The Explainer: Free Burma

That was a scene from the film, “The story of Jinnah,” where Mahatma Gandhi outlines his contribution to the freedom of the world: that it can be obtained through active non-violence. Even in the face of tyranny prepared to use violence relentlessly.

Over the past few weeks, in Burma, the Burmese have, once more, taken to the streets to protest dictatorship. The world, once more, has expressed its awe; and has expressed horror at the repression.

Tonight, the dilemma of the world and Burma.

I’m Manolo Quezon. The Explainer.


I. Buddhist Socialism


The musical Les Miserables has no shortage of crowd-pleasing songs, but this one, I think, particularly thrills us Filipinos:


Do you hear the people sing?

Singing a song of angry men?

It is the music of a people

Who will not be slaves again!

When the beating of your heart

Echoes the beating of the drums

There is a life about to start

When tomorrow comes!


Will you join in our crusade?

Who will be strong and stand with me?

Beyond the barricade

Is there a world you long to see?


Then join in the fight

That will give you the right to be free!!


Do you hear the people sing?

Singing a song of angry men?

It is the music of a people

Who will not be slaves again!

When the beating of your heart

Echoes the beating of the drums

There is a life about to start

When tomorrow comes!


The journalist James Fenton, who witnessed the Edsa Revolution, wrote in “All the Wrong Places” that at the moment they heard that Ferdinand Marcos had fled, a joyful Filipino said this:

“We’ve beaten Poland.”

At first Fenton thought the Filipino must have been referring to something like a soccer match, but then he realized the Filipino meant that we’d overthrown a dictatorship by the same means Poles had been mobilizing to topple communism. People Power.

Another, writer, Pico Iyer, traveled around Asia and his experiences, including visiting the Philippines shortly before Fenton did. Pico Iyer’s experiences were gathered in this book, “Video Night in Kathmandu And Other Reports from the Not-So-Far-East.”

In his book, Iyer described Burma as the dotty eccentric of Asia, the queer maiden aunt who lives alone and whom the maid has forgotten to visit.

It was a country, he said, under a home made political system established by junta leader General Ne Win when he mounted a coup in 1962. The generals, Iyer wrote, ruled by means of a slaphappy mixture of Buddhism and Socialism, and had closed off the country from the rest of the world, so that it seemed stuck in a perpetual Twilight Zone, where the habits of the British Empire, which had once ruled Burma, still lived.

Things were so tightly controlled that twenty years ago, there were only two TV stations. Both government owned, and both broadcast only from 7:30 to 9:30 pm.

Iyer described how a guide showed him a market where smuggled goods were bought and sold, and how his guide, Lionel, said, here we have a necessary evil, or an evil necessity.

And then, on Iyer’s last meeting with Lionel, his guide, Lionel secretly gave Iyer a letter and begged him to send it to an uncle of his, in England. And there, to Iyer, came the dawning of a grim truth: Lionel, as he wrote, was hoping his uncle would free him from the slow terrible death of his nation.

Ne Win, who ruled for close to 26 years, was followed by General Saw Maung staged another coup d’état in 1988 and formed the State Law and Order Restoration Council,

In 1988, people had demonstrated; hundreds were killed. In the face of the violence, Aung San Suu Kyi took to worshiping in public with Buddhist monks, to encourage active non-violence. The junta held elections for the first time in 30 years in 1990. TheNational League for Democracy (NLD), the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, won 392 out of a total 489 seats: the junta responded by declaring the elections null and void. More arrests.

Gen Than Shwe inaugurated his heading the junta in 1992 with a new constitution and gave the junta friendlier name:  the State Peace and Development Council. In 1997, Burma, renamed Myanmar by the junta, joined ASEAN. And in 2006, the old capital, Rangoon, renamed Yangon, was abandoned by the government. The generals built a new city in the middle of the jungle, called it Naypyidaw, meaning “city of the kings” and rule from there.

Then in August of this year, the generals raised the price of diesel by 500
% and once again, People Power began to reassert itself in Burma. And that’s what we’ll cover, when we return.


II. Prayer and People Power


That was another scene from “The Story of Jinnah,” where a young Jinnah, a young Muslim politician, began as a politician worried by Gandhi’s mystical means of resisting British rule; Jinnah began by promoting purely political engagement, and would later become the father of Pakistan as an independent Islamic state.

