JAKARTA -- It was a bright and sunny day in Jakarta, but that didn't help cheer up American diplomats William Brown and Stanley Roth as they emerged from a critical meeting with President Suharto.
Brown, the U.S. Special Envoy on Burma, was tight lipped about the talks, whose main agenda is to persuade Suharto to pressure Burma to liberalize. The country is a pariah state due to its military junta's notorious human rights record.
"We've had a very interesting, fruitful and productive conversation with the president of Indonesia," Brown told reporters before slipping into an awaiting car on June 14, 1996.
Both Brown and Roth, a security expert on Asia, were on a six-country tour to lobby the governments of Japan, the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand to pressure the Burmese junta to hand over power to the democratically-elected National League of Democracy (NLD).
An aide to Suharto, Foreign Minister Ali Alatas, however, told journalists separately that Suharto had told his American visitors that Indonesia will maintain its policy of "constructive engagement" with Burma.
"Our position is clear. ASEAN's position on Myanmar has not changed from what it calls the constructive approach to pull Myanmar out of isolation," Alatas added, indicating that the diplomats' approaches had fallen on deaf ears.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) groups Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. It is widely known that the Western world and ASEAN have been long been at odds about how to deal with the Burmese junta.
The United States and European countries favor a tough stand against Burma, including political isolation and economic sanctions. But ASEAN, which strictly adheres to a policy of non-interference in neighbors' domestic affairs, has initiated a "constructive dialogue" with Burma, apparently believing that greater exposure to the outside world would help bring about change.
The West does not accept such reasoning. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once even described SLORC -- the acronym for Burma's ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council -- as "an ugly acronym for an ugly government."
Albright bluntly said that if things get uglier for NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whom she met in 1995, the U.S. may impose sanctions on Burma, a move that may worsen relations with ASEAN, which wants to extend membership to Rangoon in July.
But Suharto is obviously confident that ASEAN need not bow to Western pressure on the issue. ASEAN is much stronger now than a decade ago during the Cold War period. He moved further and boldly went to Burma in a landmark visit last week. A red carpet, 21-gun salute, flag-waving children, lavish dinner and other first class treatment welcomed Suharto to Rangoon when he first visited in 1974.
Indonesian state-owned TVRI network closely covered the visit, broadcasting the wide-ranging activities of the Indonesian delegation from their arrival at the Rangoon airport to Suharto's meeting with SLORC chairman Gen. Tan Shwe.
Suharto openly told his Burmese hosts that he fully supports Burma's entry into ASEAN and repeated his longstanding assertion that Indonesia would not meddle the internal problem of other countries. He also led his delegation to witness the signing of a memorandum between Citra Lamtoro Gung, a business group controlled by his eldest daughter Siti Hardiyanti Rukmana, and the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings.
Suharto apparently ignored Western objections to the visit. "It obviously baffled people like Brown," said an observer, describing that the U.S. government should assign more heavyweight diplomats who know ASEAN really well to renegotiate the issue.
Suharto also ignored a call made by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Suu Kyi, who has repeatedly urged ASEAN not to invest in Burma and to refrain from constructive engagement with Rangoon until the SLORC's human rights record improves.
As if expecting Western pressure, a commentary in the Burmese language press accused "greedy and power hungry" people in the opposition of trying to disrupt the Indonesian visit and thereby sabotage Burma's entry into ASEAN.
The opposition, said the commentary, wanted to keep Burma out of the mainstream and its people in poverty. But despite pressure from such people and from the Western world, ASEAN "stuck to its determination" to bring Burma into the regional grouping, the commentary said, adding that ASEAN countries understood Burma was striving for "disciplined democracy" and that "Burma will become a member of ASEAN very soon."
ASEAN: Clash With U.S.?
Political scientist Dewi Fortuna Anwar of the Jakarta-based National Institute of Science (LIPI) said that it is "a little bit pretentious for a U.S. envoy to influence someone who has been in power for more than 30 years."
Suharto, the undisputed ruler of Indonesia, rose to power in 1965 following an abortive coup attempt blamed on communists. He then consolidated his power with the full support of the army and led Indonesia from bankruptcy toward becoming one of the successful emerging economies of the Asian Pacific.
But political scientist George Junus Aditjondro said the reason behind the visit is not only politics but also business. Conglomerates run by the Suhartos, such as Citra Lamtoro Gung, are stepping into Burma to fill a vacuum left by Western companies driven away by threats of boycott.
"With many companies pulling out of Burma, it will create less competition for the companies owned by the ruling elite," said Aditjondro, an Indonesian dissident now living in self-exile in Newcastle, Australia.
Aditjondro listed more than a dozen companies operating in Burma that are controlled by the children and relatives of Suharto and their Burmese counterparts. Indonesia has made investments in Burma totaling 200 million dollars in cigarette manufacturing, trading and logging since the SLORC took power in 1988.
An Indonesian company controlled by a relative of Suharto is now constructing the biggest cement factory in Rangoon.
The Indonesian investment, however, is much smaller than those of France, Singapore, Japan, the United States and even Malaysia, which has built gambling casinos in Rangoon. Anwar said other ASEAN countries are more aggressive about penetrating the market in Burma as well as in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Laos and Cambodia are also to join ASEAN in July. Both of them, however, agreed that the political agenda of the military rulers in Burma and Indonesia is highly similar. Both countries were declared independent after the World War II under the leadership of nationalist figures like Sukarno, Mohammad Hatta, Sutan Syahrir in Indonesia and Aung San and U Nu in Burma.
According to Anwar, whose institute often helps shape government policy, both Indonesia and Burma tried to implement Western-style parliamentary democracy in their early days, and that ir resulted in instability and secessionist movements in the remote areas of their countries.
Burmese army generals seized power in 1962 under Gen Ne Win, who opted for socialism to develop the country. Indonesian generals, though, chose the path of capitalism when they backed Gen. Suharto to develop Indonesia. The military failed in Burma but succeeded in Indonesia.
Now the Burmese generals want to change their strategy and import the lessons learned by Indonesia. Anwar even predicted that Indonesia would be the "blueprint" for the SLORC to develop the economy of Burma and to gradually decrease the role of the military, just as the Indonesian generals do.
"At the moment, compared to Indonesia, the Burmese military is much more involved in politics. They have no Dwifungsi to legitimize their involvement," said Anwar, referring to the Indonesian military doctrine which legitimizes the involvement of the military in politics and military affairs.
She also said that the Indonesian generals initially did not want to seize power, "They could if they want in the 1950's. They did not do it until they had to do it, in 1965," she added, referring to the political turbulence here of 1952 and 1957.
But the Indonesian military's involvement in politics is "legislative pretension," or at best, according to Anwar, is a "semi-constitutional arrangement" not based on the Indonesian constitution but on parliamentary resolutions.
"The military here has never gunned down the protesting students," she said, explaining that the SLORC does not bother to engage in harsh treatment of their middle class opponents and intellectuals.
She added that some Indonesian officers dislike the idea of comparing themselves to the Burmese generals. "They feel they are more civilized than the brutal Burmese officers," she said.
Suharto, perhaps, did not bring the blueprint to Burma himself, but the visit itself was the blueprint. Suharto, as always, designed a perfect strategy that does not openly confront his opponents but also gains support from his opponent's enemy.
Andreas Harsono is a freelance journalist based in Jakarta.