Commentary: Myanmar learnt the wrong lessons from Indonesia’s political transition

The Myanmar generals may have been inspired by Suharto’s coup to oust powerful political foes in the 1960s but should look instead at Indonesia’s democratic transition, says Dr Nehginpao Kipgen.

NEW DELHI : Before Myanmar transitioned to a quasi-civilian government in 2011, the military leadership closely studied the model of Indonesia’s democratic transition.

Indonesia had been a fellow ASEAN member state and both sides shared very similar historical experiences.

Forged in the crucible of a struggle for independence, the militaries of both countries had played a decisive role in the creation of their nation-states. They expanded their roles into state administration, civilian life and business conglomerates that provided some semblance of national stability.

Such an exercise could have bright spots. After all, Indonesia’s emergence as a modern democracy, with a flourishing civil society and a well-respected armed forces that enjoys higher levels of trust from the public than even its own president, makes it a model worthy of emulation.

Composite photos of Myanmar Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and former Indonesian President Suharto. (Photos: Reuters, AFP)

The gradual reduction of its military’s role in politics and transfer of power to a civilian government, despite burgeoning racial tensions and separatist concerns, could be instructive for Myanmar.

But it seems Myanmar left out lessons from this second chapter of Indonesia’s history.

SUHARTO AS THE INSPIRATION?

Indeed, Myanmar’s coup to restore order and national unity in the country might have taken heed of Indonesia’s example.Advertisementnull

General Suharto’s coup in the 1960s came on the back of a power struggle between opposing, antagonistic forces of the army, who had fought against the Dutch for Indonesia’s independence, and the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI), who attempted to fashion their own militia.

Indonesia, though disparate and diverse, was once united under the banner of driving out the Dutch and embraced a national ethos of Pancasilla (one under God).

Suharto led Indonesia as president from 1967 until his ouster in 1998. (File photo: AFP)

The cracks in the political coalition began showing once the country gained independence. Then President Sukarno had been an influential, charismatic leader but that wasn’t enough to hold the country together.

He eventually proved too weak to keep in check these irreconcilable forces he had brought together under a system of “guided democracy” to support his rule.

The economy was in shambles, while communal strife saw an uptick. Muslims were disillusioned with the Communists overrunning the country and redistributing land away from farmers.

More importantly, a new Cabinet reshuffle threatened to throw out the military generals, including Abdul Haris Nasution, then Coordinating Minister for Defence and Security, and diminish their role in politics.

It was in this context that Suharto, commander of the Indonesian strategic reserves (KOSTRAD), acted to seize power and introduced a New Order regime. 

But Suharto’s 32-year reign found popular support from Indonesians who wanted to see the country strike a different path.

He was committed to achieving political order, economic development, and mass participation in the political process through the military’s territorial command which pervaded the countryside and villages.

Suharto consolidated power through control of the armed forces, Golkar and the People’s Assembly and patronage. But this political stability led to economic development. Growth proceeded, at an average of 7 per cent a year. Schools, roads and telecommunications mushroomed.

And for decades, the Indonesian armed forces kept separatist forces on the fringes, in Aceh, West Papua and East Timor.

Tear gas and fire extinguisher gas float around demonstrators as they run away from police during a protest against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar, on Mar 8, 2021. (Photo: REUTERS/Stringer)

One can see why a coup was an attractive course of action for the Tatmadaw, facing an increasingly popular political adversary in the form of the NLD threatening to water down the military’s influence.

INDONESIA’S DEMOCRATIC TRANSITION

But while the Myanmar military might have been inspired by the embers of Indonesia’s New Order regime, they have failed to absorb the lessons of Indonesia’s democratic transition.

While Suharto’s coup might have ushered in a golden period for the young nation, he knew when to step aside after losing legitimacy. He knew he had lost political support after the 1997 Asian financial crisis unleashed massive economic disruption and racial riots.

Factions of the military no longer thought he had authority, after he failed to take decisive action and sent the Indonesian rupiah into free fall, while a pro-democracy movement gained momentum.

