Myanmar and Indonesia: Parallels in their modern histories

Last week, a delegation consisting of 16 members from four Karen ethnic resistance groups visited Indonesia's Aceh province. The Karen are one among eight ethnic groups in Myanmar, out of a total of 16, to have signed the National Ceasefire Agreement with Yangon.

This is not the first time Myanmar ethnic groups have included Aceh in their "lessons learnt" tour itinerary.

Several ethnic group representatives, government officials and military officers have gone to Aceh to study the post-conflict peace management.

I have been to Myanmar several times and met both the leadership and the grassroots levels of several ethnic resistance groups. At first, it seemed to me that there were hardly any similarities between them and Aceh.

Yet, when we discussed problems up close, I could not help but see similarities and, in turn, have come to realise that study tours like this one are indeed very valuable.

The question now is if the Myanmar military (above), guaranteed under the new Constitution to have 25 per cent of the seats in Parliament, will follow the example of the Indonesian generals and relinquish political privilege. PHOTO: REUTERS

Organised by the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, based in Siem Reap, Cambodia, the delegation was received in Aceh by the International Centre for Aceh and Indian Ocean Studies, an inter-university centre in Banda Aceh. The visitors were so impressed with what they saw in Aceh that they asked the tour organisers to arrange for a return visit as soon as possible, in order that they may learn how they could emulate the peace process there.

Since the end of World War II, Myanmar and Indonesia have been undergoing parallel political development, with the former seeming to follow one step behind. Indonesia proclaimed its independence in 1945, Myanmar in 1948. Both countries started off with democratic parliamentary systems of government.

When I look at Myanmar now, I cannot help feeling a sense of deja vu. Both countries achieved independence through a great struggle against imperialism and colonialism. The Indonesian people suffered severe poverty while their leaders concentrated on international issues, followed by a period of relative prosperity in conjunction with the degradation of democratic practices and human rights under military dictatorship, bloody suppression of popular upheavals and, finally, a return to democracy and a recognition of the rights of the many minority ethnic groups through decentralisation.

Like Indonesia before independence, Myanmar was fooled by the Japanese promise to help free the country from Western colonialism. But while the British granted independence to Myanmar, then Burma, through a process of negotiations, rather than brutal opposition as the Dutch did to Indonesia, the Burmese still came to hate colonialists and refused to join the British Commonwealth, aligning themselves to the leadership of the non-aligned countries.

Myanmar was once known as "the rice bowl" of South-east Asia. But when the constitutionally guaranteed autonomy did not materialise, widespread unrest occurred and, in 1958, the army took over under General Ne Win. He purged "communist sympathisers" and began to suppress the minorities with military force.

Elections in 1960 brought U Nu back as prime minister, but Gen Ne Win staged a coup in 1962 and the country's decline under military dictatorship began in earnest. As if emulating Indonesia, Myanmar nationalised all major industries without compensation.

In September 1987, a "demonetisation" measure left the people severely impoverished. The older generation of Indonesians would remember how, many years earlier, (their first president) Sukarno had done the same.

In 1988, driven by economic desperation, the people of Myanmar revolted. On Aug 8 that year, troops began firing into the crowds, eventually killing over 3,000 people.

Still, the resistance continued and forged alliances with ethnic resistance movements. In Rangoon (now Yangon), the daughter of founding father Aung San, Ms Aung San Suu Kyi, was approached to join the burgeoning democratic movement.

Her persistence and patience has finally paid off. Last year, her party won the general election in a landslide victory.

The rest is not yet history.

The question now is if the Myanmar military, guaranteed under the new Constitution to hold 25 per cent of the seats in Parliament (like Indonesia until 2004), will follow the example of the Indonesian generals and relinquish political privilege.

Indeed, one of the most important questions asked by a general at a seminar organised by the Habibie Centre in Jakarta a couple of years ago was how the Indonesian senior generals convinced their younger troops to give up their political privileges.

It seems that the old Myanmar generals have started to realise that their time is up, but they do not know how to stop riding the fat tigers that control the wealth of the country, especially jade trade with China. This is not overly different from the problem faced by the Indonesian military brass who control vast business interests all over the country.

Myanmar is indeed at a crossroads. Will it continue to follow in the footsteps of big brother Indonesia? Indonesian leaders, through Asean, could and should play a stronger role in persuading Myanmar's rulers to quickly emulate Indonesia.

With its vast natural resources, Myanmar has the potential to rise rapidly and join its more prosperous neighbours.

However, like Indonesia, it has to set its house in order first.


•The writer is an independent international consultant on conflict resolution and post-conflict peace management, and a former Free Aceh Movement negotiator in Helsinki.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 05, 2016, with the headline 'Myanmar and Indonesia: Parallels in their modern histories'. Print Edition | Subscribe