Is the Philippines a model for Burma's future?

Alex Ellgee

Aug 6, 2009 (DVB), Philippines has long been cited as a model for Burma's democratic transition, and this was reiterated last week during talks between Philippine head of state Gloria Arroyo and US president Barack Obama.

Last week, Obama announced that Arroyo would act as a "coordinating country" between the US and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Burma is the political thorn in the side. As the leader of a transitional and multi-ethnic country, her new role could be a reason for hope among the Burmese democracy movement.

She told Obama how officials from her government had urged the Burmese junta to study the transition of the Philippines in the 1980's from a dictatorship to democracy, a paradigm which she said could work for Burma. The only way for the Burmese government to prove their legitimacy would be to hold elections "in which Aung San Suu Kyi and her party are able to participate fully", she added. But is the Philippines really a paradigm that Burma can, and should, adopt?

The Philippines' transition from dictatorship to democracy did not come about from international condemnation and sanctions, the method that is being heaped on Burma; it was a direct result of people power and defection.

An originally popular president, Ferdinand Marcos lost the faith of the people when opposition leader Benigno S Aquino was assassinated in 1983. Having spent eight years in prison for his opposition to the dictator, Aquino was released and sent to America for a critical heart bypass. Like a scene from Burma's Depayin massacre in 2003, on his return the popular reformist was shot dead in Manila airport.

The assassination triggered outrage across the Philippines, particularly so given that not one person has ever been charged for his murder. The Filipinos demanded an election, and one million people voted for Aquino's wife, Corazon Aquino, to stand against Marcos.

The elections that followed are a prime example of what happens when power hungry dictators meddle with democracy. As is expected with the Burmese government's elections next year, Marcos' thugs toured the country buying votes and terrorising citizens into re-electing the dictator.

The parallels between the Philippines and Burma continue. In a move reminiscent of the Burmese government's theft of the opposition National League for Democracy's election victory in 1990, Marcos claimed that he had won the elections. The cheating was so bad that the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) described the election as "unparalleled in its fraudulence". The Soviet Union was the only country to congratulate Marcos on his election win.

Rejecting his claim of renewed presidency, two major figures defected from the regime and led the people to topple the dictatorship. Enrile, the Minister of Defense, and Fidel Ramos, Vice Chief of Staff, declared their support for Aquino and staged a coup d'etat.

Perhaps a similar defection during Burma's 2007 Saffron Revolution, or at the beginning of the Aung San Suu Kyi trial, could have led the people of Burma to achieve democracy. However, as many Burmese are aware, the chances of any general departing from the luxuries of the ruling State Peace and Development Council and declaring their support for Suu Kyi are very slim. Although many respect her, the benefits of being in Than Shwe's circle are too rewarding, and the risks of leaving, too perilous.

When Enrile and Ramos set up camps for people to come and join them, millions of arrived from across the country to show their support for Aquino. The streets of Manila looked like Rangoon must have done during the 1988 uprising; students, nuns and civilians came together to reject the military regime and welcome in democracy.

Eventually, Marcos, whose regime had seen the killing of 3,257 dissidents, accepted that the Philippine people no longer wanted him as ruler of their country and went into exile. In stark contrast, even as hundreds of thousands of people marched the streets of Rangoon, the military regime stubbornly held on to power and brushed off the cries of dissent.

The Burmese people have tried to use their power en masse but the regime cannot accept mass rejection of their rule. When a dictatorship is so lost in their ways, an uprising would require generals to defect, which is unlikely to happen in Burma. Change in Burma needs to come through an uprising and not sham elections which will see military-tied businessman maintaining previous levels of corruption and elitism.

Another concern is whether the Philippines are the right country to act as mediator between the US and Burma. The Philippines has insignificant trade links with Burma and there seems little reason why Burma's generals would adhere to guidance or pressure from the Philippines. Arroya can lobby other nations in the region to act more sternly with the regime, but effective and direct engagement is unlikely.

Although once colonised and at war with America, the Philippines was later liberated by them from a savage Japanese occupation. This has produced long lasting ties between the two countries and quelled the extreme xenophobia which has plagued Burma since independence from the British.

With Burma's hatred for America and the West unyielding, how wise is it for the Philippines to publicly declare their allied relationship in tackling Burma? If Arroya really wants to develop a democracy in Burma, would it not have been more tactful to stay away from the White house and build a stronger relationship with Delhi and Beijing, who actually have some influence on the generals' next move?

Furthermore, Arroyo's somewhat tarnished leadership could be exploited by the Burmese to highlight the imperfections of democracy and relationships with the West. Her election victory was overshadowed by allegations of corruption, which have pursued her throughout her presidency.

During Arroyo’s recent meeting at the White House, Obama praised her for the Philippines' effort in the War on Terror. What has actually happened, however, sets a terrible example for reconciliation and how to deal with opposition and criticism. Since 2001, hundreds of activists, journalists and human rights defenders have been murdered.

Human rights groups blame Arroyo for not tackling the problem early enough and for appointing General Palparan in the Security Council, who is believed to be the main orchestrator of the killings. Many believe the current state of the country mirrors life under Marcos; militarily controlled and dominated by death squads. This is not the type of paradigm that the Burmese generals should be examining, particularly as critics of Arroyo continue to ask for reconciliation and a full transition to democracy.

The former Philippine president Corozan Aquino, who died on Saturday, said that "reconciliation should be accompanied by justice, otherwise it will not last. While we all hope for peace it shouldn’t be peace at any cost but peace based on principle, on justice."

The chances of Arroyo bringing about any changes in Burma are slim. She has allied herself so closely to the West that Burma will be repelled to listen to anything she says. And even if they did, she is far from the role model for democracy which would help the Burmese generals develop a free and fair political environment.

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