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MANILA, Philippines - Together with my boss, Roby Alampay, and TV5 crew consisting of reporter Marlene Alcaide and cameraman Joan Alatiit (despite the name, he is male), I went to Myanmar to witness the April 1 election of freedom icon Aung San Suu Kyi to parliament. We arrived March 28 and stayed there until April 2. Here, the things that were impressed on me during that brief stay:
1. I actually got to Myanmar.
Going to Myanmar as a journalist was unthinkable only eight months ago. Journalists used to go as tourists and run the risk of arrest, detention, and deportation for doing their job. Eight months ago was when the momentum of reforms that President Thein Sein introduced started snowballing into something credible enough for Aung San Suu Kyi and her fellow freedom fighters to take seriously.
The news of my assignment came as a surprise. I got the call Sunday night (March 25) that we were scheduled to leave Wednesday (March 28) for the following Sunday’s (April 1) by-elections. When traveling to a new place, I usually ask myself: What new me would come out of the trip?
I was prepared for the worst. For giving away leaflets in a market on the 10th anniversary of the 8888 Student Movement, an activist-friend and now migrant rights advocate Ellene Sana was detained for a week in a “military guest house” on charges of fomenting unrest before she was eventually deported. (Ellene took me to my first rally 30 years ago, on the commemoration of International Human Rights Day, actually a “get-together” of a handful of nuns and priests at the gates of Camp Aguinaldo in December 10, 1982.)
But I was also excited. Myanmar is not on the usual checklist of those afflicted with wanderlust. The delightful anticipation of covering an off-beaten place, if not an oft-beaten topic, was tempered by journalist-friends’ advice to be careful of the “ruthless junta.” (We thank the Department of Foreign Affairs for including media in the official Philippine team of election observers.)
2. Myanmar is for time travelers.
Myanmar belongs to a small exclusive club of countries hardly touched by 21st century technology. Other remote places are naturally detached from the rest of the world due to distance or inhospitable climate. The dictatorship of its military junta and the resulting economic sanctions have isolated it so that it has achieved what 1970s crooner Jim Croce wanted, Time in a Bottle. Myanmar could be the Philippines of that decade, with its aircon-less decrepit taxicabs and buses, its intermittent phone (and Internet) connections and power supply (its five-hour-a-day brownouts can make you feel like you’re only in Mindanao, although actually a cause of protest actions among its citizens), and well, its dictatorship.
On the eve of the elections, when Daw (Lady) Aung San Suu Kyi took a trip to the district of Kawhmu, a largely rural area dominated by the ethnic group Karen a couple of hours away from Yangon, Roby and I joined a convoy of vehicles that followed her. We were told that the place did not have hotels or inns so we brought enough clothes, food, and water for an overnight stay in the rented van.
We went ahead of the pack, and took pictures and videos and interviewed her supporters at major stops, then waited for her convoy that included journalists from all over the world. After allowing the elections and The Lady’s candidacy and campaign, the junta was unlikely to let any harm come to her. But hey, we wanted to make sure. By sunset (we left Yangon around 3 p.m.), and on a dusty road (this is an exaggeration, the road was more like a dried river-bed with its rough waves and troughs threatening to disassemble our van), it became clear why The Lady and her National League for Democracy planned this: They wanted us to see what under- or non-development has brought the people of Myanmar. If one ignores the poverty and the people’s hardship, one can easily fall into the trap of romanticizing a Myanmar in suspended animation, especially in Yangon, where hotels provide the convenience and comfort of running water, pre-ordered food, electricity, and Internet connection. The people we interviewed were sickly and undernourished (although surprisingly not with their generosity and their appreciation of the small opportunity for democracy and progress that the junta is allowing).
After seeing what we came to see and filing the story via the mobile phone’s single-bar signal, we decided to return to Yangon and eat and sleep with the conveniences of civilization. But we got lost. In the dark, we lost track of the car ahead of us that carried locals familiar with the terrain. Luckily, even without landmarks or lamp posts or tambays we could ask for directions, our driver calmly found our way out of muddy roads back to the main asphalted road. When we got to the hotel, Roby told me he was praying we won’t encounter any checkpoint, neither government’s nor rebels’.
