Inside Indonesia no. 52 October-December 1997
ANDREAS HARSONO visits Burma and is intrigued by the respect its military show for the Indonesian model.
The mouthpiece of the Burmese military regime, the New Light of Myanmar newspaper, in mid-1996 dubbed the relationship between Indonesia and Burma 'two nations with common identity'.
Official visits between the two governments have increased sharply since 1993. They marked not only the progress in Burma-Indonesia diplomatic ties but also the growing eagerness of the Burmese junta to copy the political system of its more established neighbour.
'No other country is closer to the regime than Indonesia,' said a senior Asian diplomat in Rangoon, adding that Indonesia is like 'a big brother' in the eyes of the Burmese generals.
The newspaper repeatedly praised the positive economic and political development in Indonesia, where the Indonesian military has the dual function of protecting the security of the state while dominating party politics as well.
High profile visits
Foreign Minister Ali Alatas and Defence Minister Edi Sudrajat visited Rangoon in February 1994 and November 1995 respectively. In August 1994 businessman Hutomo Mandala Putra of the Humpuss business group, the youngest son of President Suharto, also led a high-profile business delegation to Rangoon.
The Indonesian patriarch himself visited Burma in February 1997 in a high-profile tour during which Suharto again reiterated the fundamental creed of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean): 'We should not interfere in the affairs of our neighbours.'
His eldest daughter, Siti Hardiyanti Rukmana, who is also an influential political figure in Indonesia, accompanied her father to sign some business deals in Rangoon. Suharto even went to have a chat with Burmese behind-the-scene strongman Gen Ne Win, whom he once visited in 1974.
In return, earlier Slorc leader Senior Gen Than Shwe met Suharto in Jakarta in June 1995, while his aide, Lt-Gen Khin Nyunt, who heads the intelligence service, traveled more frequently to Jakarta.
The Burmese embassy in Jakarta is the largest among Burmese embassies in Southeast Asia, demonstrating that Jakarta is a crucial relationship for the Slorc. The Burmese ambassador to Jakarta, U Nyi Nyi Tant, a close associate of Khin Nyunt, is portrayed as the spearhead of his nation's lobbying efforts in Jakarta, which also hosts the secretariat, or headquarters, of Asean.
Why does Burma do it? Why does the Slorc want to copy the Indonesian New Order?
The easiest explanation is that both countries are ruled by military men. Southeast Asia, to which Burma belongs, has several authoritarian governments but only one military ruler to duplicate: Indonesia.
Despite homework still to solve a serious socio-economic gap, and despite the potential for a major religious conflict and political unrest, Indonesia is widely seen as one of Asia's success stories.
Burma, on the contrary, is a pariah, one of the most brutal regimes in the world. It is currently under stiff international criticism and sanctions after its refusal to transfer power to opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi of the National League for Democracy, who won the general election in 1990.
The Slorc is trying to show the international community that it is also a responsible government which is going to bring order and prosperity in Burma. But, the junta argues, first they need to silence the opposition to create political stability in Burma - just as the Indonesians did in the 1970s.
Indonesian ambassador to Burma, A Poerwanto Lenggono, said in November 1996 that the Burmese government would like to imitate the New Order of President Suharto's government in three key areas: the Indonesian state ideology, Pancasila, the 1945 constitution and the dual function of the military.
'We didn't ask them. They imported the whole lesson, saying that they would like to learn from us. They are welcome, but we told them that each country has its own characteristics. Our experience could be adopted here [only] in accordance with the local values,' said Lenggono.
Burmese veteran journalist M C Tun confirmed that the Slorc had published the Indonesian constitution in Burmese. 'They asked people to learn from it while drafting the Burmese constitution,' he said.
Lt-Gen Khin Nyunt once indicated that as soon as the new constitution was drawn up, the Burmese armed forces, tatmadaw, which is currently ruling by decree, would hand over power to a civilian government.
One of his close associates, Brig-Gen David O Abel, said that the Slorc learns not only from Indonesia but also the 'miracle' of South Korea and other Newly Industrialised Countries. 'We can learn many good things on these studies especially Indonesia. We fought against the colonialists also to establish Myanmar. With that objective and inspiration we look at Indonesia as a model. How Indonesia gets the people united over 200 million.'
Despite skepticism over whether the Slorc intends to hand over power to the National League for Democracy of Suu Kyi, it is believed in Burma that the Indonesian constitution provides room for the military to be involved in politics.
