JAKARTA—Twenty-five years ago, both Indonesia and Burma were ruled by totalitarian regimes that were known for their human-rights abuses and corrupt leaders who siphoned off national resources. Today, however, Indonesia is a functioning democracy and human-rights advocate with a relatively transparent, free-market economy. Burma, meanwhile, has slid further into the pit of oppression and corruption.
With Indonesia set to chair ASEAN in 2011, and given its recent transformative history, some observers believe Jakarta is the best suited among ASEAN’s members to influence Burma. Observers even hope that Indonesia – ASEAN’s largest and most populous country – would be able to find a common platform among ASEAN members that could provide a basis for calls for reform in states such as Burma. ASEAN insiders also say that Indonesia may use its chair position to actively pressure the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights to push Burma to improve its human rights records and institute democratic reforms.
Jakarta may already be laying the groundwork for that push. At the 16th ASEAN summit that took place in Hanoi in July, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said the bloc wanted very much to see an election in Burma that meets international standards for recognition and credibility. Months earlier, in March, Natalegawa told his Burmese counterpart in Naypyidaw that Jakarta expected the regime to “uphold its commitment to have an election that allows all parties to take part”.
Analysts have noted that Burma’s military junta is looking to North Korea as its apparent role model for maintaining power and increasing influence. But most agree that Indonesia would be a better role model if the Burmese junta wants to lift its people out of the economic and political abyss that it has dragged the nation into. And if the Burmese opposition is looking for an example of a successful overthrow of a dictator and the conditions under which one can take place, analysts say, it may look towards Indonesia for inspiration as well.
‘Follower’ overtakes leader
In the past, it certainly looked like it was Indonesia that was following in Burma’s footsteps. Indonesia’s General Soeharto seized power in a coup d’etat in 1967, five years after General Ne Win led a military takeover in Burma. Like Ne Win, Soeharto executed opponents – although with as much as 1.5 million deaths supposedly done in his name, he can be said to have beaten the Burmese general in that regard.
In 1998, university students launched protests at campuses across Indonesia following a massive fuel price rise. This instigated a nationwide uprising, including riots where approximately 1,500 people died and scores of shops, houses, office buildings, shopping malls, markets, and hotels were destroyed. In May that year, Soeharto stepped down and reforms were introduced by the democratic governments that followed.
Exactly a decade earlier, Ne Win was forced out under similar circumstances; he, too, had faced student protests and a series of nationwide uprisings in which thousands of people were killed. Then for a brief moment, when Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) dominated the 1990 elections, it appeared that Burma was set to be taking the democratic reform path, as Indonesia later would. But the one major difference between the stories of Burma and Indonesia was that the junta never relinquished power when Ne Win was ousted; it merely replaced him with another general, Sein Lwin. When the NLD won the 1990 polls, the junta had no qualms about throwing out the results of the elections, arresting opposition leaders, and placing Suu Kyi under house arrest.
Today Indonesia exercises democratic rule under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono – a former military officer himself – while Burma still suffers undemocratic oppression under Than Shwe, yet another general who became head of the junta in 1990. Jakarta residents sit in cafés beneath high-rise office buildings and chat on their laptops while checking their BlackBerries. The people of Rangoon also send e-mails but they do so from Internet cafés that are under surveillance; to make voice calls, they rely on makeshift corner pay phones. The Burmese upper crust, which is made up mostly of the families of military officials, do enjoy mobile phones. For the rest of the populace, however, one Rangoon resident says that “possessing a phone in Burma is like a dream”.
“If there are injustices, people in Indonesia can directly complain to the government, while in Burma we cannot,” said Snay Aung, an ethnic Karen attending a peace-building training conference in Indonesia.
Great expectations—and doubts
For sure, expectations have previously been raised regarding Indonesia’s potential influence on Burma. In August 2009, U.S. Campaign for Burma Executive Director Aung Din was among those who placed their bets on Jakarta’s abilities to effect some change in what has been described as Southeast Asia’s pariah state. Said Aung Din: “Indonesia is a leading member of ASEAN, a close friend of Burma, and has access to the generals in Naypyidaw. Indonesia is also a reliable partner of the U.S. and EU in many areas. Therefore Indonesia can help to build a bridge between the Western powers and the generals in Burma.”
