Myanmar: Looking Sideways At Indonesia

1998

Dr Reynaldo C. Ileto

Pro-democracy activists and exiles in Myanmar have been quick to speculate about a connection between the fall of Suharto with the impending demise of their own paramount military chief, General Ne Win. Suharto and Ne Win were good friends who had visited each other recently and had long been exchanging notes about how best to keep their respective militaries at the helm of the nation. The recent transformation of the junta in Myanmar from SLORC (State Law and Order Council) to SPDC (State Peace and Development Council), was partly an emulation of Indonesia, where the constitutionally-enshrined concept of dwi fungsi (two functions) calls on the military both to defend and to develop the country. Indonesian parallels may now intensify pro-democracy campaigns, particularly by leaders in exile from Myanmar and their Western allies. But in fact the case of Myanmar has its unique features which suggest that its ruling junta will not be going down the Indonesian road in the foreseeable future. For one thing, Ne Win long ago surrendered the helm to his colleagues, and since April there has been a remarkable transfer of power to a group of "Young Turks" led by Lt Gen Khin Nyunt, born in 1939 and regarded as an "adopted son" of Ne Win. The new leadership has shown more openness to dialogue, specially with its new ASEAN partners. Meanwhile, the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, has been troubled by policy squabbles within its ranks. Several leading NLD figures in Myanmar, including apparently Aung San Suu Kyi herself, have indicated a willingness to come to terms with the Generals, and even to discuss avenues of power-sharing. The defection to the Government side in April of a leading member of the Karen National Union, Padoe Aung San, suggests that the SPDC is making headway in the internal ethnic wars. The situation in Myanmar is not a simple case of dictatorship (SPDC) versus democracy (NLD). A damning case can be made against the SPDC for its continuing disregard for the principles of free association and free speech. But the "civilised West's" championing of liberal values and economic and political "openness" cannot but be held with suspicion by Myanmarese with a sense of history. On the question of joining ASEAN, part of the delay was that many leaders in Myanmar saw the group as a creation of the Western powers. Such sentiments may seem out of place in a postcolonial, global age, yet they retain a powerful hold upon those who have come through the educational system of Myanmar. The Young Turks of SPDC know that. A significant difference between Myanmar's situation and Indonesia's is that SPDC and its predecessor organisations have survived several changes of leadership, and have lasted through several generations. This makes them seem entrenched and irreplaceable.  

WATCHPOINT: Will events in Indonesia put pressure on the regime in Myanmar for reform?

 

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