Most importantly, in April 1998, Suharto rejected an offer by military hardliners to declare a state of emergency, choosing instead to transfer power under the constitutional framework of the New Order regime to his vice-president BJ Habibie.

After the civilian political leaders took over, the role of the military’s involvement in politics was deliberately reduced. The military was renamed the Tentera Nasional Indonesia (TNI) in October 1998 and saw its domestic internal security functions separated to form the national police force in 1999.

In 1999, the representation of the TNI in the House of Representatives (DPR) was further slashed to 38 seats, with the eventual goal of total separation. The share of TNI representation in the provincial legislatures was also reduced from 20 to 10 per cent.

Moreover, during the 1999 general election, the TNI demonstrated its neutrality by refraining from endorsing Golkar.

SO MUCH FOR MYANMAR’S DEMOCRATIC TRANSITION

In their attempt to mimic the Indonesian model of democratic transition, the Myanmar military has demonstrated an intent to transfer power but has consistently stopped short of doing so.

FILE PHOTO: Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar’s commander-in-chief, shakes hands with National League for Democracy (NLD) party leader Aung San Suu Kyi before their meeting in Hlaing’s office at Naypyitaw December 2, 2015. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun/File Photo/File Photo

The military adopted the 2008 constitution, guaranteeing a transition to quasi-civilian rule and for bodies elected by Myanmar’s bicameral legislature to take over in the final stage. But this 2008 timeline was already a delay from then Prime Minister General Khin Nyunt’s announcement of a seven-step roadmap to democracy in 2003.

The military also subsequently crafted electoral laws prohibiting anyone convicted from joining a political party, requiring the National League for Democracy (NLD) to expel its leader Aung San Suu Kyi in order to participate, which forced the party and its allies to boycott the 2010 election.

Although it was a huge win for the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) supported by the military, Myanmar came under heavy criticism by the international community.

The military reluctantly reached an agreement with the NLD, allowing it to contest in the 2012 by-election, which saw Western democracies lift sanctions and establish diplomatic relations. This boosted the country’s economy and infrastructure projects, which suffered neglect in the decades before.

The military ruled the country with absolute authority for almost five decades (1962 to 2010), and another five years (2011 to 2015). 

Perhaps underestimating Aung San Suu Kyi’s popularity, it thought it could win the 2020 election with help from other aligned parties or at least secure a greater margin of victory compared to the 2015 election but was proven wrong.

A coup was launched after baseless claims of electoral irregularities. Flimsy charges have been filed against Aung San Suu Kyi and her allies, while NLD leaders have had to go into hiding.

MYANMAR’S MILITARY NEVER INTENDED TO GIVE UP POWER

Despite its attempt to follow the Indonesian model, the Myanmar military did not pursue the path laid out by Indonesia’s democratic transition. At the heart of it, the Tatmadaw is not ready to give up power.  

It’s not hard to see why. Last year, the NLD introduced a legislation proposing a gradual reduction of the military’s share of seats in the national parliament, state legislature and regional legislature from the present 25 per cent to 15 per cent after the 2020 election, 10 per cent after 2025, and 5 per cent after 2030.

People wearing protective gear line up to vote at a polling station during the general election in Taungup, Rakhine State, Myanmar on Nov 8, 2020. (Photo: Reuters/Stringer)

The NLD also proposed lowering the requirement for constitutional amendments to have more than 75 per cent of parliamentary votes to “two-thirds of elected representatives” which excludes military appointees.

The military rejected these proposals, justifying its response on the basis that the country faced threats to its national sovereignty, the rule of law and stability.

After the NLD’s landslide victory in the November 2020 polls, the military also perhaps harbours fears of repercussions for human rights violations and the Rohingya crisis once more power is handed over to the NLD.

Then again, it might truly think it is the only national institution that can hold the country together.

Whatever it is, it looks like this stop-go relationship with democratic transition in Myanmar may be the country’s reality for a while.

By : Dr Nehginpao Kipgen (A Political Scientist, Associate Professor and Executive Director at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University. He is the author of three books on Myanmar, including Democratization Of Myanmar) – CNA

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