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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

CENTURY OF LIBERATION

As Asians commemorate their march to freedom,
there are lessons to learn
for renewed struggles in the decades ahead

By Ricardo Saludo


THE IMAGES COULD HARDLY be more different. Dark, grainy and gloomy in black and white, one dates from the last century. The other, bursting in bright, sharp, joyful color, leaps straight out of last month. The unsmiling, uniformed ranks in hats, bayonets and jungle speak of war, while peace exudes from the cheering, formless crowd with green headbands and bouquets amid a cityscape. Yet the Filipino revolutionaries in the 1898 picture and the Indonesian students photographed a century later shared a common cause: freedom. Their struggles marked the first bloom and the latest flower in a century of liberation.

On June 12, the Philippines marks the first of those 100 years. In 1898, in the town of Cavite El Viejo (now Kawit), south of Manila, General Emilio Aguinaldo declared his nation independent from Spain after 333 years of unbroken colonization, the first Asian state to break away from Western imperialism. Another half-year later, in January 1999, the Centennial festivities will conclude with the 100th anniversary of the first Philippine - and Asian - constitutional republic. The celebration of the country's trail-blazing role got a further boost with the fall of Suharto in May. He resigned amid Jakarta's version of the 1986 People Power Revolution in Manila.

While Filipinos celebrate, however, many of their fellow Asians may wonder what all the fuss is about. After all, the 1899 republic was snuffed out two years later. The United States had assisted in its birth only to turn the Philippines back into a colony for another half-century. And not a few Asians - Filipinos included - can quite rightfully ask what kind of liberation the region has achieved. For after 100 years of decolonization, several nations again find themselves facing the threat, if not the reality, of Western domination.

Amid the Asian economic crisis, now seemingly set for another virulent phase, the Western-influenced IMF vets economic policy in Korea, Thailand and Indonesia. Asian ways of business and government are under examination, if not eradication. The region's debt-ridden banks and companies face takeover by cash-rich North American and European multinationals. Of course, the currency collapse that triggered the slump was itself ample proof of how helpless nations are before the tidal waves of global capital.

Where Asian states have recently been flexing muscles on the global stage - witness the nuclear-bomb tests by India and Pakistan - the nationalist assertiveness does not offer much assurance about regional peace and security. Ethnic and religious rivalry is fueling the new subcontinental arms race. It seems not unlike the unhealthy "nationalism of weakness" which Philippine President Fidel Ramos cites in his essay on the role of patriotism in today's age of globalization. Fearful of being swallowed up by world forces, a weakly nationalist state erects protective barriers rather than bridges of harmony and mutual benefit.

So should Asia celebrate the past 100 years of its march to freedom? Well, it's not as if it never happened, as any row of flags and map of the region will show. Just last year Hong Kong swapped its Union Jack-cornered banner for a bauhinia bloom and China's golden stars on a red sky. Besides showing colonizers the door, Asians also learned enough from them to liberate themselves from backwardness and poverty. Impoverished kampongs have become modern cities bustling with commerce. Indeed, Asia has fallen so hard precisely because it had risen so high. That past success against daunting odds should help boost morale in the current crisis.

More important, how Asians fought their way from colonial submission to Independence and industrialization offers valuable lessons for the continuing struggle against foreign domination, domestic oppression, repression and deprivation. To this end, we have assembled an unprecedented cast of contributors to write on the founding fathers of Asian nations. As we recall the region's march to freedom and meet the patriots who led it, we aim to learn so that we may repeat their successes and avoid their failures.

Lesson No. 1: Get an education. Nearly all leading Asian nationalists were men of ample learning, including the self-taught warehouseman Andres Bonifacio, who founded the Katipunan, the underground society that ignited the Philippine Revolution of 1896. Filipino patriot José Rizal and China's Sun Yat-sen were doctors (Sun finished his medical studies in Hong Kong in 1892, when Rizal had a clinic there, on D'Aguilar street). Mahatma Gandhi, Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Lee Kuan Yew were British-trained lawyers. Though he did not finish school, Mao was a voracious reader, first of novels, then of writings on history, politics and society.

Aung San was president of the All Burma Students' Union before joining the Dohbama Asiayone, a group of young nationalists. Students, of course, have always been at the forefront of agitation for change. A red-letter date in the recent Jakarta protests was the Day of National Awakening on May 20, the 90th anniversary of a student organization that gave rise to Indonesian nationalism. And in China's May 4 Movement in 1919, students marched on Tiananmen Square to protest territorial concessions to foreign powers and to call for modernization and democracy. The rally was bloodily suppressed, a tragedy to be repeated seven decades later.