Before the break, remember how Pico Iyer described Burma’s junta as having ruled through a combination of Socialism and Buddhism?

But in the intervening decades, the Buddhist monks of Thailand have increasingly taken the side of calls for democracy.

In his own blog, my Inquirer colleague John Nery pointed out this article:


Titled “the new totalitarians,” by Joshua Kurlantzick, he argues that the ruling generals in Burma had embarked on mutating from simple being authoritarian, to being totalitarian; where once they ruled civilly while allowing the monks to dominate spiritually, now they have decided to control every aspect of Burmese life.

And so, the recent People Power efforts in Burma can be viewed as the final showdown between the Generals and everyone else.

The Guardian Newspaper online has a tremendous site dedicated to what’s happening in Burma, here it is:,,2176689,00.html


And so does the The Irrawaddy News Magazine, which is published by Burmese exiles.


When people erupted in anger in August of this year, the monks took the lead. When Burmese general tried making offerings to the monks, the monks turned their begging bowls upside down, in effect, signaling the equivalent of excommunication for Christians.

The protests gathered steam, nationwide, first in the hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands and eventually reaching a hundred thousand in Rangoon on September 25.

Burmese had been sending photos and reports to the world; they even smuggled out video.

Here are two Flickr accounts, where you can get an idea of the photos. I think these photos speak for themselves. Let’s take a look.


and from here:


But the picture that disturbed the world most, was posted by my colleague John Nery in the blog he and I write, called Inquirer Current.


As he warned his readers, so must I warn you, our viewers. Thisphoto is disturbing.

Here it is:


That, the world saw, was the face of the crackdown finally begun by the Junta on September 26, when they sent troops to surround the pagodas and monasteries. Monks were rounded up; the crackdown began, the world expressed horror.

The junta continued to mop up pockets of opposition. Diplomats were dispatched, but nothing happened.


In the Asia Sentinel, which has also had superb coverage of events in Burma, Jeremy Wagstaff said that the real, sad lesson of Burma is that despite the demands for freedom, neither technology, nor faith, are enough, in the face of a determined military.

And it’s here that I’d like to ask our guest, tonight, to join us.


Guy Sacerdoti helped write the book which commemorated People Power here at home in 1986. You may remember that in those famous videos of the democracy protests in Tiananmen Square, Chinese students had posted a picture of this cover of this book. Edsa had inspired people not only in Eastern Europe, but in China and then, Burma.

So tell me, Guy, is the lesson here that peaceful protest and even the power of faith, is nothing in the face of a machine gun?

When we return, we’ll be tackling Burma and ASEAN’s lack of a unified response.


III. Quo vadis, ASEAN?


At the United Nations, to her credit President Arroyo spoke out strongly in defense of Burmese People Power. Never mind the fact, for now, that even as she spoke, her cabinet was fanning Filipino outrage over Desperate Housewives so that no one would notice that her generals were coming closer and closer to risking being cited for contempt by the courts, over the disappearance of Jonas Burgos.

But our President’s problem is ASEAN’s problem. When Bong Austero penned his by-now-infamous line that he preferred to give up some of his freedoms to move his nation forward, this has been the ASEAN line for much of its existence.

Guy, let me ask you, Singapore Minister-Mentor Lee Kwan Yew, who has no love for democracy, expressed concern over Burma. What’s the big deal?


My view


What you decide to call something can become a political act. To this day, there are Americans who refer to our country as the PI. The Philippine Islands. Yet we turned our back on that name for out country with the 1935 Constitution. For you and me, our country is the RP –Republic of the Philippines. For the colonial-minded, they betray their thinking by using PI.

Thailand, for example, was born from the toppling of absolute monarchy in what was, up to then, known as Siam.

On the news you sometimes hear of Burma, in other places, Myanmar. You hear of a former capital named Rangoon, or a city called Yangon. Same thing, but there’s a big political difference.

The ruling junta of Burma renamed their country Myanmar in 1989; they renamed Rangoon Yangon; those who refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the ruling junta stick to the old name, Burma.

This is why the person who should have become the country’s democratic leader, Au Sang Suu Chi, calls her country Burma, an act of defiance against those who have decreed the new name, Myanmar. And as I’ve said in my blog, and so many others are saying too, we should all say, Free Burma!



Manuel L. Quezon III.

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