Can Indonesia be a model for Myanmar’s political future?

Author: Richard Robison, Murdoch University

Myanmar has only just begun its transition from more than half a century of military rule and isolation from the rest of the world. A critical question is what political and economic systems it will eventually adopt.

Vietnam and Cambodia offer one model. Both are effectively one-party democracies where the heavy hand of the state pervades social, political and economic conditions. Such a model would seem attractive to a regime that has for so long had little appetite for modern democracy, civil rights or accountable and transparent systems of law and regulation.

Yet Myanmar is different. The regime does not possess the highly developed one-party apparatus that defines politics in Vietnam and Cambodia. Myanmar’s problem is how to shift from a narrow form of military rule to a form of electoral democracy where the military has few means of controlling electoral outcomes besides resorting to heavy doses of coercion.

In this respect, the Indonesian experience may offer better insights into how Myanmar’s transition may or may not happen. Indonesia’s authoritarian political rule collapsed suddenly in 1998, resulting in a rapid transition to a remarkably open political system and a more fluid and volatile society. And this transformation also involved an elaborate framework for decentralisation — just the sort of thing Myanmar is now seeking to construct.

Can Myanmar replicate the Indonesian experience? There are clearly many historical parallels between the two countries. Both went through a short but turbulent period of liberal democracy in the 1950s, ended by a shift to a more authoritarian political system and an inward-looking form of state capitalism. The military has played an important role in both countries. And both faced (or are facing) the task of building new political and economic systems all while the forces of the past remain powerful and corruption is endemic.

Still, there are important differences. For one, the constitutional and political reforms that paved the way for democracy in Indonesia were not introduced until the Soeharto regime had already unravelled. The architects of reform did not have to deal with a military that remained intact, and military rule in Indonesia only ever approached the totalitarian dimensions of Myanmar for a few years after the rise of Soeharto in 1965.

Above all, Soeharto had built a broader apparatus of authority through state-sponsored and controlled elections and within Golkar, the state political party. A new base of social and economic power also emerged within a growing oligarchy of political families increasingly entrenched in the world of business. A small but educated and articulate middle class also benefited from strong economic growth and career opportunities.

By the time Soeharto fell from power, the political architecture of Indonesia had already spread far beyond the military. Military authority had been effectively diminished by Soeharto, who had personally interfered in appointments of commanders and dismantled its authority over Golkar. And when the deluge came, the military largely watched from the sidelines as Soeharto’s successor, Habibie, enacted political reforms that ultimately stripped them of their automatic rights to appointment in the parliament and thus any veto on legislation.

In contrast, the government of Thein Sein in Myanmar remains deeply entangled within the military apparatus, and appears to lack the political means to ensure its survival within the complexities of electoral democracy.

Much of the military’s power also depends on its control over the resource and the forestry sectors (particularly through its large holding companies) and on protecting its widespread land-grabs. This makes it susceptible to a parliament intent on imposing rule of law, enacting judicial reform or curtailing corruption.

Thus, the military in Myanmar has little option but to adopt a strategy of imposing limits on constitutional and broader reform to keep important areas of government authority beyond the reach of any representative process. Unlike the Indonesian military, it has held onto its constitutional guarantees for the rights of military representation in parliament, its de facto veto power over legislation, and its grip on the strategic ministries of defence and security.

A more apt comparison with Indonesia may be found in Indonesia’s early-1970s transition from a narrow and repressive form of military rule to a system of rule through controlled elections, state patronage and a state-sponsored party capable of dominating parliament. This is the stage at which Myanmar finds itself. At the time, instead of simply relying on narrow instruments of coercive authority, Soeharto also sought to mobilise and co-opt public acquiescence and even participation in authoritarian rule.

The question in Myanmar is whether the reformers in the military and the Thein Sein government can do the same. There are two important considerations. One is whether the military-backed and presently ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) can replicate the achievements of Golkar by co-opting broad societal support through a mixture of patronage, populist appeals and intimidation.

Another is whether a new form of political alliance can be forged between dominant political forces and the new business elites. Such an alliance needs to be capable of controlling a democracy of money politics, and should ideally extend into a broader system of social oligarchy, as it has in Indonesia.

Critically for the Thein Sein government, the military has left it too late for these factors to be decisive in the upcoming elections. The opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) is likely to achieve a decisive victory.

Yet, progressive middle-class reformers have historically demonstrated an incapacity to form cohesive political forces, not least in Indonesia and, of course, more recently in Egypt. Relying heavily on these forces, the NLD in Myanmar may very well experience the same problems. Its middle classes and its corps of civilian professionals are a thin layer struggling to emerge from a long hiatus during which modern education and outward-looking ideas and influences were in short-supply. The NLD appears to lack any systematic policy agendas, organisational apparatus or ideology. It is held together by hostility to the regime and popular attachment to the charismatic figure of Aung San Suu Kyi.

This means that the forces that will form around the military and the USDP may have a second chance sooner than expected. Two factors are critical. One is whether the USDP can mobilise a mass base around populist appeals, including appeals to nationalist or even ethnic sentiment. A second is whether the cronies now emerging can be forged into a more cohesive political alliance with the entrenched political interests.

Richard Robison is an Emeritus Professor at the Asia Research Centre, Murdoch University.