Southeast Asia’s largest and most democratic country shows a willingness to take the lead in directly engaging the Burmese junta to move toward democracy

Sept09 print ed of The Irrawaddy
Sept09 print ed of The Irrawaddy

The Burmese military junta appears to be impervious to international pressure. It might well respond to some harsh words from Beijing or New Delhi, but for now neither tough international rhetoric nor economic sanctions have done much to loosen the regime’s iron grip on power.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) has been particularly acquiescent, holding fast to its cherished principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of member states.

It came as something of a surprise, then, when Indonesian Foreign Minister Dr Hassan Wirajuda, speaking in advance of the Asean Regional Forum in Phuket, Thailand, said that the junta must release Aung San Suu Kyi for the 2010 elections to be deemed free and fair.

Teuku Faizasyah, a spokesperson for the Indonesian Foreign Ministry, speaking to The Irrawaddy prior to the sentencing of Suu Kyi to 18 months under house arrest, said, “It is not the first time that Indonesia has told the Myanmar [Burmese] government that we expect a fully inclusive political process.”

Despite its unexpected departure from the Asean party line, however, some observers say it is too early to judge whether Indonesia—a country that has undergone a remarkable political transformation over the past decade—is about to take the Asean body in a new direction in its approach to Burma.

“It is better to look into the future to see if Indonesia’s policy toward Myanmar [Burma] will be similar to the Asean approach or whether it might be different,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

Indonesia has been too preoccupied in recent years with its own process of democratization to formulate a clear policy on Burma, Pavin said, but now Jakarta may be turning to this issue to bolster its own democratic credentials.

“Personally, I think Jakarta would choose to adopt a harsher stance vis-à-vis the junta to prove that it really adheres to democratic principles,” he said. “Indonesia does not have ample economic interests in Myanmar, so it is easier for Jakarta to push harder for political change in this country.”

Jakarta itself seems unsure exactly how to approach democratic change in Burma and how far to go unilaterally, but for now it seems to see Asean as the best avenue for promoting change. As Faizasyah told The Irrawaddy: “We will work as a member of Asean to try to assist Myanmar in its internal reform.”

Part of its stance may be a response to pressure from Indonesia’s parliament and civil society, which still has vivid memories of the anti-Suharto struggles

But if Dr Wirajuda’s remarks mark a concerted policy change, Jakarta could find that it has only a few strong allies in Asean. The Philippines government has occasionally taken a strong line, and would-be Asean member East Timor has irked the junta with President Jose Ramos Horta’s sporadic exhortations (most recently telling Australian media that Canberra could do more to pressure the generals). But for the most part, the Asean grouping has gone out of its way to avoid rocking the boat on Burma.

This could change, however, if China’s growing clout in the region provokes Asean to act more assertively to put its own house in order. If Asean members, led by Jakarta and in concert with the US, sought to intervene more forcefully in Burma, it might convince China that it cannot have things its own way with the 600 million-strong bloc, and would remind Beijing that some Asean members have other powerful outside allies to turn to for support.

If Burma could be moved more firmly into Asean’s orbit, it would have major consequences for China. Burma is a vital part of China’s regional strategy, with energy and economic ties intertwined with Beijing’s geostrategic concerns—the latter exemplified by the planned new energy corridor linking Burma’s Kyaukpyu port with China’s Yunnan Province. Twenty million tons of crude oil will be transferred to China from the Middle East and Africa annually, helping Beijing reduce reliance on the strategic Strait of Malacca.

Whether Indonesia sees itself taking on such a central leadership role is, of course, entirely a matter of speculation. However, it may well be that Jakarta would like to carve out a niche for itself that is commensurate with its status as Asean’s largest and most populous member.

President Bambang Yudhoyono sought to raise Jakarta’s geopolitical profile during his first term in office, but many of his foreign policy initiatives were written off as ineffective and symbolic. Indonesia’s stint on the UN Security Council achieved little of note.

Nevertheless, Indonesia’s embrace of democracy over the last decade has been one of the more surprising success stories in democratization, in an era when organizations such as Freedom House, the NGO that rates levels of democracy and economic freedom worldwide, are noting democracy’s decline across the globe. In Southeast Asia, only Indonesia is ranked as “free” by Freedom House. Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam are ranked as “not free,” while Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Singapore are ranked as “partly free.”

Meanwhile, Indonesia’s tentative moves toward a more active role in promoting democracy in the region have been duly noted by Burma’s government-in-exile.

“We have been seeing some positive developments within the regional context from some founding members of Asean, including Indonesia in recent years [being] more outspoken concerning the human rights situation, national reconciliation and democratization process in Burma,” said Bo Hal Tint, the foreign minister for the Washington-based National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma. “However, we do not see any specific and official policy toward Burma yet by any member of Asean.”

Another development that held some hope was the recent establishment of an Asean human rights commission, as called for under the Asean Charter. Asean foreign ministers empowered the commission to promote the concept of human rights, but not to monitor or investigate abuses, let alone punish them.

Informal diplomacy will continue to take the center stage under Asean. And in this regard, Indonesia is uniquely well equipped to play an influential role on developments in Burma.

“Indonesia is a leading member of Asean, a close friend of Burma and has access to the generals in Naypyidaw. Indonesia is also a reliable partner of the US and EU in many areas. Therefore Indonesia can help to build a bridge between the Western powers and the generals in Burma,” said Aung Din, the executive director of the US Campaign for Burma.

Indonesia could be instrumental in effectively applying a combination of Western-type sanctions along with the Asean principle of constructive engagement, said Aung Din.

Indonesian spokesperson Faizasyah concurred, saying, “Indonesia will work outside of Asean with other partners in dealing with Myanmar, and we will also work bilaterally.”

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