Myanmar: Echoes of Indonesia?

A populous South-east Asian country moves from years of autocratic rule to tentative democracy despite simmering ethnic conflicts and an entrenched military—this was Indonesia 15 years ago, and it is Myanmar today. Myanmar’s struggles with sectarian violence, and Indonesia’s increasingly vocal concerns about the treatment of Muslims in that country, are drawing new attention to the parallels between the two countries. Whether the Burmese government can follow Indonesia’s lead in several key areas of political and economic reform will help to determine whether Myanmar’s transition from military rule succeeds.

When Myanmar’s generals moved from a military regime to nominally civilian rule in 2011, they adapted some of the tactics of the former Indonesian strongman, Soeharto. Many features of the new Burmese government—the structure of the presidency, the military’s guaranteed seats in the legislature and the armed forces’ prominent role in business—bear the imprint of Soeharto’s “New Order” regime. Yet the government’s recent attitude towards the opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who was freed from house-arrest and was allowed to win a seat in the legislature, is raising hopes that Myanmar’s next steps will mirror Indonesia’s relatively inclusive, democratic transition following the removal of Soeharto in 1998. A bigger test will be whether Aung San Suu Kyi is permitted to contest the presidency in 2015.

Buddhist-majority Myanmar and Indonesia, which is the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, have vastly different ethnic histories. However, the end of Soeharto’s rule in 1998 was followed by violent sectarian conflicts, just as the end of the Burmese junta’s total control has led to an eruption of Buddhist-Muslim tensions. Myanmar’s former military junta arguably did even less during its decades in power to recognise the importance of ethnic minorities to the national fabric. The Burmese government has been continuously at war with ethnic-minority armed groups since the country’s establishment in 1947, although the new government has now reached tentative ceasefires with all but the Kachin Independence Army.

Still in business

The Burmese military also remains more economically dominant than its Indonesian counterpart ever was. Few major business deals take place in Myanmar that do not involve the military, the government or “cronies” of the administration. Unwinding this complex web of influence through economic liberalisation and foreign investment will take years, and will be a clear yardstick of genuine political change. Many in Myanmar believe that the government is allowing ethnic violence to occur in order to justify a continued central role for the military in the country’s affairs, a dynamic that also occurred in Indonesia. As in Indonesia, the emergence of reform-minded generals will be necessary for change to take place.

The necessity of creating a civilian-dominated government was a central theme when a group of prominent Burmese intellectuals affiliated with the Yangon School of Political Science travelled to the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, in April to discuss the lessons of Indonesia’s transition. This was just the most recent of several such exchanges that have focused on the political parallels between the two countries. “Indonesia also has an active civil society, capable of resistance, as well as encouraging social change, a goal that we are still striving to achieve in Myanmar,” the Burmese group pointed out afterwards.

For the democratisation of Myanmar to remain on track, economic opportunities will have to become diverse and promising enough to attract young people who might currently see the military as the best option for a good career. This process took many years to occur in Indonesia and neighbouring Thailand, according to a US-based Myanmar expert, David Steinberg.

As these fundamental processes of economic liberalisation and transition to civilian control of business and government advance, the Indonesian precedent suggests several signs of progress to watch out for in Myanmar. These include improvements in judicial independence, equal treatment of foreign and domestic firms, and the government’s popular accountability. In this scenario, the courts begin to apply the law even-handedly, including cases involving those with links to the military. Civilian reformers are appointed to government posts and are given genuine power. Demarcations of responsibility between the branches of government, and between the administration and the military, become clearer. The country’s leaders become more responsive to pressure from the public, rather than serving the interests of still-powerful business and military-connected elites.

Indonesia’s stake

The Indonesia-Myanmar comparisons are not just academic. As the largest country in the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), Indonesia has a vital stake in Myanmar’s success. Indonesia’s backing for Burmese reform efforts was highlighted in April 2013 when its president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, visited the Burmese capital, Naypyidaw. Mr Yudhoyono’s government also has reasons to be concerned for the future of its near-neighbour. The Burmese government’s inability to handle effectively Buddhist-Muslim tensions has resulted in clashes between displaced Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist refugees in an Indonesian detainment camp, and Indonesian Muslims have been caught plotting to bomb the Burmese embassy in Jakarta in response to anti-Muslim violence in central Myanmar. Indonesia, for its part, has called on the Burmese government to improve its treatment of the Rohingya and stop anti-Muslim violence.

The issue of the treatment of Muslims may prove to be a bellwether for Myanmar’s political direction. The Indonesian government still faces criticism for its handling of religious minorities, but it faced a difficult set of ethnic conflicts in the post-Soeharto years. The 2002 Malino II accord, which ended sectarian conflict in the Maluku islands, and the more recent end of hostilities in Aceh, are examples of that; although ethnic tensions remain, notably in Papua, and there are continuing episodes of sectarian violence throughout Indonesia.

By contrast, Myanmar’s government has signed ceasefires with most ethnic minorities, but its constitution denies citizenship to the Rohingya. The Rohingya have been labelled illegal immigrants from Bangladesh—a policy that many argue is out of step for a modern democracy. The Burmese government claims that Indian immigration during the British colonial period, and the rapid population growth rate of Muslims—not the policies of the ethnic-Burman Buddhist majority—are the root cause of ethnic conflict. In the wake of vicious sectarian rioting in multiple towns across the country, only Muslims have been charged with crimes. As Myanmar prepares to chair ASEAN in 2014, these policies will ensure that the country’s legacy of ethnic diversity and division—and the echoes of Indonesia—will remain squarely in the spotlight.


Economist Intelligence Unit
Source: The Economist Intelligence Unit