In 1998, shortly after the election of Joseph Estrada to the Philippine presidency I asked a fellow foreigner, an Irish Catholic priest who has spent most of his life in the Manila area, what he thought would happen next. Estrada won the race with a forty percent plurality, but the remaining sixty percent who voted for other candidates intensely disliked him.
"Well, the longer I'm here the less inclined I am to make any predictions about Philippine politics," he answered. "But I do know that the elite is apoplectic, and I think that's probably a good thing."
Nine years later, long after Estrada was ousted in a civilian-military uprising that installed Vice President Gloria Arroyo into power, Estrada is still a dominant figure in Philippine politics, albeit from house arrest in his luxurious rest home in the countryside. Meanwhile, Arroyo is the most hated president since Marcos and there is abundant evidence that she cheated in the presidential election of 2004..
During the days of the uprising that ousted Estrada in 2001, a Belgian friend of mine in Davao remarked: "Well, President Ramos was much better than we expected, and Estrada is much worse."
As a long-term resident of the Philippines, and as someone who has worked on Philippine issues for even longer, I am reluctant to say much about the current political malaise, or suggest where it is going.
Since I have never been to Burma -- but have read and thought about the country and its peoples since the 1988 uprising -- let me make a few tentative comments.
Here in the Philippine many columnists have been comparing the recent mass demonstrations led by safron-robed monks to the "people power" uprisings of 1986 and and 2001. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that the Burmese are using the Philippines as an example. I doubt if the Philippines was ever on the minds of the monks or other marches in Rangoon or Mandalay. As former Philippine Congresswoman Etta Rosales remarked at a forum on Burma, "they are giving a message to us, to the rest of the world. It is something different. It is not a Philippine-style uprising."
And even if so, the similarities don't go far. The Burmese military is far more willing to fire on clergy and other unarmed people than the Philippine military. That is not to say the Philippine military isn't quite capable of brutality, but the Burmese variety is much, much worse.
Recently rumors and text messages whipped around the world and all over the Philippines suggesting that ten thousand monks had been killed in Burma. I asked a friend who has been monitoring Burma closely for over 20 years what he thought of this. "That's not confirmed, and I kind of doubt it, but the military is definitely capable of that."
For two weeks now there have been daily rallies in front of the Burmese Embassy in Makati, Metro Manila. Every day a different group organizes it. One day it's the Akbayan (Citizens Action Party) group, another day a women's coalition, another day organized labor takes it on. On the day that the Alliance of Progressive Labor was there several workers had their heads shaved, to show solidarity with the Burmese monks. The day before, one of the organizers asked me if I'd be willing to submit to the razor. I told him that I was expecting a job interview soon -- had to look good. "Ha, I can't use that excuse," he laughed, "I'm a labor organizer, no one's going to give me a job interview!"
The rallies have been spirited and determined, but so far the largest has only drawn 200 people. I'm not sure we have received the message of the Burmese monks. As my friend, the one who monitors Burmese affairs, said, "It's going to take more than rallies."
At a more recent forum, Benito Valeriano, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affair's point man for the Association for South East Asian Nations, defended the Burmese junta at every turn. He argued that Myanmar was the country's true name, that the junta sincerely wanted to implement democracy and, in response to a question from the audience, insisted that it would be "improper" for the Philippine government to have any relationship to the Burmese National League for Democracy. Congresswoman Rosales took him apart, piece by piece. "As you know, the NLD won the election of 1990, something which the junta refused to recognize. The junta is NOT the legitimate government of Burma." She noted that many ASEAN parliamentarians were engaged with the NLD and that there has even been discussion of inviting the NLD as an observer to ASEAN meetings of parliamentarians, a discussion that the Burmese delegation boycotted.
Naturally, we speculate what direction events in Burma will take. It seems that the Burmese junta has the upper hand, but there is some suggestion that they will meet with opposition leaders, indicating that the protests in and out of Burma might be having some impact, but hardly enough.
Some have hoped that there will be a split in the military, as in the Philippines in 1986. At least one or two high level Burmese officers have defected. Still, there hardly seems to be the fractures there that were developing in the Philippine military in 1986. I think it is more likely the military could disintegrate from the bottom, as happened in Iran in 1979.
But then, I've never been to Burma, and as for the the Philippine uprising of 1986, no one predicted that, either. I am waiting to be surprised.