Can Indonesia Save Burma?

Can Indonesia Save Burma?

An intriguing sidebar to the story of the Indonesian president's visit to Australia this week has been the additional insight into Jakarta's role in trying to solve South-East Asia's biggest problem: the brutal grip of Burma's military regime.

Burma is the most glaring bit of evidence for the critics of the Association of South-East Asian Nations, ASEAN. To them, the regional grouping's inability to persuade Burma's military junta to retreat from political power shows it up as a toothless tiger, unable to provide the foundations for a wider security arrangement in Asia, and its human rights standards to be set at the lowest common denominator.

Indonesian opinion makers here for President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's visit privately expressed a lot of frustration that their country's new clout in world affairs - as a boisterous democracy of 240 million people with a strengthening economy, and the world's largest Muslim population - has to be filtered through ASEAN.

Indonesia's inclusion in the Group of 20, which combines the major developed nations with the emerging economic powers and gave Jakarta's leaders a taste of being at the centre of things during the global financial crisis, is causing its thinking to wander away from the ineffective ASEAN, to the alarm of other members not in the G20 themselves.

Under SBY, as the president is known, Indonesia is also taking more of a direct role in pressuring Burma's generals towards democratic reform. Later this month, its Foreign Minister, Marty Natalegawa, is visiting Rangoon.

SBY had earlier tried another tack. Soon after the Burmese regime's bloody crackdown on anti-government protest in September 2007, he sent one of his closest military friends, retired general Agus Widjojo, to attend the funeral of the regime's prime minister, a bloody-handed general called Soe Win.

Widjojo was one of the Indonesian military's main reformist thinkers during the 1990s as the country's former New Order regime started to fray, and helped persuade his colleagues in 1998 to push longtime strongman General Suharto into retirement and step back from a direct role in politics.

According to a recent paper by Jeff Kingston, a professor of Asian politics at Tokyo's Temple University, Widjojo didn't explicitly lecture his Burmese counterparts on the Indonesian model of democratic transition. Just sending one of the Indonesian military's leading reformers ''was the message''.

If so, it doesn't seem to have been loud enough. After the 2007 protests, the regime leader, Senior General Than Shwe, returned to the previous lethargic exercise of building a new ''democratic'' system that had started after the previous democratic elections in 1990 had produced a landslide victory for the civilian reformist Aung San Suu Kyi, and were immediately annulled.

This week, Than Shwe's officials announced the rules for new elections that will be held some time later this year. One rule bars Suu Kyi from contesting, on the grounds she will be serving a home-arrest jail term for breaking the terms of her previous house-arrest by not stopping an eccentric American from swimming to her Rangoon home across the adjacent Inle Lake.

Kingston says that the new political system of Than Shwe is indeed based on an Indonesian model. Only it's not the model of the present-day Indonesia under popularly-elected SBY, but that built by Suharto after he seized power in 1965-66: an ''ersatz democracy'' in which the ''dwifungsi'' (dual function) doctrine authorised a wide range of political and economic involvement by the military.

If the Golkar party was the civilian face of military rule in Suharto's Indonesia, in Burma it will be the Union Solidarity and Development Association set up by the Tatmadaw (the military) in 1993 and now claiming 25.5 million members. Civilian shock troops called the Swan Arr Shin, which carried out a murderous attack on a convoy of Suu Kyi and her supporters in 2003, are analogous to the preman (gangsters) used for voter intimidation in Indonesia.

But present-day Burma is not the Indonesia of 40 years ago, Kingston warns. ''The genie is already out of the bottle; holding and then ignoring the 1990 elections introduced dynamics in Burma that Suharto never had to cope with,'' he said. Emulating a model that Indonesia has already discarded meets no acceptance among Burmese.

When he goes to Rangoon, Foreign Minister Natalegawa might turn up the volume a bit to make the point of reform more clear.

To the predictable argument that Burma will be pulled apart by its regional insurgents without a tight army grip - a tired line repeated by ASEAN's nervous nellies like Singapore's Foreign Minister, George Yeo - he can point to the Aceh settlement that followed Indonesia's democratic transition.

The big lesson is the risk of not moving far enough, early enough. Kingston cites Shari Villarosa, a recent US charge d'affaires in Rangoon and an old Jakarta hand too, as pointing out that Indonesia's post-1998 changes were unforseen as late as the mid-1990s by most Indonesia specialists, because predicting large, paradigm shifting events is difficult.

''Among the lessons in democratisation that Indonesia has to offer Burma is the realisation that the 'experts' failed to anticipate Suharto's downfall and the military's retreat to the barracks,'' Kingston says.

Asia-Pacific editor, Sydney Morning Herald More Hamish McDonald articles

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