And yet some Indonesians who are steeped in ASEAN goings-on are themselves sceptical that their government can have an impact on Burma through the regional body. Thung Ju Lan, a professor at the Research Centre for Society and Culture (Indonesia Institute of Science), for instance doubts that Indonesia is the best country to help ASEAN members improve their human- rights records because Indonesia itself is still in transition. “We have to learn from each other,” she remarks. “We have to find a common platform rather than talk about one country to lead others.”
Alliance of Independent Journalists advocacy coordinator Margiyono also notes, “The Indonesian government has made many calls to release Aung San Suu Kyi, but there is no mechanism to force Burma to release her.”
Even Rafendi Djamin, the Indonesian representative to the AICHR, says that he doesn’t believe that ASEAN as an organisation will exercise significant pressure for change in Burma.
Indeed, if Indonesia is able, directly or indirectly, to effect a positive change in Burma, it would have to succeed where ASEAN and the international community have previously failed.
Although ASEAN General Secretary Surin Pitsuwan once vowed that ASEAN would be a “wheel of change” in the region, observers say that since its establishment in 1967, the organisation has come up short in its efforts to improve the human-rights record of member states. While Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Malaysia have recently become more active in calling on the Burmese regime to institute democratic reforms, members such as Brunei, Singapore, and Vietnam are still reluctant to pressure the junta.
Non-interference in a community
ASEAN’s policy of non-interference is a primary reason observers doubt Indonesia will take a leading role in international efforts to effect change in Burma, with some going so far as to say that the policy has been a key factor in the Burmese military’s ability to entrench itself in power for the last over four decades.
Anggara, a human-rights advocate and lawyer who is the executive director of the Indonesian Advocates Association in Jakarta, says that his country needs to abandon the non-interference principle if it is to be an actor in Burma’s politics. But that, of course, is easier said than done.
Still, one potential opportunity for both finding a collective ASEAN platform and a forum for abandoning the non-interference policy that did not exist in previous years is the proposed ‘ASEAN community’ that is outlined in the ASEAN Economic Community Blueprint. Under this plan, a single market and production base would allow the free flow of goods, services, investment, capital, and labour throughout the region.
Comments Thung Ju Lan: “For me, the concept of an ASEAN community is very good. We really need to go together.”
“But”, she says, “I’m concerned about it because we pay too much attention to politics. The first thing we need to do is try to understand the differences and respect them.”
She and other observers say that while an ASEAN community is good in concept, the existence of undemocratic member states, especially Burma, will make it difficult to find an effective mechanism to implement the programme. “Burma, of course, will be a challenge for an ASEAN community if it only thinks about its own interest,” says Thung Ju Lan.
As a result, even those like Aladdin D. Rillo, the head of the ASEAN Secretariat Finance Integration, have expressed doubts about the integration of ASEAN in the time frame outlined in the blueprint. “My personal view,” Rillo told the Jakarta Post, “is that there will only be a semblance of economic integration… not the full integration that the term implies.”
Yet if Burma’s undemocratic politics and rights abuses are seen as holding up ASEAN efforts to establish one economic community, and its members believe they are losing the potential economic benefits to be arrived from the blueprint, then it could provide an opportunity for them to bond together under Indonesia’s leadership, forgo the non-interference principle, and put significant pressure on Burma to change.
Debbie Stothard, a regional activist at the Alternative Asean Network on Burma says, “It is time Burma should help ASEAN, not ASEAN help Burma to improve its human rights records.”
Change from witrhin
In the end, though, most observers say that Burma’s revolution must come from within, just as Indonesia’s did – including voluntary change from within the circle of decision makers, such as top military officials.
“There (should) be a group such as activists, media, and international community that has to inspire the masses,” says Djamin. “But the real change will come from the government and the people within.”
“There will be a lot of risk,” he adds. “The more repressive the regime is, the smarter people you need to be able to play in order to sustain the movement.”
Thung Ju Lan says that the role of educated young people is also important for change in Burma. “Youth inside and outside Burma should join hands in struggling for democracy,” she says. “Strong opposition in exile is needed and educated young Burmese people should go back to Burma and struggle for change in different means.”
But she concedes, “Sometimes, it doesn’t mean you need to go back to your country physically. You can do many things even when you stay in exile.”
Anggara meantime says that popular support is needed for the democracy movement in Burma to be an effective force. “We need a group of brave people,” he says. “And they need to be supported by the people, the media, and the international community.”
There is, however, yet another possible trigger for reforms in Burma, albeit a longshot one: If some members of the Burmese military can look beyond Naypyidaw to Jakarta and see that in a democratic society everyone is better off, then maybe change from within the regime can begin as well.