After 15 years, Aung San Suu Kyi is finally free. For the longest time, she represented democracy in her country: looking out for Burma from her windows, her view framed by barbed wire and security forces from the military junta that ruled her people and put her house arrest. Today, Burma rejoices – the free world rejoices – not without pensive thoughts or scenarios, but Daw Suu Kyi is as free as any believer of democracy there is in the free world.
Here, it’s a different story. Raul Manglapus, with his acerbic wit, has highlighted our situation – then and now – in a trite but true phrase: we are Constitutionally free. We may be the freest country in Asia by all means and provisions in our Constitution, but we are anything but living free. Our democracy is in coinages and bills, in stamps and monuments, but it seems that we’re living long past the struggle to get it.
There was a time that we were in the same position as the freedom-fighters of Burma, when our democracy icons were sent to jail, perhaps in harsher conditions than Daw Suu Kyi. Yet that was then, almost 40 years ago, when the threat to what our forebears believed and fought for were real as real could be. Here we are today, beneficiaries of a second-hand memory in a place that speaks so much of a second-class democracy. The tree of progress is slow to bear fruit, the straight path seems long and winding, and maybe – just maybe – Martial Rule was better. Not because Marcos rules, but maybe it’s because Noynoy sucks. Any which way, we render ourselves immune from the problem; you can’t fault the Gordon voter anyway, and this wouldn’t have happened if Villar won. Besides, this is all elitist.
We’re imprisoned by our icons.
In Burma, where life has long been threatened and stifled the people by the military, they got behind one common idea. Aung San Suu Kyi stood for democracy, as with the rest of them. She remained under arrest, alright, but the idea that she stood for was passed on to the Burmese who believe and who fight, who spread the word to the rest of the world. It’s a struggle – a people’s struggle – and getting her free wasn’t the end of it. The real work has just started.
It wasn’t any different from where we were, some 30 or 40 years ago.
Looking back that’s all democracy – and any other systemic, radical, or cosmetic change out there – means to those who benefit from it the most and get hurt from it the least. It degenerates into icon worship: that every single incidence and idea and movement can be pinned into a personality, and the responsibility of doing so falls on that man and that man alone; then it’s off to the sidelines. It harks back to our poor introspection: sometimes we only conceive of it in terms of personalities, not ideas or practices, or things woven into the way we live.
It doesn’t work not because it is inherently flawed, but it is never owned. Rather, it is either usurped, cheated on, passed around every election day.
If there’s anything People Power – or even things as recent as the pressure to release Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest – should teach us, it’s that the struggle for democracy isn’t the task of the figurehead alone, but the people who believe in the idea. More than owning up to the problems we face, there’s the daunting task of owning up to the democracy we created as a people. Not because it is problematic, but because it outlives the icons, the figures, and the people we all-too-often surrender it to.
Perhaps, once we get there, we can make it work.