Can Burma learn from Indonesia?

Indonesia’s Foreign Minister, Dr. Marty Natelegawa, is the third prominent Australian National University alumnus to have had his photograph taken with Aung San Suu Kyi over the past year (the others, in case you’re interested, are Kevin Rudd and I). Marty, as he is affectionately known, has reportedly said that Indonesia can help ensure the ‘irreversibility in the democratization process’ for Burma, and that ‘Indonesia can help Burma strengthen its democratization efforts in the same way his country has the past decade’. Perhaps the Jakarta Globe is not such a good source, and Dr Marty actually said Myanmar instead of Burma. There’s a slight possibility Marty could be batting for the ANU’s Department of Political and Social Change! Previous coverage by New Mandala highlighted that Indonesian Ambassador to Myanmar, Sebastianus Sumarsono, described Myanmar as already a ‘strong and dignified’ state.

Indonesia’s reforms over the past decade have sparked debates that often revolve around attempts to make generalised claims about its development, and the question of what has really changed in Indonesia since the fall of Suharto and his New Order. There’s a spectrum of views ranging from those who feel Indonesia has not changed, changed modestly, and changed dramatically. Subsequently, without a general consensus on Indonesia’s democratic development, what can one say about what Burma can really learn from Indonesia’s democratization experience?

Naysayers of Indonesia’s own irreversible democratization see vastly uneven distribution of wealth continuing unabated, ethnic conflict in the outer reaches of the archipelago, and an endemic culture of impunity, particularly with regards to law enforcement. Much the same could be said about Burma. According to the naysayers, reform towards democratisation has had only a superficial effect on Indonesian society. One can imagine a caricature of despicable Burmese elites in Naypyidaw rubbing their hands together gleefully upon accepting that this is the example to follow for increasing their own legitimacy.

However, I feel that their glee may not be so keenly felt if two basic lessons from Indonesia’s neither modest or idyllic democratic transition are used by Naypyidaw as part of the recipe for ‘irreversible’ change. The two lessons are: enabling a progressively free media, and gaining the public’s acceptance of law enforcement. These lessons complement one another.

For some of those who study social and political change in Indonesia, media freedom after Suharto has been one of the great success stories contributing to democratic progress. However, critics note that while the 1999 Press Act officially removed the government’s ability to interfere with the press, ‘legal threats to press freedom are possible from a battery of laws that contain provisions that limit expression and information access’.

Despite these criticisms, in terms of the statistics it is clear that Burma and Indonesia are a long way apart. On press freedom, Reporters Without Borders notes a 57 place gap between Indonesia and Burma (in 2010, ranked at 117 and 174 respectively). I feel the major difference exposed by such a gap is that the public debate in Indonesia is focused on the threats to existing press freedom, rather than obtaining legislated press freedom itself. Shifting the public debate from one about ‘having press freedom’, to one that’s about ‘what’s suppressing press freedom?’ is a vitally important process.

Can you, dear New Mandala reader, imagine a The Irrawaddy office in Yangon, perhaps adjacent to The New Light of Myanmar, with journalists thinking about whether what they publish will land them with a ridiculous lawsuit and/or a beating? This compares to the current status quo of wondering whether if they’re found in Burma they could get a 5.56mm bullet from, for instance, an SS-2 assault rifle (sold to the tatmadaw by Indonesia). A lawsuit, albeit a ridiculous one, is surely a drastic improvement.

Writing of the use of force to suppress free speech brings us to the second lesson: gaining the public’s acceptance of law enforcement. A more democratic Burma will mean that the enforcement will not be quite so free to force the public into accepting spurious laws. Since the collapse of Suharto’s New Order, Indonesia’s military and police have been undergoing dramatic reform largely as a result of public demand.

The tatmadaw, as Burma’s supreme enforcement institution, has been a prime source of insecurity among citizens of all states in Burma. Its crimes are documented by foreign researchers, but how many Burmese are aware of those crimes? When Suharto’s New Order reign came to an end, the egregious human rights violations of the Angkatan Bersenjata Republik Indonesia (ABRI – the former name of Indonesia’s army) in Aceh, East Timor and West Papua became more exposed to Indonesia’s new, albeit limited, public discourse. The ABRI’s public image had not been brought under the spotlight by its own people before, and subsequently the ABRI was forced to adopt a new, more reserved strategy (called the ‘New Paradigm’) to maintain its legitimacy.

