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[Two news articles on the Military in Politics, and how Myanmar might have used Indonesia as a model.]
‘We live in a different age now’: Why Indonesia’s military is unlikely to return to politics
February’s coup in Myanmar has turned the spotlight on other Southeast Asian countries whose militaries have played a significant political role. The programme Insight examines the situation in Indonesia and the prospects for its democracy.
JAKARTA: He was tortured, underwent forced labour and had to eat mice, snakes, lizards and snails to survive.
Arrested for being a suspected communist sympathiser, Bedjo Untung was never charged despite being detained from 1970 to 1979, under the authoritarian regime headed by Suharto, the former general.
It has been 23 years since Suharto’s fall, but Bedjo, now 73 and a human rights activist, worries that Indonesia’s military “will always try to play a role” in government.
That has been the case in Thailand, for example, and February’s military coup in Myanmar has cast the spotlight on other Southeast Asian countries whose militaries have played a significant political role over decades.
But is Indonesia’s military capable of making a political comeback following the country’s transition to the multi-party democracy it is today? The programme Insight examines the balance of probabilities.
UNLIKE MYANMAR AND THAILAND
Indonesia’s democratic reforms were built on the foundations laid by former president B J Habibie, who took over from Suharto in 1998 and held office for 17 months.
Before that, the Indonesian military played the dual role of security institution and sociopolitical force — and then the latter role was “excised”, noted Leonard Sebastian, co-ordinator of the Indonesia programme at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore.
This is unlike Myanmar and Thailand, “where there hasn’t been that break”.
In Myanmar, prior to the coup, 25 per cent of parliamentary seats were reserved for the military, which also had the power of veto over any constitutional amendment.
In Thailand, the military plays a dominant role in politics. General Prayut Chan-o-cha became prime minister in 2014 after leading a coup. In 2019, he was elected to the role by parliament, whose Senate is hand-picked by the military regime.
By comparison, analysts like Sebastian believe democracy is set to stay in Indonesia. For one thing, its military, the Tentara Nasional Indonesia (TNI), has fashioned a new role for itself.
“I can’t see the TNI attempting to engage in the same sort of activities as we’ve seen in Myanmar or Thailand, principally because I think the mindset of the TNI officer is changing,” said the associate professor.
“There’s a desire to be more professional.”
The more important reason why he believes a coup in Indonesia is unlikely is that “we live in a different age now”.
“Social media is so prevalent in Indonesia with the use of Facebook and Twitter. A TNI soldier can’t engage in any human rights violation without it being captured on YouTube or any of these media,” he said.
HIJACKED FOR POLITICAL INTERESTS
Suharto’s 32-year reign was a period of stability and economic growth for Indonesia. But scholars note that he first hijacked the military for his political interests and embarked on a nationwide purge of suspected communists and their sympathisers.
The death toll of the anti-communist campaign is disputed even today. Human Rights Watch’s Indonesia researcher Andreas Harsono said the numbers range between 500,000 and three million.
Bedjo is still seeking justice for victims of the purge as one of the founders of the 1965 Murder Victims Research Foundation.
“Apparently, I was arrested for being a member of the Indonesian Students’ Youth Association, which was deemed pro-PKI (Indonesian Communist Party). We became scapegoats. What happened to us didn’t make any sense,” he said.
“We became the victims of a power struggle, and we paid the price for it. We were innocent.”
RSIS visiting fellow Noor Huda Ismail said Suharto used the military’s might “for his own purposes”, for instance to annex East Timor. “No doubt he also asked the military to do things that might harm its own people,” he said.
“We (saw) a number of human rights abuses, either in Aceh, Papua, East Timor, also against the so-called ‘kelompok kanan’, the (threat from right-wing) Islamist groups.”
Suharto stepped down amid major riots in the wake of the Asian financial crisis, during which the rupiah lost much of its value against the United States dollar, unemployment rose and prices of basic goods and inflation soared.
And the public does not wish for a return to the old regime or to see the military “involved in politics again”, said Made Supriatma, a visiting fellow at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
“What people want to see is a professional military … capable of handling the security threat, especially the threat that’s coming from outside the country.”
Although the military can no longer be involved in Indonesian politics by law and is subservient to the civilian leadership, retired generals do hold political appointments.
