As Myanmar Reforms, Indonesia Offers Some Lessons

May 23, 2013
Originally published on May 28, 2013 9:48 am

As Myanmar's leaders push a series of political and economic changes, they are also having to deal with recent strife between the majority Buddhists and minority Muslims, or Rohingya.

Many countries making the transition from authoritarian rule to democracy have faced similar ethnic and sectarian conflicts, from Iraq to the former Yugoslavia.

But for Myanmar, perhaps the most compelling case study is also the closest.

Angry Indonesian mobs burn cars and Chinese shops in Jakarta on May 14, 1998. Indonesia has made great progress since the ethnic and religious violence of the immediate post-Suharto era.
Choo Youn-Kong / AFP/Getty Images

Fifteen years ago this week, a deepening economic crisis and weeks of political unrest in Indonesia forced military dictator Suharto to resign after 30 years in power.

In the months and years that followed, sectarian and ethnic violence raged across the Muslim-majority Indonesian archipelago. Race riots against ethnic Chinese erupted in Jakarta. Ethnic Dayaks fought with Madurese settlers on the island of Borneo. And Muslim jihadis battled Christians in the Maluku Islands. Some feared the country would disintegrate.

But now, Indonesia is widely seen as a vibrant democracy that also has Southeast Asia's largest economy. It seems as if the country got some things right that may also provide lessons for Myanmar as it attempts its own transformation.

A Nation-Building Bandwagon

Indonesia started off on the right foot by uniting the country's diverse peoples in its anti-colonial revolution against the Netherlands, according to University of Toronto political scientist Jacques Bertrand.

"The Indonesian nationalist movement, or the fight against the Dutch, really rallied groups from all the archipelago," Bertrand says. "Whoever was within the territory of the [former] Dutch Indies ... they sort of hopped on the bandwagon of the idea of creating a new state."

In Myanmar, or what was then known as Burma, the independence movement against the Japanese, and later the British, was mostly an enterprise of the Burman majority. The British had used divide-and-rule tactics successfully and cultivated Christian minorities such as the Karen as a hedge against the Burmans.

Myanmar not only lacks an inclusive narrative of nation building, Bertrand says, but it has yet to come up with a formula — such as federalism — under which minorities could join the union. As a result, large parts of Myanmar's border regions remain under rebel control.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (right) walks with Myanmar's then-prime minister, Gen. Thein Sein, at the Presidential Palace in Jakarta on March 16, 2009. Both men are former military officers, leading their Southeast Asian nations along a sometimes rocky path to democracy.
Bay Ismoyo / AFP/Getty Images

Separation Between Military And State

Indonesia was also successful in getting military men to relinquish their posts in government. It shut down military businesses and separated the police force from the military.

The growth of democratic institutions accelerated the military's "return to the barracks." A freer press amplified public demands for better governance and accountability. The government lifted restrictions on political parties, and 48 parties contested elections in 1999, the year after Suharto stepped down. Election turnout has been high at about 80 percent, and instances of violence and vote-rigging have been low.

The process remains unfinished, according to some. Military rulers have not been held to account for past abuses. Notably, both Myanmar's and Indonesia's presidents are former army officers.

Myanmar's military retains sweeping emergency powers and extensive control over state budgets. The constitution reserves one-quarter of parliamentary seats for the military, which retains control over vital sectors of the economy, such as energy and international trade.

Also, the military has been slow to stop sectarian violence and quick to quash public protests. Burma's military has also continued offensives against ethnic Kachin insurgents despite President Thein Sein's unilateral declaration of a cease-fire. The president's ministers say he is fully in control of the military. But Myanmar's commander in chief, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, says the military intends to hang on to its leading role in national politics.

Rohingya Muslims, trying to cross the Naf river into Bangladesh to escape sectarian violence in Myanmar, look on from an intercepted boat in Teknaf on July 13, 2012.
Munir uz Zaman / AFP/Getty Images

Decentralizing Authority

About the time of Suharto's fall, an Asian financial crisis hit, triggered by the collapse of neighboring Thailand's currency. This also hit Indonesia, which was faced by demands for local autonomy, Jakarta responded by devolving authority over nearly half of government spending to local governments.

After a quarter-century-long insurgency in westernmost Aceh province, Jakarta made it a special administrative region with the power to legislate Shariah, or Islamic law. It has had less success with West Papua province, where a low-level insurgency still simmers.

Myanmar must address the autonomy issue to end ongoing insurgencies, which are being fought in part for control of resources, including jade, timber and hydropower, and foreign investment in these resources.

These economic issues are often overlooked when ethnic or sectarian violence flares. The University of Toronto's Bertrand points out that the crumbling of authoritarian regimes commonly produces a sense of uncertainty about the future, in which different groups tend to jockey, often violently, for a stronger relative position under the new order.

Buddhist monks and others walk across a road in downtown Yangon, Myanmar, on May 13.
Khin Maung Win / AP

Religion In The State

At its independence, Indonesia faced a choice of whether to become an Islamic or secular state. It chose secular nationalism, and suppressed radical Islamists who resisted by force. Indonesia's Islamist political parties' share of the vote in two elections over the past decade has dropped from 38 percent to 25 percent. Of course, problems remain, notably Sunni extremist groups' persecution of Shiite and Ahmadiyya minority sects.

Myanmar, on the other hand, has explicitly used its support of Buddhism to bolster its legitimacy. The junta followed in the footsteps of its precolonial predecessors, awarding monastic titles, building temples and publicly lavishing money on monks to get their karmic seal of approval.

Melissa Crouch, a legal scholar at the National University of Singapore, notes that Myanmar's constitution refers to "the special position" of Buddhism in the country, but that minorities may question this article if room for political debate grows.

It's hardly a shock that Myanmar is seen as lagging behind Indonesia. After all, it began its democratic reforms just over two years ago.

What's most lacking to many observers is a clear commitment by Myanmar's government to full civilian rule, equality for minorities and democratic rights for the majority. Without these, the reforms will continue to appear tentative and reversible.

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