For Lawin* every day is an exercise in adjusting to his newfound freedom.
He doesn’t have to watch by the window anymore as military trucks pass by—the distinct grumbling of the engine that announces their arrival, accompanied by the sound of bullets floating in the air, is now but a memory from the past.
He was repatriated to the Philippines. The freedom that he found here is one that Lawin says need reinvention.
“[In Myanmar,] they’re killing people. Here in the Philippines, they are also killing people— but very, very slowly and very, very sneakily. Even the [lack of] vaccine and the handling of COVID-19 is killing people.”
Lawin, who worked in Myanmar for 11 years, is the creative head of Raise Three Fingers, a campaign hub by local and international artists aiming to highlight the human rights crisis in Myanmar through art.
The decision to go back stemmed from the impact of the civil war on Lawin’s mental health, but his fight continues online to this day.
“If [Myanmar] wins this, other neighboring countries will see that they can do it too. They will rise, fight the government to have a better one, and it will affect the whole [Southeast Asian] region.”
Myanmar’s military, which Lawin says is backed by China, staged a coup on February 1 against the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.
According to the army, there was an “election fraud” in the November elections, an accusation rejected by the previous election commission and international monitors.
Lawin is still followed by China’s influence on local politics amid the territorial dispute on the West Philippine Sea.
While people in Myanmar fight for independence through joining the resistance, protesting in the streets, and participating in the civil disobedience movement, Lawin says Filipinos can fight more strategically.
“More regular people should stop thinking that activists are anti, [and] instead think about them as [people] trying to help the country [by] going out and actually speaking up. What I see is that they don’t value activists.”
In Myanmar, Lawin says the youth want to be activists and change things.
He can only wish for the same in the country: “When someone does something to fight, then you attack that person, what are you contributing to Philippine society?”
As Filipinos have become so fixated on having things as a yardstick for freedom, Lawin says the have-nots, and the pursuit of the basics that make life fulfilling, become mere background noise.
The comfort that Filipinos enjoy was something that he did not have in Myanmar: online shopping, streaming platforms, or even accessible water. As a foreigner who was caught in the crossfire between the military and the citizens, nobody could blame him if he chooses to stay within the perfumed precinct of ignorance in his homeland.
But for him, what little comfort that Filipinos enjoy serves as a restriction for one to think beyond himself, about the community.
“Maybe you are comfortable here, but what about people in the south or in the north? Do you think they have electricity? Do you think they have the same access to education or electricity, water?”
“You see the value of things when they are taken away from you,” he says. “My fear is that we are so comfortable with what we have, that is a small section of our lives, and we forget that if we don’t keep fighting for this democracy for everyone, it can be easily taken away, just like what happened in Myanmar.”
Life in Myanmar
This is how Lawin describes what it was like to experience the military junta: “It’s terrible. That’s the worst thing that I’ve ever experienced. Just living in fear every day.”
When martial law was announced, he says that everyone thought it was impossible for the officials to ruin the whole country’s development.
It was almost reminiscent of the mental straitjacket that the Marcos regime had put upon Filipinos when the media was silenced in 1972: “We didn’t have internet, we didn’t know what was happening outside. When they restored it, that’s the only time when we were able to process and know what is actually happening.”
Joining Raise Three Fingers is not merely a job for Lawin, he is part of the fight that the cause aims to win. As the creative head, he handles everything that appears on social media and the website.
The job was easy for him with 13 years of experience under his sleeve. The challenge, he says, was finding stability as the world around him erupted into chaos. He recalls seeing dead bodies all the time, most of which are not censored, on Facebook and Twitter.
“A lot of people that I know were suffering. It’s not easy to design when you know people are dying around you. ”
For security reasons, Lawin bore a different name, a different email, and got an unregistered sim card.
Others, however, were necessitated to speak up with their names and faces knowing that they are putting their lives on the line.
Now that he is in the Philippines, Lawin calls on the people to not be complacent amid threats to Philippine independence.
“People shout on Facebook, people get angry and say bad things to each other. But really, what are you doing, and what is the action?”
*The real name was replaced for the protection of the source.
About the Author
Kristel Ann Ogsimer is a student of Journalism from the University of Santo Tomas.