[Also, Singapore!!! :-) ]
Former leader Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who was president from 2004 to 2014, was a general. In the current Cabinet, there is Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto and Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investment Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan.
Many political parties in Indonesia look to the military as a “source of leadership”, noted Dewi Fortuna Anwar, a research professor at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences’ Centre for Political Studies.
Former officers and generals have been tapped for their experience in management, leadership qualities and the fact that many of them “were already well known”.
“A lot of these Islamic political parties, secular political parties … courted different senior officers,” she said.
“So it’s not surprising if you look at the Cabinet of (President) Joko Widodo — maybe because he’s a civilian and feels the need to have some strong guys.”
WATCH: The full episode — Military in politics: Indonesia (48:07)
Indonesia’s military has regained its credibility, with public surveys showing it to be one of the country’s most trusted institutions, ahead of even the president.
It is one reason that retired generals can become ministers if appointed by the president, or can become the next president if elected by the people, said Coordinating Minister Luhut, 73.
He thinks Indonesia is “more mature” than it was before 1998. “The TNI understand that we should respect democracy … and protect our own democracy,” he added. “That’s the democracy that we love today.”
Watch this episode of Insight here. The programme airs on Thursdays at 9pm.
Commentary: Myanmar learnt the wrong lessons from Indonesia’s political transition
The Myanmar generals may have been inspired by Suharto’s coup to oust powerful political foes in the 1960s but should look instead at Indonesia’s democratic transition, says Dr Nehginpao Kipgen.
NEW DELHI: Before Myanmar transitioned to a quasi-civilian government in 2011, the military leadership closely studied the model of Indonesia’s democratic transition.
Indonesia had been a fellow ASEAN member state and both sides shared very similar historical experiences.
Forged in the crucible of a struggle for independence, the militaries of both countries had played a decisive role in the creation of their nation-states. They expanded their roles into state administration, civilian life and business conglomerates that provided some semblance of national stability.
Such an exercise could have bright spots. After all, Indonesia’s emergence as a modern democracy, with a flourishing civil society and a well-respected armed forces that enjoys higher levels of trust from the public than even its own president, makes it a model worthy of emulation.
The gradual reduction of its military’s role in politics and transfer of power to a civilian government, despite burgeoning racial tensions and separatist concerns, could be instructive for Myanmar.
But it seems Myanmar left out lessons from this second chapter of Indonesia’s history.
SUHARTO AS THE INSPIRATION?
Indeed, Myanmar’s coup to restore order and national unity in the country might have taken heed of Indonesia’s example.
General Suharto’s coup in the 1960s came on the back of a power struggle between opposing, antagonistic forces of the army, who had fought against the Dutch for Indonesia’s independence, and the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI), who attempted to fashion their own militia.
Indonesia, though disparate and diverse, was once united under the banner of driving out the Dutch and embraced a national ethos of Pancasilla (one under God).
The cracks in the political coalition began showing once the country gained independence. Then President Sukarno had been an influential, charismatic leader but that wasn’t enough to hold the country together.
He eventually proved too weak to keep in check these irreconcilable forces he had brought together under a system of “guided democracy” to support his rule.
The economy was in shambles, while communal strife saw an uptick. Muslims were disillusioned with the Communists overrunning the country and redistributing land away from farmers.
More importantly, a new Cabinet reshuffle threatened to throw out the military generals, including Abdul Haris Nasution, then Coordinating Minister for Defence and Security, and diminish their role in politics.
It was in this context that Suharto, commander of the Indonesian strategic reserves (KOSTRAD), acted to seize power and introduced a New Order regime.
But Suharto’s 32-year reign found popular support from Indonesians who wanted to see the country strike a different path.
He was committed to achieving political order, economic development, and mass participation in the political process through the military’s territorial command which pervaded the countryside and villages.
Suharto consolidated power through control of the armed forces, Golkar and the People’s Assembly and patronage. But this political stability led to economic development. Growth proceeded, at an average of 7 per cent a year. Schools, roads and telecommunications mushroomed.
And for decades, the Indonesian armed forces kept separatist forces on the fringes, in Aceh, West Papua and East Timor.
One can see why a coup was an attractive course of action for the Tatmadaw, facing an increasingly popular political adversary in the form of the NLD threatening to water down the military’s influence.
