In Foreign Policy‘s Shadow Government, Dan Twining compares recent positive developments in Indonesia with negative developments in Burma.
Indonesia’s political revolution was also spurred by a regional wave of democratization that spread from the Philippines in 1986 to South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Mongolia, and beyond over the following decade. After free parliamentary elections, Indonesia held its first direct elections for president in 2004, followed by those which have just given President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono a decisive mandate for a second term.
The popular and performance legitimacy required by a system of democratic accountability has led SBY, as he is popularly known, to aspire to lead Indonesia to new heights. With the country’s respected former central bank governor as his new vice president, the leadership team has set a target of matching China’s economic growth rate and attacking entrenched corruption, a corrosive legacy of Suharto‘s clientelistic rule. Democratic Indonesia is finally beginning to punch its weight geopolitically: international newspaper headlines celebrate “Indonesia Rising” and suggest Indonesia as “Another ‘I’ in the BRIC Story.” The U.S. National Intelligence Council predicts that Indonesia will have an economy larger than those of most European nations by the 2020s. Leading Indonesian public intellectuals like Rizal Sukma ambitiously propose “a post-ASEAN foreign policy” of “strategic partnerships with global powers” grounded in Indonesia’s values as a democracy. Yudhoyono speaks proudly of Indonesia’s democracy as a source of soft power in the world and wants to leverage it to expand respect for human dignity and government accountability as sources of regional security, including through new institutions like the Bali Democracy Forum.
Burma is a different story. Its widespread poverty and brutal autocracy are a cancer in the heart of ASEAN, the club led by Asia’s “tiger” economies that inducted Burma in 1997 in the hope that doing so would spur the kind of opening of Burma’s economic and political system that has transformed the fortunes of its neighbors. It hasn’t. Leaders in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and elsewhere are embarrassed by the Burmese junta’s misrule and have been increasingly outspoken in saying so — including during the debate over ASEAN’s new charter, which creates a regional human rights body and is grounded in a framework of political and economic modernity that is anathema to the generals in Naypyidaw (Burma’s new capital, built deep in the jungle and featuring plush underground bunkers for the country’s paranoid leadership).
Since the junta rejected the results of the country’s last elections in 1990, Burma’s people have grown poorer as its ruling elite have grown richer from trade in gems, timber, narcotics, and other commodities, as well as the development of offshore natural gas fields that will deliver billions of dollars in revenues to Burma’s governing elite over the coming decade. Civil conflict stemming from the junta’s rule has produced millions of internally displaced people and refugees. Forced and child labor are rampant. The regime’s security forces fired on peacefully demonstrating monks and rounded up large numbers of innocent civilians following non-violent protests in 2007. The country’s political opposition has been eviscerated. The junta may be cooperating with North Korea to develop nuclear weapons.
In short, the pathologies that afflict Burma’s failing state, all either derived or exacerbated by political misrule, make its regime a threat to its people, its neighbors, and the wider world. Burma’s descent is in many respects a mirror-image of the success of Indonesia’s vibrant democracy next door.