Cyclones and prophecies - Miriam Coronel Ferrer

Posted at 05/15/08 11:43 PM


The Burmese generals must be scared stiff that the remaining, less tangible, symbolic foundations of the regime would collapse in the wake of the cyclone that killed more than 20,000 people and left millions more homeless. Does the cyclone portend their dreaded prophecy?


Centralizing food aid and writing their names over the labels of the international donors as the Burmese junta leaders are reportedly doing smack of shameless political gimmickry. We also see antics like these among our politicians who ride on the crest of disasters, tugging along aid that they hope will be credited to their offices and persons.

But in Burma, appropriating international humanitarian assistance in the wake of the deadly cyclone that hit the coastal areas west of Rangoon on May 5 takes on other dimensions beyond crass politicking. The significance of the act, along with the restrictions on entry of foreign aid workers, rests on several concerns. Foremost is the political juncture confronting the regime.

Only last September, the junta succeeded in mercilessly crushing the wave of protests led by barefoot monks garbed in saffron robes. Temples were sacked and numerous monks arrested, in total disregard for the sanctity of the sangha. The murderous dispersals that met the protesters earned the generals a new round of international condemnation. This month they were all set to ram down the throats of their citizens a bogus constitution with the sole intent of keeping the status quo. Even a cyclone apparently won’t stop the programmed assault. As piles of bodies remained uncollected and millions left unfed, they moved ahead with the referendum on May 10.

Another dimension to this reprehensible behavior in the midst of calamity is best understood within the cultural framework where the generals reign supreme.

It is said that the Buddhist Burmese proclaim their good deeds so that the others can share the joy and earn merit too. "When some merit-doer says ahmya, the one who hears it says thardu, well done, in response," wrote Khin Myo Chit in her book on Burmese legends. "In this way the one who says thardu also gains a share of the merit, because he rejoices in the other’s good deed."

Many Burmese would hardly consider hijacking humanitarian aid a good deed. But in the face of the disaster, the junta needs to earn as much merit as it can. According to syncretic Hindu-Buddhist-folk beliefs prevalent in the country and other parts of Southeast Asia, when chaos descends on earth, the heavens must be in despair, and the ruler appears as one who has lost the divine blessings. Thus, it is said that the Mataram kingdom in Java collapsed in the 17th century after a volcanic eruption, a comet sighting and severe drought. People interpreted the catastrophic events as signs of the ruler’s loss of mandate from heaven.

The Burmese generals must be scared stiff that the remaining, less tangible, symbolic foundations of the regime would collapse in the wake of the cyclone that killed more than 20,000 people and left millions more homeless. Does the hurricane portend their dreaded prophecy?

There’s an interesting line in the latest Jackie Chan-Jet Li movie, Forbidden Kingdom. In one scene, the Lord of the Jade Army brushed off reports of sighting of the magic staff of the Monkey King, the Jade King’s arch enemy. The king bellowed at his terrified men this brash rebuke: "Mortals are always speaking of the prophecy – it is their opium." But in the end, the prophecy became true.

One can almost hear the Burmese generals (who by the way have also enriched themselves in the opium and heroin trade) comforting themselves with the same brashness. But by now they must have an inkling that they are only deceiving themselves. After all, don’t prophecies somehow have an innate potential to self-fulfill?


We’ll close this week’s column by citing two messages sent to my Inbox. Dr. Christopher Mallore Calaquian whom we mentioned in "Kilusan Tahimik," wrote to say that he is not the chair of the PANORS (Philippine Academy of Neurotology, Otology and Related Sciences), only of its Advocacy committee. The current chair is Dr. Charlotte Chiong.

On our piece, "AFP’s bad boy emeritus," Philip Alcantara, former head of the Social Services Commission of the Apostolic Vicariate of San Jose, gave us this additional information on the changing of the guards on Mindoro.

Jovito Palaparan, Jr’s cyclonic stint on the island was followed by that of then Col. Juanito Gomez, his former deputy. Like his kumpare, Gomez reportedly employed the same deadly methods. Gomez was followed by Gen. Fernando Mesa, now Army chief in the National Capital Region. Mesa toned down excesses. Gen. Ralph Villanueva followed suit by introducing more reforms. Both Mesa and Villanueva had agreed to a code of conduct that provided some protection to the Mangyans from getting caught in the crossfire. Thus, our informant posits, this low-gear approach to the counter-insurgency espoused by Villanueva might be one other reason Palparan wants Villanueva sacked.


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