INDONESIA’S DEMOCRATIC TRANSITION
But while the Myanmar military might have been inspired by the embers of Indonesia’s New Order regime, they have failed to absorb the lessons of Indonesia’s democratic transition.
While Suharto’s coup might have ushered in a golden period for the young nation, he knew when to step aside after losing legitimacy. He knew he had lost political support after the 1997 Asian financial crisis unleashed massive economic disruption and racial riots.
Factions of the military no longer thought he had authority, after he failed to take decisive action and sent the Indonesian rupiah into free fall, while a pro-democracy movement gained momentum.
Most importantly, in April 1998, Suharto rejected an offer by military hardliners to declare a state of emergency, choosing instead to transfer power under the constitutional framework of the New Order regime to his vice-president BJ Habibie.
After the civilian political leaders took over, the role of the military's involvement in politics was deliberately reduced. The military was renamed the Tentera Nasional Indonesia (TNI) in October 1998 and saw its domestic internal security functions separated to form the national police force in 1999.
In 1999, the representation of the TNI in the House of Representatives (DPR) was further slashed to 38 seats, with the eventual goal of total separation. The share of TNI representation in the provincial legislatures was also reduced from 20 to 10 per cent.
Moreover, during the 1999 general election, the TNI demonstrated its neutrality by refraining from endorsing Golkar.
SO MUCH FOR MYANMAR’S DEMOCRATIC TRANSITION
In their attempt to mimic the Indonesian model of democratic transition, the Myanmar military has demonstrated an intent to transfer power but has consistently stopped short of doing so.
The military adopted the 2008 constitution, guaranteeing a transition to quasi-civilian rule and for bodies elected by Myanmar’s bicameral legislature to take over in the final stage. But this 2008 timeline was already a delay from then Prime Minister General Khin Nyunt’s announcement of a seven-step roadmap to democracy in 2003.
The military also subsequently crafted electoral laws prohibiting anyone convicted from joining a political party, requiring the National League for Democracy (NLD) to expel its leader Aung San Suu Kyi in order to participate, which forced the party and its allies to boycott the 2010 election.
Although it was a huge win for the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) supported by the military, Myanmar came under heavy criticism by the international community.
The military reluctantly reached an agreement with the NLD, allowing it to contest in the 2012 by-election, which saw Western democracies lift sanctions and establish diplomatic relations. This boosted the country’s economy and infrastructure projects, which suffered neglect in the decades before.
The military ruled the country with absolute authority for almost five decades (1962 to 2010), and another five years (2011 to 2015).
Perhaps underestimating Aung San Suu Kyi’s popularity, it thought it could win the 2020 election with help from other aligned parties or at least secure a greater margin of victory compared to the 2015 election but was proven wrong.
A coup was launched after baseless claims of electoral irregularities. Flimsy charges have been filed against Aung San Suu Kyi and her allies, while NLD leaders have had to go into hiding.
MYANMAR’S MILITARY NEVER INTENDED TO GIVE UP POWER
Despite its attempt to follow the Indonesian model, the Myanmar military did not pursue the path laid out by Indonesia's democratic transition. At the heart of it, the Tatmadaw is not ready to give up power.
It’s not hard to see why. Last year, the NLD introduced a legislation proposing a gradual reduction of the military’s share of seats in the national parliament, state legislature and regional legislature from the present 25 per cent to 15 per cent after the 2020 election, 10 per cent after 2025, and 5 per cent after 2030.
The NLD also proposed lowering the requirement for constitutional amendments to have more than 75 per cent of parliamentary votes to “two-thirds of elected representatives” which excludes military appointees.
The military rejected these proposals, justifying its response on the basis that the country faced threats to its national sovereignty, the rule of law and stability.
After the NLD’s landslide victory in the November 2020 polls, the military also perhaps harbours fears of repercussions for human rights violations and the Rohingya crisis once more power is handed over to the NLD.
Then again, it might truly think it is the only national institution that can hold the country together.
Whatever it is, it looks like this stop-go relationship with democratic transition in Myanmar may be the country’s reality for a while.
Dr Nehginpao Kipgen is a Political Scientist, Associate Professor and Executive Director at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University. He is the author of three books on Myanmar, including Democratization Of Myanmar.