Indonesia’s Special Relationship with Burma Faces Testing Times
BANGKOK — They are both former military officers and now presidents of their respective countries. One of them, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, was labeled “the thinking general” at home, and the other, Burma’s President Thein Sein, has been dubbed “the reformist.”
But that is not all that will make a meeting of this unique pair in Southeast Asian politics a moment to watch. There is more at stake: the special relationship that binds the two countries. In the spotlight when Yudhoyono arrives in Burma later this month will be the direction the region’s largest, most vibrant democracy is taking to assist the Thein Sein administration’s edge down the road of political reform.
After all, it is Jakarta’s unique ties with Naypidaw that enabled Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa to become the highest-ranking international visitor to travel to the troubled Arakan State early this year. The two-day visit in January offered Marty a direct glimpse of communities and areas hit by last year’s sectarian violence, leaving the Rohingya Muslim minority as the worst affected.
It was this relationship, furthermore, that opened the door for former Indonesian vice president Jusuf Kalla, in his capacity as the head of the Indonesian Red Cross, to head a relief effort for the Rohingya Muslims last August.
“The Myanmar president asked us to see personally what happened there,” Kalla said of his visit, made in the wake of the first eruption of anti-Rohingya violence. “We are one of the first groups being allowed to enter there.”
In-between these two visits was the exchange Yudhoyono and Thein Sein had on the sidelines of the Asean summit in Phnom Penh last November. By then, the violence in Arakan State offered a grim backdrop, with nearly 200 people killed and over 125,000 people displaced after the Buddhist majority from Arakan State targeted the minority Muslims in two bloody clashes in June and October.
But that is not the only troubling reality the head of the most populous Muslim country in the world faces as he reaches out to help an old regional ally. A new orgy of violence led by Buddhist monks targeting Muslim minorities in central Myanmar since late March has raised the political stakes for Yudhoyono. More than 40 people have been killed and more than 10,000 people displaced in garrison towns such as Meikhtila. Jakarta has already expressed concern about the anti-Muslim rage spreading across predominantly Buddhist Myanmar.
Yet the Yudhoyono administration has placed its faith in quiet diplomacy. It has eschewed the strong statements expressed by the Organization of Islamic of Cooperation (OIC), the Jeddah-based body of 57 Muslim countries, of which Indonesia is a political heavyweight.
“The OIC statements on Myanmar have been very harsh. Indonesia has opted to engage with Myanmar rather than isolating it,” according to a foreign ministry official from Jakarta, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Indonesia has decided to take the lead to help Myanmar through a collaborative effort the way it is done in Asean.”
“Jakarta is sensitive to the messages it has received from Myanmar over the years,” the official told The Irrawaddy. “They [Burmese government officials] are at ease with a government that has ‘military thinking’ and has military issues to resolve in politics.”
The edge Indonesia enjoys over its other Southeast Asian neighbors on this front is obvious. After all, it came out of after a 30-year military dictatorship in the 1990s the way Burma is now doing after 50 years of military oppression.
Jakarta’s approach is in tune with a diplomatic beat it has struck with Myanmar spanning decades. The past 10 years, in fact, has seen significant attempts by Indonesian governments to push Burma’s former military junta down the road to reform.
In September 2007, following the brutal military crackdown of anti-government protests led by Buddhist monks, Yudhoyono sent a respected retired general, Agus Widjojo, to Burma to convince the then junta leader, Snr Gen Than Shwe, to embrace political reform. The close military friend of Yudhoyono flew into Burma under the pretext of attending the funeral of former prime minister Soe Win, a military man with a bloody past.
And before Widjojo, known as a reformist general who helped push the country’s strongman Gen Suharto to retirement, another Indonesian figure with reformist credentials, former foreign minister Ali Alatas, had made inroads into Burma. He did so after being appointed as the United Nations special envoy to Burma in 2003.
“Indonesian efforts to encourage Myanmar to open up during military rule and to help them with reforms since are rooted in a relationship that we do not have with any other country in Southeast Asia,” says Endy Bayuni, former editor-in-chief of The Jakarta Post, an English-language daily in Indonesia. “It goes back to the post-independence history of both countries.”
“Indonesia’s freedom fighters who were looking for international support always flew to Burma as their first stop,” Bayuni noted of a period after 1948, when Indonesia gained freedom from Dutch colonization and Burma from the British. “The connections and the ties made the relationship between the two countries special.”
And if Jakarta’s Buma foreign policy is rooted in such bonds, Indonesia’s history during the Suharto dictatorship drew Burma’s leaders to Indonesian shores. A December 1993 visit by a Burma delegation, led by the then spy chief Lt Gen Khin Nyunt, was typical. The visitors had come to study the role of the Indonesian army performing its dual function—defense and politics—under Suharto’s New Order model.
“Indonesia is best placed to guide Myanmar during these uncertain and difficult times,” remarked a senior Southeast Asian diplomat. “It goes beyond offering advice for the anti-Muslim troubles. There is also Myanmar becoming chair of Asean in 2014, and Indonesia, with Marty, is taking on a bigger regional responsibility.”