3. Covering peace can be sexy.
Conflict is the stuff of primetime news, or as fellow Myanmar by-elections Philippine observer Tony Velasquez said, “pag walang dugo, di e-ere (no blood, no airing).” But after decades of conflict, the junta seemed ready to give the people a chance. The thought first struck me at the garden of Suu Kyi’s sprawling lakeside mansion about two hours before the scheduled 9 a.m. press conference. Against a background of blaring campaign songs, with siblings in journalism of all colors and shapes milling about, the air vibrates with excitement. The warm 40-degree wind cooled as it passed the trees. A day earlier, the Myanmar foreign minister announced that media coverage of the elections was free-for-all with the reasonable restriction against delaying or stopping the electoral process.
The Burmese exiles who have since returned -- really, freedom fighters who fought with their pens, guns, and wits -- could not hide their cautious optimism. “The people seem to be smiling more,” they said. The following day, when the NLD was announcing that they had won most of the 44 seats they were gunning for, the singing and the dancing in the streets reminded me a little of Edsa People Power in 1986. The hip-hop campaign jingle that called on “Myanmar (to) wake up” stung my small eyes. They would play it over and over the night of the elections as they announced the unofficial victories outside the NLD headquarters. It never got old for me. I could dance to the tune forever.
4. The size of the sacrifice determines the size of the god.
Aung San Suu Kyi is a god among her people. She symbolizes their suffering, their struggle, and their strength. She had given up being a wife and mother to be with her people. She was in Myanmar when her husband Michael Aris died of prostate cancer in London on March 27, 1999. He had petitioned the junta to allow him to visit Suu Kyi one last time, but they had rejected his request. He had not seen her since a Christmas visit in 1995. The junta had always urged her to join her family abroad, but she knew that she would not be allowed to return. She did not see her sons Alexander and Kim until about 20 years after in 2010 when the junta started its reforms, among them releasing her from house arrest and allowing her sons to visit.
Following her convoy, we felt her people’s adoration, receiving their residual love as they gave us flowers and cheered us on, as if we were somehow instrumental in the small freedoms of expression that they were enjoying and that they hope would soon translate into freedoms from want and hunger.
As a mother who considers her children as her greatest gift in life, I realize that a normal, average life is a blessing I enjoy because some have chosen -- perhaps reluctantly -- to become divine during the dark days of our own martial law. Although he may have been god during the Marcos dictatorship, Joma Sison has since left the altar.
5. The god spoke to me.
At the press conference in Aung San Suu Kyi’s garden, we agreed that there would only be one question from the Philippines: What is her message to Filipinos who are still finding their way down the freedom maze a generation (25 years!) after they had successfully deposed a dictator? The question was not unique. Journalists from India and Taiwan and Korea wanted to know practically the same thing in relation to their country.
The line to the microphone was long, and because the cameras were set up at the back on a platform, those who wanted to ask their questions had to walk on their knees to the microphone, not unlike what Mother of Perpetual Help devotees do in Baclaran every Wednesday. When my turn came, I was shaking. I was face to face with a god, a distant but familiar god. It was a miracle that I was able to ask the question.
6. So this is what a parachute journalist feels like.
Even while I’ve written about Myanmar as a reporter covering the DFA, the articles were usually in relation to diplomacy, or the Philippines’ and the international community’s efforts to persuade the military junta to a roadmap to democracy, and then actually following that roadmap. But in Myanmar, I came and went, inspired by their stories of charm and courage, simply hopeful that I was able to tell these stories to an audience that recognizes that these are also their stories, that we are -- as a U2 song proclaims -- One.
7. Sunsets can be pink.
Afternoon of April 2, on the eve of my birthday, as we were on the way to the airport, a pink sun bid us goodbye. Nobody in the moving van -- particularly the visiting Filipinos who are used to glorious, fiery sunsets -- was able to capture it. What a wonderful birthday gift.
I hope you had a happy birthday, Daw Aung Suu Kyi.