FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - March 6, 2021 - 12:00am

I have found myself thinking deeply about the relevance of writing about what’s happening in Myanmar/Burma in these pages. I feel the need to explain myself.

We may live on islands in our huge archipelago, and the pandemic has isolated us in very real terms from each other, but the truth is that “no man is an island.” Filipinos are especially globalized, now that so many of us have traveled and work overseas. Our imaginations have expanded so that we can empathize with people everywhere, because we are everywhere in a literal sense. I would even suggest that it’s a crucial factor of being Filipino today.

“After 10 years, balik na naman tayo (we’re back to this). Myanmar’s close to my heart, it’s welcomed me, it’s home to me already… I felt so sad for the people, they have to go through to this again,” a Filipino nurse working in Yangon, Burma’s biggest city, is quoted as saying.

The Philippines is a close neighbor to Burma with links that go back centuries, though it’s a history that most of us are not aware of. The nature of official relations has changed with the various changes in our societies in more recent years, but the physical closeness has meant that in the more fluid realm of human activity there has been a steady interaction. Myanmar joined ASEAN of which the Philippines is a founding member in 1997. Both are part of the ever-so catchily-named Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership signed last November, which is one of the largest free trade deals in history.

Without most of us realizing it, the Philippines and Burma are bound by rather close ties. Once travel becomes a bit easier you might be interested to know that we have a visa-free reciprocal agreement so that Burmese and Filipinos can visit each other’s countries for 14 days without a visa. It is a beautiful and fascinating place that, as recently as five weeks ago, I would have recommended people visit.

Everything changed when the Army chief Min Aung Hlaing took over the government and threw in jail the civilians who’d been returned to power with an election landslide.

Most powerfully and personally for me are the echoes of my own experiences with resistance against the exercise of absolute power by a self-declared leader. Generations of Filipinos can speak to the reality of life under the rule of the late president Ferdinand Marcos. Many can recall their own roles in the struggle to return the country to the prosperous democracy it once was. Even though I grew up outside the Philippines, my family home was a focal point for the anti-Marcos movement in London.

My childhood is full of memories of political discussions between giants of the cause as they figured out strategies to bring down the military-backed dictatorship and argued about what should come next. Senator Jose Diokno visited while his daughters were studying in Europe: coincidentally I remember Maris wrote her thesis on Burmese history. There were workshops and leadership courses, all the ways and means used to communicate and send documents and materials in the pre-internet age. Every week my aunt would send a packet of cuttings of important stories in the Philippine press. We would regularly receive the Task Force Detainees of the Philippines newsletters, documenting in gruesome detail appalling cases of disappearances, torture and extrajudicial killings. Its leader Sister Mariani Dimaranan came visiting too, I remember peeping in the room where my mother was meeting her and thinking how I expected her to be a bit bigger and scarier.

Later I got involved with SocDems in exile in Europe as my parents organized migrant workers across the continent and coordinated activities to press for change back home. They loved to hold workshops that were heavy with history and theory, then sing and laugh a lot about the long years of fear, hope, outrage and defiance – sometimes hiding, sometimes taking enormous risks, sometimes jailed, tortured and hopefully surviving.

So this past month when I read the posts of people that I am proud to count as friends in the Burmese pro-democracy movement, those emotions rise again – so bittersweet I can taste them. Their experience so closely resembles our own that I cannot look away and must bear witness to their struggle and count it as shared.

Then I came across this: “Heartbreak is at the heart of all revolutionary consciousness. How can it not be? Who can imagine another world unless they already have been broken apart by the world we are in?”

“We, the heartbroken” by professor of sociology Gargi Bhattacharyya was “inspired by a younger comrade admitting to heartbreak arising from the business of trying to make something better in the world.” We need the heartbreak, she says, in this most lyrical evocation of revolutionary empathy. It’s a blog that deserves your reading in full. I quote it here as a call for you to do so, to help explain in the most essential way why Burma is Us, and to give her the last word.

“Heartbreak is when we commune with those who have been broken apart by state violence and we understand that this violence is also meant for us…

“Heartbreak is when we realize that there is no remedy, no repair, no way back and nothing to fix this. That whatever comes next these histories and presents of violence cannot be put right. That the destiny of the heartbroken is to wish something better and completely new for those who come next.

“Brokenheartedness thins our skins so we become open to others. The boundaries between us can seem to dissolve, just momentarily. Your pain becomes my pain becomes our pain and the extent of us and the pains we are carrying and the long, long way back and the traces across oceans, across centuries, across my street and across your kitchen, all of it overwhelms. I’m awash with it all and I can’t remember me. Too late to find myself, because I have already merged into all of you.”

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