crowds.
Perhaps, indeed, a fortnight is too long compared to four days. It gave the tyrants time to collect their wits and summon new nerve to kill.
Perhaps, it all turned on the nature of our soldiers because the success of non-violence as a political technique depends as much on the basic decency of the enemies, as on the bravery of the friends of freedom. That British politician was right who said that Gandhi's non-violent approach would have only exterminated his followers if he was up against the Nazi rather than the British empire.
But that is all in the realm of speculation. We revisit those events today only because all of us in the loose global alliance of pro-democracy forces want our Burmese friends to succeed the next time.
In the meantime, we must survey the task at hand with an unflinching eye and a steely resolve to make this right once and for all.
For there is something in our own sense of justice that recoils at the thought that justice should elude, after all these years, the Burmese people – kind, gentle, hardworking; but also brave and persevering.
In the Age of Global Democracy ushered in by the fall of a Marcos in Manila and the fall of the Wall in Berlin, it is unfair that those who have paid as much for it in Rangoon should not enjoy even a morsel.
No time to lose
Nine years is a long time to wait; 37 years of military dictatorship is intolerable.
We can no longer close our eyes or take our own sweet time to help Burma achieve her freedom, especially those countries whose freedom was achieved with international help – from an enlightened foreign press to enlightened foreign governments.
Every day that passes, the fruit of freedom that should have been harvested nine years ago, withers on the branch, beyond the reach of the people who hunger for it.
Every day that passes, the evil gardeners who have grabbed the work of honest farmers poison the trees at their roots with a fertilizer that is supposed to make them bear more fruit. But they will not. Poison only begets poison. And, one day, for lack of anything else to eat, the farmers will come to believe it is all right to eat poison.
I speak of the false democracy that the Burmese junta is trying to foist on its people, while misleading us into believing it will make the orchard bloom.
A constitution written on the back of a tank cannot qualify as a fruit of democracy. Consider how, over the past seven years, the NLD members who took part in the sham national convention to draft a charter were harassed, expelled and jailed for publicly discussing the provisions of the draft constitution.
Consider the rule that no provision may be proposed that is not first cleared with the junta.
Yet the failure to finish the draft as been used by the junta to explain why, nine years after winning the elections, the NLD cannot sit as Burma's government. The junta insists it must sit and govern under a constitution, and that is taking time.
Some of our friends in other places have swallowed the bait and believe the junta that it is their constitution that will get the ball really rolling towards democracy. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Listen to Aung San Suu Kyi.
In 1996, when she was secretly interviewed by the award-winning British journalist John Pilger, Aung San Suu Kyi said Buddhism teaches four basic ingredients for success: the will to want that success, the right kind of attitude, perseverance, and wisdom.
No doubt, the Burmese people want democracy. They want freedom, political and economic. They want justice. No doubt, too, they have the right kind of attitude for it. They have been alternately angry and patient; they have worked hard and denied themselves material comforts and personal safety for a lofty goal. The word "persevering" hardly does them justice.
All these years, their hard work has built the monuments to the junta's greed and, as best exemplified in the slave labor in the railway extensions and natural gas pipelines built in the south. On a parallel track, they have, pushed, without ceasing, the train of Burmese freedom which, we hope, will soon reach its destination because so many have died along the tracks.
All that then remains is wisdom. It is this wisdom that must teach the Burmese and the friends of Burma's freedom abroad to hold fast, even in the face of tantalizing promises and misleading actions.
This wisdom has long exposed the truth that constructive engagement only bought time for the junta to consolidate its grip and to silence more of the friends of freedom in Burma. This engagement has been purely destructive of Burma's best interests, and constructive only for the junta's designs. It has softened the severity of the embargoes called by some enlightened countries and allowed the junta to sell the services of Burma's slave labor.
Proof of this forced labor and the conscription of children in very dangerous work on railways and gas projects has been provided by no less than United Nations Commission on Human Rights and the International Labor Organization.
Foreign investments have brought only more money to the junta and not more freedom to Burma. As Suu Kyi said, "Burma is heading for democracy not because of investments, but in spite of it."
On the British view that "commercial contacts with democratic nations such as Britain, [will give] the Burmese people experience of democratic principles," Suu Kyi said: "Not in the least bit, because the so-called market economy that exists at this moment is open only to some and not to everybody. New investments will help a small elite to get richer and richer. This works against the very idea of democracy because the gap between rich and poor is growing all the time."
Some estimates put the gravy for the generals, from the Total-Unocal investments alone, at $400 million a year. In several cases, it is reported, foreign projects are signed with fat "signing bonuses" for the junta.
Suu Kyi is not alone in her conviction that moral suasion does not work on those without a sense of morality. Her fellow Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu said that tough sanctions, not engagement, are the way to deal with tyrants. He knew whereof he spoke: the decades of embargoes against apartheid South Africa.
But for as long as embargoes are half-heartedly, or a hypocritically imposed, the junta will only get the signal that money will always do the trick. It will conclude, rather smugly and smartly, that foreigners will continue to pump in money to prop up the junta so long as they can pump more money out for themselves.
As this goes on, the successors of General Ne Win continue, like him, to enrich themselves.
The Far Eastern Economic Review once reported that a chartered jet taking General Ne Win to a Swiss clinic was delayed because chests of jade and precious stones carried on board "had been stacked incorrectly and had to be reloaded." Yet the years later, Burma applied for "least developed nation” status so as to seek debt relief.
This reminds me so much of the Marcos years when we pleaded with foreign countries and investors to boycott his regime because he was only stealing what he was borrowing in the country's name.
