Analysts Urge Indonesia to Once Again Nudge Myanmar Toward Democracy

Ronna Nirmala
Analysts Urge Indonesia to Once Again Nudge Myanmar Toward Democracy Supporters of the armed forces carry signs that say “We wish success to the military that gives and gets love from the people,” during a rally to support Monday’s military coup, Naypyidaw, Feb. 4, 2021.

This week's military coup in Myanmar has prompted calls for Jakarta to again take on the mantle of regional role model to help its neighbor back on the path to democracy.

Myanmar once looked to Indonesia – which navigated its own transition from dictatorship to democracy – for guidance in democratizing after decades of military rule, but those interactions waned after a change of government in Jakarta, analysts said.

The man who played a significant role in Myanmar’s democratic transition was Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, or “SBY,” Indonesia’s first directly elected president, and himself a former general.

Yudhoyono helped mediate conflicts between the Myanmar government and ethnic minorities, provided input on drafting democratic laws and invited officials to learn about democratic institutions, said the executive director of the Bali Institute for Peace and Democracy (IPD), I Ketut Putra Erawan.

“Under SBY, democracy was high on Indonesia’s diplomatic agenda, which in my view was a very positive thing,” Ketut said.

Indonesia had been a role model for Myanmar, he said.

“Indonesia now has a responsibility to help restore democracy [there].”

When current President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo was elected in July 2014, he declared that his focus would be on domestic affairs, according to Aaron L. Connelly, a Southeast Asia expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a British research institute.

Jokowi “is new to foreign affairs and seemingly has little interest in diplomacy, a marked contrast with his predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who sought a role as an international statesman,” Connelly wrote in an article for Contemporary Southeast Asia in April 2015.

SBY’s legacy

By most accounts, Yudhoyono made Indonesia a power to reckon with in international affairs by eagerly offering to share his country’s experiences in democratic transition.

For instance, as early as in 2007, he sent retired General Agus Widjojo to attend the funeral of military man Soe Win, who had been Myanmar prime minister.

In the 1990s, Widjojo had urged his erstwhile colleagues to push Indonesia’s military dictator General Suharto to make the transition to democracy. Suharto ruled for almost 32 years, until 1998.

But while in Myanmar, Widjojo didn’t give the military brass a lecture on democracy.

Just the presence of an Indonesian military reformer  “was the message,” according to a paper by Jeff Kingston, a professor of Asian politics at Tokyo's Temple University, cited by The Sydney Morning Herald.

Dipo Alam, a cabinet secretary during the Yudhoyono administration, described how the former president told the United States how to deal with Myanmar.

“The best thing I remember, Mr. SBY drove home the message to the U.S. not to dictate to and hector Myanmar and treat them as a child. SBY explained that democracy took time and asked the U.S. to respect the process,” Dipo told BenarNews.

Yudhoyono went on to closely advise Myanmar’s military, especially after General Thein Sein’s government unveiled a strategy for democratic reforms in 2011.

By contrast, Jokowi took almost two weeks to officially congratulate Myanmar after the 2015 general election.

Jokowi should now appoint Yudhoyono as Indonesia's envoy to Myanmar, Jakarta Post's executive editor, Kornelius Purba, suggested in an opinion piece published before Monday’s military coup.

“Myanmar’s generals need to be convinced that a coup could be suicidal for them and that it would derail the country’s path to democracy,” Purba wrote.

“A figure like SBY, known as one of the key figures behind the Indonesian military’s reform, is the right person to approach the generals.”


A file photo of then-Myanmar President Thein Sein (left) with his Indonesian counterpart Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono at Merdeka Palace in Jakarta, May 5, 2011.

‘Indonesia does not lecture’

Indonesia, too, has seen democratic backsliding under Jokowi’s leadership, according to a book titled “Democracy in Indonesia: From Stagnation to Regression?” published last year and written by various scholars from Indonesia and abroad.

The Jokowi administration has to a degree suppressed free speech and criticism and also attempted to undermine checks and balances on government power, the scholars argued in the book.

Still, it remains one of the region’s most open countries and must act on Myanmar, said Damar Juniarto, executive director of the Southeast Asia Freedom of Expression Network (SAFEnet), an NGO advocating for internet freedom.

“Our freedom of expression is not perfect, it is even deteriorating, but compared to other ASEAN countries, we are still better off. We should still be able to play an extra role,” Damar told BenarNews.

For instance, Malaysia has an unelected government and is under its first national emergency in more than five decades.

In Thailand, Gen. Prayuth Chan-o-cha became prime minister after a coup he engineered, and then retained the post in a 2019 general election widely viewed as rigged.

Opposition leaders in the Philippines say that Duterte has increased the power of the military and police since taking office in 2016. And Brunei is a sultanate.

For Eva Kusuma Sundari, a former lawmaker who chaired the ASEAN Parliamentary Caucus on Myanmar, Indonesia was the only hope as other ASEAN member countries like Vietnam and Thailand have pledged not to interfere.

Non-interference in member countries’ domestic affairs is a foundational principle of ASEAN.

“Indonesia, despite criticism at home, still has leverage because it’s still relatively more democratic than the others,” said Eva.

“We still hope that Indonesia will be at the forefront to influence other ASEAN countries to act.”

Foreign Ministry spokesman Teuku Faizasyah said Indonesia did not wish to pontificate about democracy.

“Indonesia does not lecture any country about democracy. Besides, the mainstreaming of democratic values has been a common agenda item at ASEAN,” Faizasyah told BenarNews.

Still, Indonesia expressed deep concern about the military coup in Myanmar in a statement Monday that urged the country to embrace rule of law, good governance, democratic principles and a constitutional government.

Faizasyah said Indonesia was trying to forge a common stance on Myanmar at ASEAN, but he did not elaborate.

Chinese influence

Myanmar could gravitate even more toward China if pressured, said Priyambudi Sulistiyanto, a Southeast Asia expert at Flinders University in Australia.

Myanmar has close ties with China, and relies on it for investment amid international isolation over its treatment of the Rohingya ethnic minority, he said.

“If pressure on this new military regime is too strong, there’s a fear that they will turn to China,” Priyambudi said in an online discussion on Myanmar on Thursday.

“The West may take a harder line on China. But in Asia, we cannot ignore China's immense power, so there should be more creative measures.”

Indonesia could propose that ASEAN send a delegation to hold talks with Myanmar’s military rulers, IPD’s Ketut said. 

“Don't isolate Myanmar, because doing so will make China's influence stronger. And we must remember, for China, democracy takes a back seat to business.”


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