Can Myanmar overcome painful transition like Indonesia?

Once ruled by authoritarian dictatorships for decades and having similar political landscapes, the multi-ethnic Southeast Asia countries Indonesia and Myanmar, now appear committed to democratic systems of governance.

Despite being a pariah state once, Indonesia today is a functioning democracy, committed to human rights, with a relatively transparent, free-market economy.

Meanwhile Myanmar is just at the starting point that Indonesia was at ten years ago.

Having the similar histories, ethnics and religious diversity, both Indonesia and Myanmar during their transition periods faced and suffered a wave of inter-communal violence and challenging talks for building peace in their countries

Peace: the First Priority?

Sixteen years ago in 1998, Indonesia dictator Soeharto’s fall from power after 32 years of authoritarian rule marked not only the beginning of both Indonesia’s democratic transition, but also the eruption of the violent internal conflicts that had been simmering across the country.

Separatist agitation across Aceh, Papua and East Timor (now Timor Leste) from 1998 to 2003 is estimated to have displaced more than a million people and led to the loss of thousands of lives.

But in Myanmar, several ethnic militias have battled government troops for decades since independence from British colonial rule in 1948 to preserve the de facto autonomy of groups like the Shan, Wa, Kachin, Karen, and Mon.

Nowadays in Myanmar, the new government led by former military general Thein Sein who came in power in March 2011 is trying to emulate Indonesia’s transition to democracy, particularly looking at the peace process that ended a long-standing insurgency in the northern Indonesian province of Aceh.

“We want to learn how the Indonesia government reached an agreement that ended a three-decade insurgency in Aceh,” said Nay Zin Latt, a political advisor to the president.

The government of Indonesia and the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM) had signed an agreement in 2005 that resulted in Aceh with receiving a special status.

Some analysts told the Jakarta Post that both government and ethnic armed groups in Myanmar should learn from peace process in Aceh where former GAM guerrillas also came to power after winning the first post-conflict elections.

“Some ethnics in Myanmar should consider what GAM had done after peace agreement. Now, they (GAM) can manage their area totally,” said Sydney Jones, head of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict.

Though government and ethnic rebels are eager to end the over six-decade long civil war in Myanmar, the biggest barrier is the military installed 2008 constitution, being one of the most difficult to amend in the world.

“It will be very difficult to reach an agreement between us unless a constitutional amendment is put in place to guarantee our rights, ” said Naing Han Thar, a spokesman for a collation of sixteen ethnic rebels groups in Myanmar.

Religious Conflicts: Not Unexpected Challenge

With the initiative coming from within, Myanmar’s transition to democracy has steadily approached its targets, and international community has praised its peaceful transition which ends half a century of harsh military rule.

But unsurprisingly, a series of inter-communal violence has rocked Myanmar. The fighting between Rohingya Muslims and Buddhist Rakhines in the western state of Rakhine in 2012 has claimed more than 200 lives and thousands displaced.

Under the military rule in both Myanmar and Indonesia, such conflict outbreaks were systematically suppressed and not publicized for fear that it would trigger sentiments of ‘ethnicity, religion and race among groups’.

In the transition period to democracy, Indonesia also, inevitably suffered similar conflicts as in Myanmar now.

After the fall of Soeharto, violent conflict between Muslim and Christian communities broke out in Ambon in Maluku, and in Poso in central Sulawesi. These and similar conflicts claimed tens of thousands of lives between 1999 and 2002.

But the biggest difference between Indonesia and Myanmar is the rights of citizens.

“The situation (in Indonesia and Myanmar) are very very different. Both in Ambon and Poso, no one questions their citizenship. They are clearly Indonesians,” said Sydney Jones comparing the conflicts with the stateless Rohingya people in Rakhine state.

It may probably be impossible to find the solution unless Myanmar accept the citizenship status of the Rohingya.

“The first step to reduce the tension there is to raise the status of these people, and treating them as migrants can’t help in finding the solution,” Jones said.

Myanmar views these people as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh and puts a restriction on their citizenship under the 1982 Citizenship Act imposed by former military strongman General Ne Win.

Although the international community, including the United Nations and other western democracy countries, are suggesting the amendment of the 1982 Citizenship Act, the Myanmar government is clearly reject it, citing the “people’s desire” in Myanmar.

Indonesia warned Myanmar in 2013 that anti-Muslim sentiment in Myanmar could have an impact on the other countries in the region, citing the recent attacks on Myanmar workers in Malaysia and a plan to bomb Myanmar embassy in Jakarta by an extremist group in Indonesia.

“Solve the Rohingya issue as fast as possible to avoid more potential troubles in the regions,” said Sydney Jones.