Games of the Generals

EYES WIDE OPEN - Iris Gonzales (The Philippine Star) - February 15, 2021 - 12:00am

The time difference between Myanmar and other countries in the region including the Philippines, is one and a half hours. But in reality, visitors to this Southeast Asian country must set their timepieces 50 years back.

After half a century of military rule, Myanmar has dramatically fallen behind its peers. Today, it is again back in military rule as the country’s armed forces refuse to acknowledge the results of a recent democratic election that affirmed the civilian leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi.

At first glance, Myanmar glimmers with golden hues – from its multitude of age old stupas in the ancient city of Bagan to the thousands of tiny Buddha souvenirs sold in its bustling markets; from its monks roaming in saffron tunics to its famed gilded Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon which glistens under the golden sun. The friendly smiles of its people shine, too, all the way to a visitor’s heart.

But the recent military takeover puts a dark cloud over all of these, bringing even more uncertainty to the Burmese people’s dreams for lasting democracy and progress.

The United Nations Human Rights Council has called for the “immediate and unconditional release” of Myanmar’s civilian leaders and has urged the military to refrain from using “excessive force against the public.”

The Philippines “disassociated” itself from the UN resolution, joining a few countries not exactly known for championing democracy. The foreign affairs secretary said it was out of respect for Myanmar’s sovereignty — the same defense our leaders have raised to evade scrutiny of our own grim human rights situation.

What’s at stake for us?

Some may think we simply have no business in what’s happening in Myanmar. But we have more interests there than we know.

Before the Feb. 1 takeover by Myanmar’s military, the Southeast Asian country, with a population of 54 million, was already on the radar screen of investors. In fact, many Filipino businesses have a presence in Myanmar.

Tycoon Carlos Chan’s Liwayway, maker of iconic snack foods Oishi, has a factory there.

Ayala Corp., the country’s oldest conglomerate, also invested in Myanmar through a partnership with the Yoma Group in a milestone transaction announced in 2019. The Yoma Group, composed of two holding companies, Singapore-listed Yoma Strategic Holdings Ltd. and Myanmar-listed First Myanmar Investment Public Co. Ltd., agreed to sell a maximum 20 percent stake to Ayala for up to $237.5 million.

Taipan Lucio Tan also made a bet on Myanmar. Tan’s Asia Brewery owns 100 percent of Asia Pacific Beverages, which acquired 90 percent of Asia Pacific Beverages Myanmar Co., a company that sells non-alcoholic ready-to-drink beverage products. This is according to the 2019 annual report of Tan’s listed holding company LT Group, Inc.

For now, it’s business as usual for some of these Filipino-owned investments in Myanmar because the private sector isn’t affected by the prevailing political climate, I’ve been told.

“We’re taking a long-term view,” said a source.

But potential investors may not be as optimistic. No businessman wants an uncertain environment after all.

Uncertain future

The uncertainty, unfortunately, extends far beyond the business environment. A country under military rule gives its people nothing but an uncertain future as hard won freedoms in the past have all been forgotten.

And this is what the gray old generals of Myanmar have forgotten: In this day and age, people from all over the world, the younger generations especially, have a burning desire to be free from military domination.

A new generation of young activists is leading the resistance in Myanmar, organizing the largest protests ever seen in the country’s history. Civil servants have also left their jobs, paralyzing government services.

The games these generals are playing may linger, but in the end, it is the people and their country that will be at the losing end.

The uncertain political environment, the divisiveness, ethnic killings and crackdown on activists will only drive Myanmar backwards and further cause widespread poverty. Investors will shy away and existing businesses may close.

Cautionary tale

The Philippines must join the protest, in solidarity with the people of Myanmar, and fight the good fight.

More importantly, may this serve as a cautionary tale for the leaders of this country and to everyone in this nation of 110 million.

Today, almost all our government agencies are headed by generals. President Duterte wants it that way.

But I hope it doesn’t go further than that because Filipinos will no longer allow a return to military rule. This is not the ‘70s anymore and the young generations of Filipinos will see to that.

The youth of today, although seemingly in their own worlds with giant headsets on their ears, are more powerful than we think. They move when they need to, especially with the help of the internet and social media; just look at how the protests in Hong Kong went on for months.

Having inherited terrible legacies, today’s Filipino youth know better. And for that, our leaders should know better not to mess with them.



Iris Gonzales’ email address is eyesgonzales@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @eyesgonzales. Column archives at eyesgonzales.com

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