Suu Kyi and Megawati
Of course Suu Kyi has a 'counterpart' in Indonesia. Both Suu Kyi and Indonesian opposition leader Megawati Sukarnoputri are leading pro-democracy activists in the region. And both are the daughters of charismatic fathers - President Sukarno and General Aung San - who helped free Indonesia and Burma respectively from their colonial masters after World War II.
Both daughters have emerged from the shadows of their fathers to lead opposition to two of the strongest military rulers in Southeast Asia: Megawati against President Suharto's 'New Order' in Indonesia, and Suu Kyi against the State Law and Order Restoration Council (Slorc) in Burma.
'Perhaps the similarity is that we are trying to contribute something for the future of our nations,' said Megawati, admitting that most people recognise a woman like her because of their fathers and their womanhood.
She said that both she and Suu Kyi have not only their fathers' name but also their own political struggles, stamina and determination. 'Who is Megawati without the name of Sukarno? I cannot deny that, but it is not only a matter of the surname. It depends on our personal abilities and opportunities as well,' said Megawati.
Their opponents, however, often fail to realise that these women have their own political strength. In a bid to downgrade their political influence, their military opponents pressured their media to use the names of Mrs Megawati Taufik-kiemas and Mrs Michael Aris, after their respective husbands Indonesian businessman, Taufik Kiemas and British scholar Dr Michael Aris, rather than their maiden names, which connect them to their fathers in the public's mind.
Suu Kyi herself said that one of the most visible differences between the Slorc and the New Order is the employment of western-educated technocrats such as economists and social engineers. 'The Slorc does not trust intellectuals,' the winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace prize said. 'Intellectuals who are trying to say something rational could be easily accused of planning a plot against them. They could end up in jail.'
President Suharto has worked closely with Indonesian technocrats since he rose to power in 1965. He led the military's work on political issues while the economists drafted all monetary and economic policy.
Most of those, like Prof Widjojo Nitisastro, who headed the economic team, were alumni of University of Berkeley of the United States.
Critics later called them 'Berkeley Mafia' because of their shrouded but effective influence over the national development policy. The Slorc, however, has nobody like Prof Nitisastro on their team. Asian diplomats to Rangoon call most of the Slorc generals 'ignorant,' although Khin Nyunt and Minister for National Planning and Economic Development Brig-Gen David Abel have both won kudos because of their workaholic personalities.
'Abel is the smartest guy within the Slorc. Khin Nyunt is not really smart, but he is a workaholic. He knows a lot because he heads the intelligence service,' said a diplomat.
An observer in Jakarta said it is impossible for the Slorc to follow the Indonesian path if they do not use technocrats. 'As long as we are talking about free markets and capitalism, which I believe is being implemented by the Slorc now, we have to use the technocrats.'
Megawati cautiously said that the Slorc brought Burma far from the spirit of the Asia-Africa Declaration signed in Bandung, Indonesia, in 1955 by world leaders from Asia and Africa.
'Democracy is partly the idea of independence. It is true now that Burma has no democracy and that we should help Burmese people to fight for democracy.'
'It doesn't mean that I want to interfere in Burma's internal affairs, but the common platform is the Asia-Africa Declaration. We have to remind the Slorc about the spirit of the declaration.'
'If we compare Burma and South Africa in 1955, we realise that now Burma is left far behind, while South Africa under President Nelson Mandela has already solved its most crucial problem and prepared to face globalisation.'
Others said that the Slorc's attempt was merely a tactic to seek help from Indonesia to sponsor Burmese membership in Asean, which was opposed by several member nations.
The Slorc was believed to be 'more than eager' to join Asean in a bid to get a measure of regional support while it faced international condemnation from Western countries like the United States, and European countries that have sometimes imposed official bans to discourage investment in Burma.
Asean members - which include Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam - were divided on the timing of the Burmese membership.
Indonesia and Malaysia agreed on letting Burma join Asean in 1998, while the Philippines, Thailand and Singapore had reservations. But they finally agreed in an informal meeting in November 1996 in Jakarta to welcome Burma as well as Cambodia and Laos in 1998.
When Asean countries officially accepted Burma to join their ranks in an Asean summit in Kuala Lumpur in July 1997, many felt it would send a dangerous signal to Rangoon that it could continue to ignore demands for the transfer of power to civilians and to abuse human rights. Indonesia, at that point, would share the responsibility and blame.
Andreas Harsono is a freelance journalist in Jakarta.