What Myanmar Could Learn From Indonesia

As Myanmar prepares to hold general elections in 2015, with ceasefire talks between the army and ethnics scheduled for March and constitutional amendments moving through Parliament, this nation is slowly charting a new way forward.
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YANGON, Myanmar--Indonesians of a certain age still speak about Seulawah, their country's first airplane, a Douglas DC-3 Dakota purchased from an American airman in Hong Kong during Indonesia's bitter war for independence from the Dutch after World War II. They can recall how the Dutch blockaded Indonesia while the plane was being refitted in India, forcing the aircraft to seek safe harbor here in Yangon, then known as Rangoon, the former capital of Burma. They can tell you how Seulawah was used to smuggle arms and ammunition from Burma to the Indonesian island of Aceh--and how, when the blockade was broken and Indonesia's revolutionary war was won, it was Seulawah that fetched Indonesia's founding fathers and ferried them home to a hero's welcome.

Sixty-five years later, Myanmar--as Burma is now known--is the country haltingly coming to terms with a future of its own making. And this time, it is Indonesia's turn to lend its Southeast Asian neighbor a hand--not through the power of its jet engines but through the power of its example as a strong yet decentralized political system.

The two countries have much more than an airline route in common. Both endured decades of repressive authoritarian rule. Both had a military apparatus controlling and exploiting nearly all aspects of the economy and society--in fact, Myanmar modeled its military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Association on Indonesia's ruling Golkar party. Both countries encompass far-flung regions containing countless antagonistic ethnic groups, over 135 in Myanmar's case. And both have asked the question: is federalism--i.e. constitutionally dividing political power among national and regional governments, as in the United States--right for us?

In the wake of popular protests that toppled the Indonesian dictator Suharto in 1998, many weren't so sure. The country's president had difficulty even saying the word and one university professor told the Jakarta Post that "in a multiethnic state like Indonesia, the implementation of federalism would give rise to racial animosity." Yet others, like Assembly Speaker Amien Rais, called federalism "a middle option, a golden way" and warned that attempting to maintain a single, unitary state would cause restive outlying regions to break away entirely. Ultimately, Indonesia's "reformasi" process yielded what the Canadian political theorist Jacques Bertrand calls a "quasi-federalist approach" devolving a significant amount of political power to the local level while maintaining a unitary structure.

As Myanmar has taken steps to liberalize the country since 2011, the biggest challenge, writes Derek Mitchell, U.S. Ambassador to Myanmar, is "how the country's diverse people can overcome a history of fractiousness in order to live together and hold the country together through political means rather than force--something that arguably has never happened in Burma's history." And, for that matter, how to treat each citizen with dignity and respect for the rule of law.

Three years ago, few people in Myanmar talked about federalism. Now, everybody is. On "Union Day" last month, President Thein Sein invoked the spirit of Panglong--a short-lived national conference that seemed poised to create a strong federalist system in 1949--in calling for Myanmar to "march toward a peaceful, modern, and democratic nation through a federal system." During a September visit to Shan State, home of one of Myanmar's biggest minority groups, Speaker of the House Shwe Mann cautiously endorsed the principle of federalism but noted that a Western system would have to be tailored to suit Myanmar.

"The word 'federalism' is everywhere now and all parties are using that word," the consultant and activist Khin Zaw Win tells me. "Federalism is around the corner [but] is still only a concept. No one is prepared." A senior advisor to President Thein Sein adds, "In two years we will be more open and more mature than now and people can enjoy their rights but with self-discipline. People are learning because they have no experience with multi-party democracy. The last time we had it was in 1962."

But how far down the path to reform will the military be willing to go? This is, after all, the same army that has spent decades waging war against Myanmar's many armed ethnic militias, the longest-running civil war in the world. And one of the ethnics' major priorities for a federalist system is the creation of a federal army, essentially asking the military to allow ethnic militias to remain armed and semi-autonomous within the larger national army.

"Federalism versus Unionism," a UN official in Myanmar says to me. "This is essential but goes against USDP values because they are control freaks. Giving power to regional parliaments scares them. Decentralization is difficult."

Difficult, yes. But--as Indonesia illustrates--not without its rewards. In 1960, Indonesia was a poorer country than Myanmar. These days, Indonesia's real per capita income is roughly 350 percent greater than Myanmar's. It is the largest economy in Southeast Asia, and one of the fastest growing in the world.

Of course, Indonesia's rags-to-riches rise didn't just happen. And its experience setting up a decentralized state contains valuable lessons for Myanmar.

First, as the development scholar Brian Vogt observes, the military was given time to unwind itself from the nation's political and economic affairs. In 1998, the government banned active officers from serving in civilian government positions and significantly reduced the military's representation in national and local legislatures. By 2009, all legislative seats reserved for the armed forces were to be eliminated. Additionally, Indonesia's Parliament passed a law in 2004 giving the military five years to divest from its massive business holdings (though loopholes, unsurprisingly, remain). Myanmar's military, with a quarter of the seats in Parliament and its own vast involvement in the economy, would do well to follow Indonesia's lead.

Second, Indonesia engaged all stakeholders across its far-flung provinces. Though their reforms took place largely among political elites, they engaged in the kind of constitutional give-and-take with which Burma's Parliament is now wrestling. For Myanmar, a broader dialogue might be best. One proposal would bring as many as 900 representatives together to discuss power sharing, the structure of a federal army, and other pressing issues.

Third, remember that it doesn't have to be done in one fell swoop. Indonesia's initial period of reform from November 1998 to February 1999 was followed by years of fine-tuning, referendums, and compromises. Rome wasn't built in a day--and even Rome didn't need to create a federalist, democratic system out of whole cloth.

As Myanmar prepares to hold general elections in 2015, with ceasefire talks between the army and ethnics scheduled for March and constitutional amendments moving through Parliament, this nation is slowly charting a new way forward. Agus Widjojo, a retired, reformist Indonesian general with years of experience here tells me, "Myanmar is in a better position than Indonesia was because this country was opened up by high-level leaders. In Indonesia, it wasn't Suharto who opened it up."

These days, Indonesia's Garuda Airlines--the descendants of Seulawah--fly back and forth between Indonesia, the world's third-largest democracy, and Myanmar, its newest and shakiest. With any luck, if Myanmar learns well the lessons of its longtime regional friend and adopts a form of inclusive federalism, more than just an airliner could take flight.

Stanley Weiss, a global mining executive and founder of Washington-based Business Executives for National Security, has been widely published on domestic and international issues for three decades.

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