When we ousted Marcos, the Guinness Book of Records listed him as the richest thief in Asia, and yet the Philippines had to pay through the nose for its $26-billion dollar debt, and we're still trying to recover all the wealth they stole.
My friends, it has been 13 years since the Philippines got back its freedom and it has not recovered fully from the experience of tyranny. Poor Burma has had almost half a century of unrelieved oppression.
Though my country remains poor, it has been asked by neighbors treading the last difficult path to democracy to share its wealth of democratic experience. We were in South Africa and South America, and we were just in Indonesia, teaching how to conduct clean and fair elections. We shall be in East Timor for the same purpose. Our Presidential Commission on Good Government has been asked to share its difficult experience in trying to recover stolen wealth.
But I think our most valuable contribution, especially to countries experiencing great difficulty, not to mention danger, in taking even the first bloody steps to freedom, is our moral support, our voice in their behalf in the forums of the world and in the ears of our governments.
When the world believed that the way to national progress lay in the path of political oppression, we argued the contrary. The way to live better is to live free. Time and the Asian crisis – which has laid waste the worst of the Asian dictatorships – have proved us right. The key element of progress in the wired world of the age of information is freedom.
So let us stop quibbling about how best to achieve progress Burma – by more dictatorship and less freedom now for more prosperity and more liberty later – and act to give Burma her freedom as soon as possible.
There is no time to lose. Every second of waltzing with the dictators in Burma is another hour of agony for the people of that sad country.
There has been strong pressure on Suu Kyi to "compromise" with the junta. She has remained inflexible, and I understand why.
At the height of the EDSA Revolt, some American officials floated the idea of "power-sharing" between myself and Marcos, to ensure a smooth and peaceful transition to democracy. I sank the idea. I refused to serve my people the tainted fruit of a poisoned democracy, one with contradictory roots in democratic hopes and in the sufferings of my people under the dictatorship. I wanted a clean break with the past and a fresh start for the future.
We cannot pretend to be at a loss what to do for Burma. Suu Kyi has asked the friends of freedom everywhere to lobby their governments to implement the UN General Assembly Resolution on Burma, which calls for democracy and human rights now.
And then there is the critical role of the international media, which in the Philippines greatly aided freedom's cause. The problem with Burma, however, is that foreign newsmen are afraid to cover a country where the tyrants have only contempt for any opinion but their own, and do not fear the editorials of the Washington Post and the New York Times. In the 1988 crackdown in Rangoon, veteran newsmen of the Philippine People Power Revolution recall with horror being chased by soldiers with intent to kill.
So I can understand the timorousness of the international press on Burma. But it saddens me to hear that even the very powerful NHK of Japan, which had exclusive video footage of the 1988 crackdown on the 1988 uprising, has made it a policy to withhold such footage from exhibition, on the ground that it imperils "Myanmar's stability."
In contrast, I and my husband, the late senator and opposition leader Ninoy Aquino, benefited immensely from the courage of Japanese media then. It was a Japanese TV station that volunteered key TV footage of the moments before the assassination of my husband. It was a Japanese TV station that reconstructed the way the assassination was carried out, proving conclusively the direction of the fatal shot and the military identity of the hand that held the gun.
But that was before the advent of global communications, where media must agree to suppress some of the truth so it can reach everywhere with the rest of it.
But the best of media is not motivated by money. To them I make this appeal: persevere, persist, and the truth will prevail and set that country free.
Even big business can have a conscience. In Manila, it underwrote the Revolution and manned its front lines. In the United States, Massachusetts has banned commerce with companies doing business with Burma. San Francisco and other American cities have followed suit. The Massachusetts Burma Law (enacted 1996) has been challenged In the US Supreme Court as an interference with Washington's prerogative to set foreign policy.
Until now, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have not given aid to Burma, but there are fears that will soon change. In its 1997 report on Burma – thick as a phone book – the World Bank makes not a single reference to the crimes of the junta.
I am struck by the casualness with which one noted British entrepreneur said, if he could get labor that cheap in Burma, why should he go to a country like the Philippines?
I resent that remark. It seems to equate democracy with an unreasonable price in wages. That kind of an attitude reflects a callous disregard of how harshly Burmese workers are, treated; and of how hard Filipinos work to maintain the balance of individual freedom and economic stability.
There are predictions that Burma's economy will indeed grow, as multinationals "exercise their prerogatives under the WTO to plunder its resources, markets and labor, free from local interference and international accountability." The only thing that will not prosper in Burma will be its people.
This, if anything, should prod all of us to move at once. If our political beliefs and our humanitarian inclinations are not enough to move us to help our Burmese brothers and sisters, then our love for our own countrymen should. I do not wish to see the day when my own economy will suffer because my people insist on building a society and a country on democratic principles, while foreign tyrants rake in money because they treat their people like cattle.
Similarly, we should not wish to see our societies destroyed by the illicit drug trade that flows freely in the region, courtesy of Burma, where drug lords cavort freely with the military junta.
John Pilger, one of the few writers to brave Burma and reveal her plight, has warned that attrition may soon catch up with democracy in Burma. As the last wave of democracy fighters are buried, everyone else will get amnesia and begin to party with the junta. This may be the true intent of the policy of constructive engagement: give the junta enough time to eliminate all objections to its rule. Because it is true, a cause dies with its last follower. Ideas can be killed.
There is no time to lose. The unflappable Suu Kyi said, in 1996, that she knew, no matter the repression, that Burma would be free one day because Nelson Mandela's country is free, and Vaclav Havel's country is free. Like the ever-patient Buddhist, she softly said, “We shall have our time."
She said that three years ago. That time must be now. Thank you.