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Myanmar endgame

FILIPINO WORLDVIEW - Roberto R. Romulo (The Philippine Star) - February 19, 2021 - 12:00am

From 1979 to 1983, I made periodic visits to Rangoon (Yangon), Burma as IBM GM (resident in Bangkok) to meet with our branch manager and government officials. At that time, the country was ruled by the military junta. Although we were never given a license to operate, we were allowed to lease our unit record (punch card) equipment to government users and to maintain them. Our local staff was not permitted to travel abroad for training, so we had to send our people from Bangkok to do maintenance work.

Every time I landed in Rangoon, someone trailed me throughout my stay. I once told our branch manager that he should accompany me to the Philippine and US Embassy. He said he could not accompany me until he secured government approval. When I was asked to deliver a gift by U Thant’s daughter to a relative, my manager informed me that I could meet in the alley behind the Strand Hotel. At the end of every visit, he submitted a report detailing what I had done and who I had met.

In 1993, I went to Rangoon as official guest of the government in my capacity as Secretary of Foreign Affairs. My mission was to meet Aung San Suu Kyi – who was then under house arrest – and report back to my ASEAN colleagues. The closest to meeting her was when the aide assigned to me pointed to the house where she lived as our car passed by. I hand carried a letter from then former president Cory Aquino which asked for the immediate release of the Lady. I presented the letter to Secretary “One” Lt. Gen. Khin Nyunt explaining the contents of the letter.  He accepted it, set it aside, and changed the subject.

In 1997, Tonyboy Cojuangco and I visited to explore an opportunity for PLDT. Nothing happened… officials intimated “favors”. Two years later, as chairman of e-ASEAN Task Force, I was a guest of Secretary “One” when Burma inaugurated their ASEAN Internet Park. Khin Nyunt told me that he wanted to do it sooner, but the SLORC chairman and then PM Than Shwe did not permit it. Because internet access then was severely restricted to a select few and social media did not exist, I did not realize at that time that this development would have a profound impact on Burma’s transition to democracy. By 2011 the ruling junta felt confident enough to liberalize internet access which led to a dramatic increase in users. World Bank estimates current internet penetration is at 30 percent of the population, with an estimated 11 million Facebook users in the country. Despite heavy censorship, social media has become a powerful tool in disseminating information, both domestic and international, that ordinary Burmese were denied access to. It also enabled democracy advocates to mobilize the public for protests and civil disobedience.

My two decades of personal exposure to Myanmar convinces me that the specter of those “dark ages” returning – curtailment of civil liberties, jailing of the opposition, violent suppression of protests and shutting down access to the outside world – is imminent. The military has its tentacles in all facets of the economy that it cannot countenance losing control to a popularly elected civilian government.

It would seem that the endgame for the junta is to install a “civilian government” with the trappings of democracy, but in name only to ensure their continued control. That did not happen in the recent election, so I presume that the next election will result in their desired outcome. To ensure that outcome, they will have to take Aung San Suu Kyi out of the equation. Her arrest on charges of illegally possessing walkie talkies and of breaking social distancing law is meant to accomplish that. With Suu Kyi out of the running, there will be no one with the same stature for the people to rally around.

The military was emboldened by the Western countries turning against Suu Kyi over her handling of the Rohingya issue. That international support had been her most potent asset against the junta. I, too, have been guilty of viciously attacking the Lady without considering the no win context in which she took that position. I sincerely apologize for being carried away by the “Western” mob and joining in her “stoning”.

Any resolution of the Burmese dilemma will have to involve two players: Aung San Suu Kyi because only she can unite the country, and China because the military junta relies on its backing to defy Western opprobrium. China has always had cozy relations with the military and it might suit not only its commercial, but also strategic interests as well to keep things as they are, or at the very least go along with the junta’s version of the endgame. On the other hand, the junta is not a reliable long-term partner and their universal unpopularity – domestically and internationally – will cast China in a bad light even at home. By some accounts, China got along well with Suu Kyi’s civilian government and that what happened is not really what they wanted. In this scenario, ASEAN can play the role of mediator because the “West” have little leverage here. But it will also entail some unpalatable choices for ASEAN: abandoning “non-interference” and grudgingly accepting China’s growing influence. If there is a time for an ASEAN statesman to step up to the plate this is it.

We, the public, also have a role to play. We must show our support to the struggle of the Burmese people by making our voices heard through social media and by other means. By doing so, we can assure them that they are not alone and give them the courage to continue to resist. And hopefully, we can prod our leaders to take a more active role in concert with other governments to restore the “status quo ante”.

MYANMAR
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