August is the month for honoring Ninoy and Cory Aquino whose personal sacrifices and leadership restored democracy to the Philippines. They have become icons of freedom throughout the world and future generations of Filipinos.
September is the month to remember the brutal years of the Marcos martial law regime and how it transformed a nation from being the second most prosperous country in Asia — next only to Japan — to being the sick man of Asia at the end of 21 years of Marcosian rule.
These reminders are important because the battle between those who advocate freedom and democracy versus dictatorship and martial rule is a never ending battle. Even in the 21st century, there are still many nations in the world, and in Asia, still fighting for the fruits of freedom and democracy.
The history of martial rule has always been filled with great tragedies for many nations. In Egypt, martial law has been imposed by the military several times. Each time, there have been thousands who have lost their lives.
In Chile, a military junta headed by General Pinochet seized power in 1973 and assassinated the popularly elected President Salvador Allende. Repression continued until the 1980s. Peron imposed a corrupt dictatorship in Argentina, and upon his death a military junta took over. The army then conducted a “dirty war” against guerrillas and leftists; around 30,000 people “disappeared.”
In Indonesia, Sukarno suspended parliament in 1960 and was named president for life in 1963. He was forced to cede power to the army led by General Suharto who became president in 1967 and ruled for 31 years. More than 300,000 Indonesians were killed in army-initiated massacres. Today, with the restoration of democracy, Indonesia has become one of the fastest growing economies in Asia.
In Myanmar (Burma), the military seized power in 1988. Thousands of people have been killed or imprisoned. Even Buddhist monasteries were raided and Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under arrest at different times since 1989. Today, Myanmar has taken initial steps towards restoring democracy, and the economy has started taking off.
The most tragic stories are those countries that already had working democracies but had internal conflicts between power groups wanting to abolish these democracies and resorted to martial rule or dictatorship under the pretext of returning “normalcy” to their countries. One such country is Thailand.
This kingdom is the only country which was never colonized by a Western power. In 1932, it became a constitutional monarchy with a democratic form of government. This year, on May 20, its Armed Forces, headed by General Prayuth Chan-ocha, staged a coup d’ etat. The army shut down television and radio stations and imposed press censorship. Leaders of the governing parties, including the popular Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra were arrested. Public gatherings have been banned.
Today, there is a new parliament in Thailand dominated by members of the Armed Forces. Several government agencies and even state corporations, like Thai Airways, are now headed by generals. The army seems to be entrenching itself in power and intend to stay for some time. But, political observers agree that the armed forces cannot resolve the political issues which are dividing the nation.
Thailand, one of the first Asian countries to become a democracy, has now turned itself into a military state.
Hong Kong is a similar but also highly different story. It was a British colony for 150 years. But in 1984, there was a Joint Declaration with China of the transfer of Hong Kong in 1997 which promised a “high degree of autonomy.” China also promised what it called “one country, two systems” and that the chief executive and the legislature would be chosen by “universal suffrage,” which would supposedly take place in 2017.
However, last August 31, China declared that in the next election for Hong Kong’s chief executive in 2017, the only candidates that will be allowed to run are those approved by the Communist Party in Beijing. This puts an end to any dream of the original promise of “one country, two systems.” This will stop any thought that it is possible for democracy to develop in Hong Kong even though there will be no democracy in the rest of China.
There have been many speculations as to the reason why China is backing down on its promise. Perhaps, it is simply ideological. One Chinese official stated, during the announcement, that “universal suffrage is not a human right.”
Another possible reason is that Beijing is worried that its citizens may start demanding the same rights as those in Hong Kong. Discontent is increasing especially among the increasing Chinese middle class. They are become more restive, demanding more voice in issues such as education, health care, environment and property rights. Recently, police have started closing down Christian churches but have met resistance from members demanding freedom of worship. It is said that in China, there are now more Christians than members of the Communist Party.
The other possible reason is that Hong Kong’s economic importance to China is rapidly decreasing. In 1984, Hong Kong’s economy was 24% of China, and now it is only 3%. Hong Kong’s port, in terms of tonnage handled, is now also smaller than five other ports in the mainland. As China continues to liberalize its financial system to make it a world currency, Hong Kong’s status as a financial center will also become less special.
A Chinese official had warned that “blood will be shed” if the pro-democracy groups go ahead with their plans to stage demonstrations and strikes. But Hong Kong activists, especially the younger generation, have vowed to continue the struggle for full democracy.
It is strikingly true what Pietro Bellusch once said: “To be truly free, it takes more determination, courage, introspection and restraint than to be in shackles.” Struggling for democracy is more difficult but much more rewarding than the siren calls of dictatorship and martial rule.