In sum, education has been an agent of change, if not subversion. It opens the mind to new possibilities by examining how they have come to life in other times and places by dint of daring, diligence, determination and diverse ideas. Learning is also a great leveler, lifting colonial subjects to their masters' intellectual level. The former then aspire for equality in other respects. Today the spread of knowledge occurs at light speed across the globe via the media, from CNN to www.

But with education must come another ingredient of liberation triumph: People Power. Ironically, intellectuals do not usually care much for popular appeal, while the masses and their rabble rousers have little time for the intricacies of learned argument. From 1921, when he joined the Chinese Communist Party, to the mid-1930s, when he led the Long March to Yanan, Mao had to contend with CCP stalwarts unimpressed by his rural roots and advocacy of peasant revolution. In turn, he professed distrust of intellectuals (a Maoist tenet which bore genocidal fruit in Pol Pot's Cambodia). Yet despite mutual disdain between the learned and the unwashed, the two had to work together for the struggle for freedom to attract the necessary critical mass of support from the people.

Thus, from Singapore's Lee with his Cambridge double first honors, to Princeton PhD Syngman Rhee of Korea, Asian leaders had to translate their nationalist creed into the language of the paddy and the street. Often, that meant tapping deep-seated grievances and fears. Lee and Rhee rallied citizens facing the specter of communism and next-door hostility. Sukarno and Ho Chi Minh found in Indonesia and Vietnam wellsprings of grassroots anger against imperial abuse. Bonifacio and Mao railed at landlords and foreigners; Sheikh Mujibur Rahman rallied Bangladeshis chafing under Pakistani domination.

Through the decades, however, the masses have responded most intensely not to calculated appeals to their self-interest (though that didn't hurt) but to selfless, if not self-sacrificing, crusades for what is seen to be just and righteous. Gandhi's non-violence may have led to the arrest and battering of Indians with no immediate gains. But the moral authority of the man and his method kept its hold on the masses. The upright conduct of revolutionary troops ordered to desist from plunder and abuse, like those in China, further drove home the undeniable righteousness of their cause. And when religion and martyrdom bless the fight for freedom - as in 1963 Saigon under Ngo Dinh Diem, 1986 Manila under Ferdinand Marcos and 1998 Jakarta under Suharto - then even guns and tanks will not stop the people.

If today's citizens are lacking in selfless patriotism, one culprit has to be the absence of leaders beyond moral reproach. Corruption and influence peddling, political horse-trading, the cultivation of powerful interest groups, the seduction of the electorate - these and other tricks of politics now substitute for the simple appeal to justice and patriotism which moved millions before and soon after Independence.

Rather than the austere integrity of a Ho Chi Minh or a Gandhi, nations nowadays gape at the scandal of Thailand's "buffet cabinet" or Korea's "slush-fund" presidents. Thus, people have learned to look out for their narrow interests. Only the youth with their fearless idealism dare to risk all for the country. Still, once in a while, Asia witnesses a phenomenon like the exiled Dalai Lama, the widowed Corazon Aquino and the all-but-incarcerated Aung San Suu Kyi. Then the masses again find reason to lay down their lives for something larger than themselves.

Ethnicity- or religion-based nationalism can also move millions to risk all for their homeland, much as its activities may be harmful to society. Jawaharlal Nehru in India and Don Stephen Senanayake in Sri Lanka both envisioned secular republics embracing different races, tongues and faiths. But in 1956, four years after Senanayake's death, Solomon Bandaranaike, the late father of President Chandrika Kumaratunga, swept to power on a pledge to elevate Buddhism and Sinhalese, the main religion and language, to pre-eminent positions. That ploy helped fuel Tamil separatism decades later. And today, support for India's ruling BJP is surging, boosted by pro-Hindu policies and now nuclear rivalry with Pakistan and China.

Faced with pressures to recast Asian ways and open up more to foreign inroads, how can the region safeguard its freedom and identity? In addressing this question, two points are key. First, the aim of Asia's institutions and actions, including its liberation struggles, should always be the good of its inhabitants. If changing past ways will serve that end, then that is part of liberation. Second, no country has to face the crisis and the world on its own. Helping one another and standing together, Asian nations have a better chance of protecting their hard-won freedom and progress.

Education, people power, moral authority, and a nationalism that builds bridges not barriers, a prosperous people and not just a proud elite - these are powerful lessons from a century of liberation. Will today's Asians take them to heart? Those of decades past learned from the pains of oppression and battle. As Asia faces its biggest crises since Independence, adversity may again prove the best teacher.

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