Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004


@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

The obligatory applause for the electoral victory of Burma’s democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi reverberated around the globe immediately after local officials confirmed that her opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), had won in 43 of the 44 constituencies where it fielded candidates in last Sunday’s by-election. Suu Kyi herself won a parliamentary seat by a comfortable margin. The NLD’s landslide victory has made it the biggest opposition party in Burma’s parliament.

Although political analysts expected Suu Kyi and the NLD to dominate the elections, many observers were surprised that the election results were announced so quickly, which couldn’t have been done without the approval of the junta-backed civilian government. It seems the ruling generals have been fulfilling their earlier commitment to accommodate the entry of opposition forces in mainstream politics.

There have been a couple of surprises along the way, starting with the junta’s approval of the NLD’s application to register as a political party, which legalized Suu Kyi’s candidacy. The second surprise was the failure of any conspiracy, if there was any, to rig the results in favor of the junta-endorsed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

The decision to respect Suu Kyi’s electoral mandate should be appreciated as the latest in a series of broad reforms Burma’s junta has been implementing in recent years. These include: reviving parliament, the unprecedented release of hundreds of political prisoners, and holding open elections.

But the generals aren’t naïve politicians. Rather, they’ve devised a method to placate Western governments while maintaining their iron grip in the government. Thus, the NLD’s landslide victory, while impressive, has only earned them 43 seats in a chamber of 600 members. In contrast, unelected military officers compromise one-third of the parliament. Nonetheless, Western governments, urged on by Burma’s neighbors, are considering lifting sanctions against the country, with Washington already promising to ease some of them.

Still, this doesn’t mean that the NLD’s recent victory was unimportant. On the contrary, the election demonstrated that Suu Kyi continues to enjoy widespread popularity at home and abroad despite having been under house arrest for two decades. Similarly, her party’s victory also demonstrated its organizational strength has weathered the numerous government attempts to dismantle it. Although it hadn’t run a campaign since 1990, the NLD managed to defeat the government-backed machinery that campaigned on behalf of the NLD’s main rival.

The results also proved that NLD supporters have remained loyal while also appealing to young people, as seen by the number of first-time voters and the large youth gatherings that were held to celebrate the victory of Zay Yar Thaw, one of the pioneers of Burmese hip-hop and a veteran NLD member.

Despite the country’s restrictive Internet rules, Burmese netizens actively monitored the elections through various social networking sites, especially on Facebook. Htoo Tay Zar, a prominent citizen media journalist, noted the popularity of the NLD during the campaign period. “Most people always said the NLD was an opposition party. For me, the USDP is more like an opposition party. Today, I just witnessed USDP’s campaign trip around Khawmu township. No one pays attention to them. Party members are just like sleeping on the truck After all, they are the opposition party since they oppose people’s desires,” he wrote.

Netizens also exposed some visible election violations such as the issuance of tampered ballots and vote buying. But the most interesting revelation was the use of a photo of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Burma last November in the campaign posters of the pro-government USDP. Netizens thought it was an inappropriate form of campaigning, but its political significance should be highlighted. Basically, it further validated the observation that Burmese officials are slowly abandoning their anti-Americanism.

The recent by-election was a triumph of the people’s will. But the building of a more mature democratic society will require a series of transition periods. It’s hoped that Suu Kyi and the NLD will maximize their parliamentary voice to push for more substantial democratic reforms in Burma. But the essential question is this: Will the junta allow the pro-democracy constituency to further expand its influence?

Written for The Diplomat

U.S. Plays Philippines War Games

Last week, the Philippine government protested what it called China’s incursion into the country’s territorial waters in Scarborough Shoal. It also vociferously opposed North Korea’s decision to launch a rocket into space because of the debris that might land on Philippine soil. But while it has been obsessively suspicious over the real motives of China and North Korea, it readily welcomed the entry of United States troops into the country this week.

Around 4,500 soldiers from the U.S. Pacific Command have joined 2,300 Filipino troops in the 28th Philippine-U.S. Balikatan (Shoulder-to-Shoulder) exercises that are being held from April 16 to 27. Most of the military exercises will be held in Palawan Province, which is the nearest island to the highly contested Spratly islands. China is among the claimants of these islands.

By April 30, the U.S. and Philippine governments will be meeting in Washington to finalize details of the deployment of additional U.S. troops in the Philippines and the holding of more war games in other parts of the country. News reports suggest U.S. Marines from Okinawa are being moved to Guam and rotated to several Southeast Asian countries, including the Philippines.

As China and the U.S. vie for military supremacy in the Asia-Pacific, the Philippines it seems has already decided to maintain closer military ties with its former colonial master over its Asian neighbor. The choice didn’t surprise analysts because the United States has been an influential force in the Philippines’ domestic politics over the past century.

Despite the decision of the Philippine Senate not to renew the U.S. bases treaty in 1991, U.S. troops were still able to visit and stay in the Philippines for an indefinite period because of the subsequent signing of several military agreements between the two governments. In fact, a de facto U.S. military camp exists in Zamboanga City in Mindanao Island where 600 U.S. Special Forces have been based since 2002.

Regardless, the war games and the continued presence of U.S. military troops in the country are being opposed by activist groups for various reasons.

First, some groups claim that these maneuvers violate Philippine sovereignty. They have also wanted to confirm if the visiting U.S. warship has nuclear arms because the Philippine Constitution explicitly bans nuclear weapons in the country.

In addition, activists have expressed fears that the war games could attract terrorists who might wish to plan an attack against U.S. soldiers in the Philippines. Finally, the government has been accused in the past of allowing U.S. soldiers to participate in actual combat operations against local rebels. The U.S. is suspected by some of providing drones during several local military offensives against rebel camps at a time when the Philippines is facing a separatist movement in Mindanao and a homegrown nationwide communist insurgency.

But it’s not only activists who have complained. Farmers and fishermen also complain because the war games are affecting their livelihoods. Some farmers say they have been driven from their land, while fishermen say they have been prevented from fishing near the site of the military exercises.

Renato Reyes of the leftist group Bayan summarized the opposition to the entry of U.S. soldiers in the Philippines: “The U.S. wants it known that it is still top dog in this region, to the great dismay of many peace-loving peoples in Southeast Asia. We do not want our country to be used as a U.S. outpost and playground. We are not a laboratory for U.S. drone wars. We do not want the U.S. meddling in our internal conflicts and regional issues. We do not want the Philippines acting like the U.S. troops’ doormat in the region. We do not want U.S. troops using our country as their Rest and Recreation destination of choice.”

Maybe it’s time for the Philippine government to review its foreign policy. While it has the right to forge military ties with the U.S., it shouldn’t equate the geopolitical interests of the U.S. with the Philippines. It must strive to adopt an independent foreign policy instead of merely parroting the viewpoint of the U.S. government.

Written for The Diplomat

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