Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romulo is visiting Myanmar (formerly Burma) to mark the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the Philippines and that country. Romulo said he would offer to help Myanmar restore democracy.
Myanmar’s isolation from the rest of Southeast Asia the Philippines had helped break when the Ramos government supported its membership in the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). Myanmar is under military dictatorship, and differs from some member-countries of the Asean in that its present rulers don’t pretend to be presiding over a democracy.
In 1988 the military seized power through a coup d’etat and created a junta, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), to rule the country until elections could be held. SLORC, however, refused to turn over the government to civilian rule after the elections of 1990, which the National League for Democracy led by Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi handily won. Instead it arrested the winners including Suu Kyi, and renamed itself the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).
SPDC sounds better than SLORC, but please note that in neither of these names does the word democracy appear. Perhaps because its military rulers aren’t as expert in the arts of duplicity as certain other Asean elites, Myanmar has been an embarrassment for the “democratic” member-countries of Asean, which include Malaysia and Singapore, as well as the country of our afflictions.
Certain Asean countries have the trappings of democracy in the form of parliaments and other institutions usually associated with liberal democratic regimes. But they’re actually one-party dictatorships in disguise, where free expression and dissent are tightly controlled and the press regulated through licensing and censorship.
But of special interest is one Asean country whose current rulers are so adroit in deception most of its own citizens still believe it’s a democracy. It’s that country where free expression and press freedom are officially protected but assaulted and curtailed in practice. The current government of that same country has also abolished the death penalty, but has made the assassination of political dissenters state policy. And it so pointedly ignores the killing of journalists it might as well be orchestrating the murders itself.
We all know which country that is. It is that same country which, its secretary of foreign affairs says, will assist Myanmar restore democracy. I can see several areas in which Romulo can offer Myanmar the advantages of Philippine democratic expertise, starting with—what else?—elections.
Elections are the one sure indication of democracy, but they have to be credible, and we might as well add “fair” and “honest” to the qualities elections should have in a democracy. If making elections seem credible to 25 percent of the population qualifies, then Romulo could enlist the help of such experts on elections as the Commissioners on Elections, who would have more than enough lessons to teach the Burmese on the varied techniques of creative vote-counting.
I’m afraid, however, that to really do justice to the topic, Romulo might have to enlist the expertise of Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo herself. After all, the Commission on Elections was only one of the many factors that insured her victory in 2004. The Burmese will need to know —straight from the horse’s mouth itself—such other techniques as transferring Overseas Workers Welfare Administration funds to the Department of Health, using public works funds in behalf of one’s candidacy, enlisting the help of generals in “protecting” one’s votes, etc., etc.
Dealing with the press is also one area where the government Romulo serves has special expertise. In real democracies, the press, no matter which side of the ideological divide it’s on, no matter whether it’s oppositionist or not, has access to government officials and agencies as a matter of right, based on the assumption that an administration is only a temporary steward of the state.
In the Philippines, governments, specially the current one, assume that they not only own the state, but that they are the state. Thus the blithe assertion that an administration can choose which part of the press it can allow access to government officials and agencies, and can even ban the media from certain public proceedings like the soon- to- be railroaded dismissal of the 2006 impeachment complaint against Mrs. Arroyo.
But it is in the especially problematic area of how to deal with human rights where this government can have something to truly teach the generals of Myanmar. Right now the practice in that country is to arrest and detain whoever dares protest the polices of the Junta. This is a wasteful process. It ties up resources and manpower—you not only have to feed political prisoners, you also have to guard them—whereas you could save a lot more money for the generals to spend on vacation homes in Batangas and trips abroad by simply eliminating dissenters.
Besides, jailing protestors is also embarrassing and invites too many questions from international human rights groups. It gives you no assurance either that they won’t be repeating the capital crime of dissenting. Assassinating them while pretending to have nothing to do with it does two things, on the other hand: it makes it appear that democracy is alive and well under your care, and it also makes sure that whatever those killed could have contributed to the nation had they lived is forever lost.
This last part is the most important. It is usually the best and the brightest who have the knowledge, the understanding, and the conscience to protest. That makes it imperative for an administration to preserve democracy by killing students, pastors and priests, lawyers, judges, journalists, labor and peasant leaders, doctors, and those others outraged by injustice, poverty, corruption and brutality. In the fine art of killing, abducting and torturing the brightest and the best, this government has plenty to teach not only Myanmar but every other dictatorship on earth as well.