Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Burmese Regime Is More Brutal Than Marcos

In 1986, religious leaders -- bishops, clergy members and nuns -- played a significant role in the non-violent struggle during the EDSA revolution to restore democracy in the Philippines. Historical images of priests and nuns in tears carrying rosaries and flowers remind me of how Buddhist monks in Burma have taken similar action by peacefully demonstrating on the streets of their country.

The recent crackdown in Burma, however, leads me to conclude that the Burmese military regime is even more brutal than that of Ferdinand Marcos. In Burma, the military's use of brute force -- killings, abductions, torture and illegal detention -- is their only means to react to dissent.

If Marcos's loyal military and police generals could defect, which eventually prevented the massive crowd of protestors from being attacked during the EDSA People Power revolution, the Burmese generals and their followers in the field apparently cannot. They shot and killed protestors, including Buddhist monks, who were peacefully demonstrating for just demands and a just cause. They killed their own people, including the holiest of people of their own religion. The brutality of the regime is beyond the comprehension of people who value human life and morality.

The violent backlash by Burma's military government indicates that the hearts of the generals and soldiers are as hard as rocks and that they have become beasts that will not heed the popular outcry of the monks and their people to restore democracy. The government instead has responded with brutality and deadly force.

Meanwhile, humanity must share some of the blame as the military regime has been able to exist for more than four decades and the Burmese people have been neglected as they daily have led lives defined by oppression and poverty. Their neglect is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that some people have only learned about the struggles and suffering of Burma's people through the recent protests and crackdown.

If Marcos's loyalists could defect and abandon him, it appears that the allies of the Burmese regime in the country and abroad will not, at least not at the present juncture. Their support for the military junta, however, indicates their endorsement of brutality and disrespect for the value of human life; there is no room in their conscience for the people's rights and welfare.

Although the Burmese people have been oppressed and have suffered from poverty and starvation for decades as virtual prisoners in their own country under the military regime, the generals themselves have become prisoners as well -- prisoners of greed, of losing power, of reprisals from the people they have long oppressed and have denied the right to live in a humane and just society.

This unwillingness to step back from the use of violence is what makes Burma's military regime even more brutal than that of Marcos: the lack of any sign that they intend to give up their own interests for the benefit of their own people. The military regime and their supporters are apparently averse to deeply reflecting on their reliance on violence to stay in power. They would rather kill their own citizens and people of faith; they would prefer to spill their blood on the streets.

It is fear that has made them so. There are no indications they are committed to restoring democracy. Instead, they repeatedly bluff and attempt to deceive the world by their rhetoric and meaningless pledges of initiating reforms that they do not intend to fulfill.

Following the fall of the Marcos regime, the Filipino people's struggle for democracy over the years has shaped the country today. None of the military coup attempts, particularly those during the time of former President Corazon Aquino, have ever succeeded. Even the military plotters who have repeatedly staged coups to topple the government have, in the end, yielded to the people's desire for a democratic country. Some of them even gave up in the midst of their attempt to grab power as respect for humanity and human lives, no matter how negligible, was still in the hearts and minds of the military.

This attitude, however, has not been exhibited by the Burmese regime and its followers. The fact that they have been able to wield and retain power for so many years by force and brutality -- ruling even longer than that of the Marcos regime -- once again makes them worse than the latter.

It is also disappointing that the Catholic Church in Burma has decided, according to news sources, to order its priests, brothers and nuns "not to get involved in the protests" by the Buddhist monks and Burmese people. Even though the number of Catholics and other Christians in the country is small, the message has tremendous implications for the value the Church places on human lives and morality -- the bedrock of any religion and its institutions. This decision tells followers of the Catholic Church, as well as others, that speaking on behalf of the oppressed, the poor and starving people and against the brutality and cruelness of the regime has limitations.

What have our religions and their values become? It is understandable that people living inside Burma are exposed to more risks when they speak than those living outside the country. However, when a policy is made to deliberately silence people of faith, it is a sad day for that faith and for humanity in general.

For many years, the Catholic Church and its people have played a significant role in toppling oppressive and dictatorial regimes around the world, including that of Marcos in the Philippines. However, perhaps the witness of the Catholic Church of today is no longer the witness of the Catholic Church of the past. For instance, reactions by religious leaders and the faith community in the Philippines on the struggles and suffering of Burma's people have been negligible. I have yet to hear strongly worded messages condemning the brutality of the military regime's crackdown. They have yet to take concrete action and to consistently speak on behalf of the Burmese people as they face a very serious crisis.

Whatever happens in the coming days -- whether or not the democratic struggle in Burma will succeed -- the whole of humanity is equally responsible. The people in Burma have been struggling and suffering for too many decades: they need our strong and steadfast support now. If not now, when? If not us, who? This commonly used phrase among Filipino activists deserves deep reflection for the people in the world and to those who are concerned for the future of the people of Burma.

(Danilo Reyes is a staff member of the Asian Human Rights Commission, a regional human rights NGO in Hong Kong, who is responsible for the organization's work on the Philippines. Previously, he worked as a human rights activist and journalist in the Philippines.)

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