‘When the fall is imminent’
Last week’s by-elections saw Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi winning a seat by a landslide and her party winning 43 of the 44 parliament seats up for grabs in her country. It’s still a long way for her but she could run for president in 2015.
The piece below was written in October 2007 after my interview with Catholic Burmese nuns who were studying here at that time. It was going to be published “when the fall is imminent.”
When I wrote this, Buddhist monks in Burma (Myanmar) were leading protests against the repressive military regime. Many people lost their lives. Despite the bloodshed, the world hoped that the China-backed military junta in power would crumble. Alas, it did not happen and freedom icon and 1991 Nobel Peace laureate Suu Kyi was back in house detention.
The piece did not see the light of day.
Almost five years have passed and things changed—inexorably. This could be the result of international economic sanctions against Burma. Suu Kyi was freed in 2010 and, later, thousands of political prisoners were released en masse.
Here is my 2007 piece. As per advice, I still have to withhold real names. You never know…
October 2007—Come out with the story only when the fall of the military junta in Burma is imminent. This was the plea of the three Catholic Burmese nuns, all belonging to an international religious order, who are studying in Manila.
Such was their fear for their lives and their compatriots’ here in the Philippines that they agreed to be interviewed about repression and the precarious current political situation in their homeland on condition that the story be embargoed until…
The time has come and now they could come out and speak openly. The fall is imminent and change is inexorable. (This didn’t happen. —CPD)
“Freedom!” The three nuns chorused when asked on Oct. 2 (2007) what their hope for Burma was. At that time, they did not want their names to be used and their congregation identified. They were not sure about the outcome of the escalating protests that saw tens of thousands of Buddhist monks joining street protests against the China-backed military junta that has ruled Burma for many years.
Sister Ann, 40, who is studying Theology at the Institute of Formation and Religious studies, said: “I hope the people succeed this time. But we need help from other countries.”
Sister Nancy, 38, a masteral student of Religious and Values Education in De La Salle University, worried that the current protests might end up like the 1988 student uprising that failed to change the repressive order.
Sister Olive, 37, who is studying Computer Technology at De La Salle University, shared the same worry but was hopeful things will succeed this time. “The 1988 national uprising did not succeed but this time I hope it will,” she said. “There are not as many killings this time.”
But still the nuns worried that if the protests do not succeed, those who have exposed themselves as protestors or dissidents will be punished. Students abroad who are known to have instigated protests would be punished when they go home, if they could go home.
“There are agents who, I think, are spying on us here,” one of the nuns said. She recalled noticing the strange behavior of some persons during gatherings of Burmese nationals here.
There have been other strange happenings, like e-mailed letters from the Philippines not getting delivered, and not receiving e-mail from home. As of early October, Internet connection had been cut off. They have not been able to phone home for several days.
In Burma, computer techie Sister Olive said, e-mail is restricted. “Our e-mails are checked and we have to submit our passwords. The telephone is monitored.”
“The military is very cunning,” Sister Nancy added. Sister Olive explained that the ordinary soldiers could just be following orders. “They are working out of fear, not out of love. How I wish the Buddhist monks could talk to the ordinary soldiers.”
Being in the minority, the Christian churches have not come out as openly as the Buddhist monks, the nuns explained. “The majority of the Burmese people are Theravada Buddhists. Muslims comprise 4 percent and Christians 5 percent. Of the Christians, only 1 percent are Catholics.”
The three nuns have been studying in the Philippines for four years. They left Burma as missionaries, but doing further studies was the real intent of their coming to the Philippines. They have all been Christians since birth.
“We are studying here for the people of Myanmar,” Sister Nancy declared. While here, the three nuns wear simple ordinary clothes and a crucifix like their Filipino counterparts. When they go home they will have to wear the religious veil.
There are hundreds of Burmese students in the Philippines, a good number of them from the religious sector. Their Filipino professors have been extremely good, the nuns all agreed, and have always gone out of their way to help them.
“We’ve been trained to respect our elders, sometimes a little too much,” Sister Olive said. “I still carry that trait and oftentimes I have to pull myself back because my classmates might think I’m trying to be close to my teachers.”
Nobel laureate Suu Kyi, the leader who was supposed to have won the elections and who has been under house arrest for most of 20 years, is the nuns’ heroine.
“Many are losing hope,” Sister Nancy lamented. “Many are looking to the monks for hope.” Communication and transportation are difficult. Motorcycles are banned in some parts because the government fears that the motorcycle riders might be carrying firearms or explosives.
And what have they learned during their stay here? Leadership, freedom, not to feel afraid, they answered.
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