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

“I don’t know when I will see my loved ones again and that’s the truth and that’s really hard to take. I’m trying not to get too emotional here. At some point, 5-6 years ago, I saw something that I thought would never happen in my lifetime which is that I voted for the first time. There were these multiparty and fairly democratic elections, and now to see this going back, being dragged back decades and not knowing when I’m ever going to see my loved ones face to face again – it’s really hard. But people like me, there are many Myanmar diaspora, we feel a responsibility to speak out even though it means we can’t go back because we really need this situation to change, we’re talking about the lives of 54 million people here,” said Burmese journalist Thin Lei Win in a recent interview on CNN.

Afterwards she posted: “As a journalist, I learnt to stand back and stay cool under pressure and not make myself part of the story, and definitely not get too emotional... but it was hard NOT to be emotional just now on CNN when the host, Michael Holmes, asked how it feels to know I won’t be going home anytime soon.”

Being an exile is a truly frustrating state. Exiles, of all political persuasions, are generally people who care most about the future of their homeland. It feels outrageous and unjust that this is the very reason that they are excluded from returning. As Thin Lei Win pointed out, there can be some advantages. She can say what she thinks without fearing for her life away from Burma.

Inside the country the leaders of the anti-coup protests are in hiding. The intimidation of troops loyal to the military chief, Min Aung Hlaing, is disproportionately severe and designed to strike as much terror as possible in the hearts of ordinary people. Snipers are deliberately shooting people, including small children, in the head, some have not even been taking part in the mass demonstrations. The military declared “martial law” and sealed off several crowded working-class neighborhoods of the main city Yangon. Reports came in of a terrifying night, of machine guns being fired and grenades being thrown randomly into homes. Messages from inside these neighborhoods said people needed emergency medical help, that people wanted to escape but no one was allowed in or out.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) counts 564, including 47 children, have been killed by this junta; 2,667 people are currently detained, and 425 issued arrest warrants. In fact, this is probably an underestimate. Nobody really knows the full extent of this coup’s murderous activities because the military has cut off internet communications in its belligerent effort to intimidate people into silence.

We in the Philippines have experienced and are experiencing this kind of fear from the brutal exercise of tyrannical state power against the people. When Marcos declared martial law in 1972, my family was caught out, away from the Philippines in London. There we would stay for the duration of the regime right up until 1986. My parents had already been harassed by the military since my mother wrote her book “The Untold Story of Imelda Marcos.” As then secretary of defense Juan Ponce Enrile laughingly told me later: “What do you expect? She went up against the President!” Going back would have meant possibly abandoning four pre-school children, by risking jail.

When my mother’s mother passed away in the 80s, I will always remember my mother’s desperate sorrow. The former editor of this paper, Max Soliven, took it upon himself to approach Imelda Marcos’ brother Kokoy Romualdez to ask if the conjugal dictatorship might consider allowing my mother to return without repercussions to attend her mother’s funeral. “After what she’s done to my family!” Romualdez reportedly thundered.

As a child, learning my prayers the catholic “Hail Holy Queen” had a special resonance for me: “To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve, to thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears. Turn, then, most gracious advocate, thine eyes of mercy toward us; and after this our exile show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb Jesus.”

In a way, each of us can identify. We are exiles from our mother’s womb, from our childhood, from private happiness, from peace, even if we are not exiles in the more conventional sense of the word. The feeling of looking back for the last time, of setting our face to a new and possibly hostile world is one we all know. It is the human condition expressed in myths and legends around the world, from Adam and Eve to Odysseus. The great upheavals of history, like what’s happening in Myanmar/Burma, give public, political expression to a personal and private fact. Thinking with longing of somewhere we can never return to is a condition we share.

Nowadays, the coronavirus pandemic is creating a new generation of millions around the world who cannot go home. Watching the unfolding of these crises from afar as I sit in London with regard to the Philippines, and with an outsider’s perspective looking at London, is sharpened by a kind of layered double vision. Exile provides a deeply felt curiosity for people who yearn to go “home” but in a way we can never return. “Home” is no longer a safe place, we are no longer innocent of the dark forces at play that exclude us and send us away with cruel impunity.

The challenge, as ever at this time when nothing seems to be predictable, is how to manage our broken innocence. Exile requires knowledge and resilience – clear-sighted survival in potentially dangerous places. Exile requires self-exploration too. We can not trick ourselves into wilful ignorance and instead find ways to manage and speak truth to power.

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