Similarly, Burma’s police must have greater public acceptance if the democratization process is to flourish. Citizens of Burma have long been disabled by corrupt, dubious and absurd law enforcement practices, such as requiring citizens to pay huge sums for investigations. While describing these sorts of ground-level abuses is far more involving for you, dear New Mandala reader, initial concrete change to prevent these abuses occurs at the institutional level. Although the Myanmar Police Force is under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Home Affairs, they are observed by the public to serve as an extension of the tatmadaw. The lack of public clarity over which institution really has authority over the police does little to enable a more secure citizenry. It is worth noting in relation to lessons to be learned, that the first of twelve programs for change in the Indonesian ‘New Paradigm’ strategy was the ‘separation of the police from the military’.

With public acceptance of the police through institutional reform, even protests about the police such as this one pictured above from Yogyakarta (about police violence at an Australian-owned mine in Bima, West Nusa Tenggara) could happen in Burma without deplorable incident. Can you imagine protests in Yangon about police violence in relation to Chinese jade mining in the Kachin State? I feel it’s not so unrealistic if Indonesia’s law enforcement reform is considered by Naypyidaw.

However, having identified these two fairly basic lessons, whether or not they can be effectively learned from is unrealistic given key differences between: firstly, factors contributing to; and secondly, the manner of, reform in Burma and Indonesia respectively.

Firstly, the six ‘objectives of negativity’ (section 6) contained in Burma’s 2008 constitution surely only serves to prolong national insecurity in the name of security. Comparatively, Indonesia’s Pancasila (five principles) philosophy within its constitution is serving (of course, much contested) to foster a unified while highly diverse nation. If we look to the six objectives of negativity for the underlying guidance behind Burma’s recent reform, we see that Naypyidaw has induced reform to prevent both the nation and ‘national solidarity’ disintegrating; to perpetuate its sovereignty; to ‘enhance’ the principles of Justice, Liberty and Equality; to foster discipline for democracy’s flourishing; and to continue to enable the Defence Services to participate in politics. These objectives are insecure and reactionary. By contrast, Indonesia’s Pancasila philosophy has noble principles for national guidance, that while interpreted and used inappropriately in the past, are not based so overtly on insecurity or fear. Subsequently, such principles enshrined in the Indonesian constitution allow for broader, more inclusive dialogue for national unity and social justice.

Secondly, Burma’s recent reform has been top-down, whereas Indonesia’s reforms have been driven from the bottom-up. By this, I mean that authority in Naypyidaw is allowing for reform, rather than reform being demanded from authority by the people as in the case of Indonesia. In his inaugural presidential address Thein Sein swore his oath to the constitution rather than the military, declared he wanted to end ‘the dogmatism, sectarian strife and racism’, and that he wanted to build national unity. But reform minded people in Burma do not yet have an avenue to express their thoughts on how their country should be constructed. While the ABRI was heavily involved with the May 1998 rioting in Indonesia, the popular demand for change allowed for a generation who thought (and think) in the paradigm of reform. During this period, Suharto’s successor, President Jusuf Habibie, introduced significant political changes. Could or would Thein Sein deliver similar significant political reforms (such as initiating a program of decentralization, or holding a referendum for a frontier State’s independence, or at least autonomy) in a transitional government like Jusuf Habibie’s?

Moreover, Indonesia’s 1999 elections guaranteed 8.2 percent of the seats in the People’s Representative Council for the military. In August 2002, Indonesia’s People’s Representative Council amended the constitution revoking the guarantee of seats, and removed military’s presence in politics for the 2004 elections. By way of comparison, 25 percent of the seats in the Hluttaw (the legislature of Myanmar) are guaranteed for the military. This is unlikely to be challenged for future elections given the presence of (both former and serving) military personnel in politics. It is also crucial that Burma’s recent political reform has been led by the military themselves, rather than the citizenry. What would politicians in the Hluttaw make of Indonesia’s August 2002 constitutional amendments? Would there ever be enough of a majority to win a referendum to disband the guarantee of seats to the military, and to remove the six ‘objectives of negativity’ for something nobler and less based on fear and paranoia?

So, to quickly sum up, a progressively free media and having law enforcement that is accepted by the public will be key to democratization in Burma, and Indonesia’s experience could very well serve as a good example. Indonesia could serve as a good example because there’s little certainty that it will given Burma’s lack of solid national objectives, top-down disposition for change, and military-saturated political process.

In the meantime, I look forward to Dr. Marty’s findings from his years of Burma engagement presented, some time time in the future, at the ANU. I hope he will regale us with stories of how Aung San Suu Kyi (not that she’s guaranteed victory of course, but if 1988 election results are anything to go by…) learned not to be like Megawati Sukarnoputri. I also hope he does not have to admit that Burma’s ‘irreversible’ democratization turned out to be rather more reversible than he had hoped.

Colum Graham is a graduate of the Australian National University, who is currently studying in Indonesia