Obama Likely to Lean on Indonesia for Burma Help

Published on March 27, 2009

By Nehginpao Kipgen


The Irrawaddy – March 27, 2009


In less than 100 days in the White House, President Barack Obama’s foreign policies have either been spelled out or are under review. The administration is reviewing its Burma policy, looking at ways to engage the Burmese military junta.


Reaching out to Indonesia is one option that Washington is likely to consider. Indonesia is the only Southeast Asian country that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited during her first overseas trip in February.


During their telephone conversation on March 13, President Obama and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono discussed how to make progress on democracy and human rights in Burma. The conversation took place just a few days before the Burmese Prime Minister Thein Sein’s maiden visit to Jakarta since taking office in 2007.


Some good reasons why Obama is likely to lean toward Indonesia are: first, Indonesia is a country that has transitioned from military rule to democracy; second, Indonesia is the largest country in Southeast Asia and an influential member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, where Burma is also a member; third, by working together with the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation, Obama wants to send a message to the Muslim world that America is not its enemy; fourth, Obama has a personal connection to Indonesia, where he lived for four years.


The Obama administration’s possible policy shift on Burma was evidenced by a comment Hillary Clinton made in Jakarta: “Clearly, the path we have taken in imposing sanctions hasn’t influenced the Burmese junta.”


Washington is likely to ask Jakarta to either mediate talks between the military junta and the opposition, or Washington may engage the military junta through Jakarta. This initiative could end up with Indonesia playing a pivotal role in a “six-party talks” model that was used in the North-Korean nuclear program negotiations.


Like Burma, Indonesia was under military rule for more than three decades (1967 to 1998) under the then President Suharto. With its own experiences of a successful transition to democracy, Jakarta is studying the possibility of a dual-function government in which Burmese military officers and civilians are each given roles in the transition from dictatorship to democracy.


The Indonesian model of democratic transition is something the Burmese military junta has considered for quite sometime. In an interview with the Singapore Straits Times newspaper in 2008, the United Nations special envoy to Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, said, “I can reveal to you that the junta has been looking for a model closer to Indonesia where there was a transition from military to civilian rule and ultimately to democracy.”


Meanwhile, the leaders of the State Peace and Development Council are anticipating a conciliatory tone from Washington. It, indeed, surprised many observers when junta chief Than Shwe sent a congratulatory message to Barack Obama on his election and inauguration, which many did not expect.


For more than two decades, the American government has punished the Burmese military junta through economic sanctions, primarily for its human rights violations and for not honoring the mandate of the 1990 general elections, in which Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party won in a landslide, only to be ignored by the military who refused to honor the election results.


During their meeting on March 16, President Yudhoyono and Burmese Prime Minister Thein Sein discussed a number of issues, including Rohingya refugees and the planned 2010 election in Burma.


“The president emphasized the importance of a credible, transparent, fair and inclusive election process. He also said Myanmar should not just conduct elections, but most importantly quality elections,” said Indonesian presidential spokesman Dino Patti Djalal.


The irony, however, is that even if there is a “transparent and fair” election as suggested by President Yudhoyono, there is already a flaw in the constitution itself. For example, 25 percent of the seats in both houses of the parliament are reserved for the military and any amendment to the constitution would require more than 75 percent votes. This means that no amendment will happen without the support of the military.


If the military goes ahead with its roadmap without reviewing the constitution, the country will head for another stage of internal problems with lingering dissenting views. Any attempt to find a long-term solution to the ethno-political problems must include the participation of different ethnic nationalities.


The Obama administration should not consider lifting economic sanctions immediately before seeing any tangible progress on the ground. Benchmarks, including the release of political prisoners and making the democratization process inclusive, should be set for lifting sanctions.


“Carrot and stick” diplomacy is necessary; neither one by itself is going to be pragmatic enough.


Obama and Yudhoyono are expected to hold further discussion at the G-20 summit in London on April 2, after which Obama will address the Muslim world from the Turkish parliament on April 6, which he pledged to do in his first hundred days in office.


Interestingly, Obama’s family has a connection to Burma – President Obama’s paternal grandfather, Hussein onyango Obama, served with the British army in Burma during World War II. We will have to wait and see if this connection matters to President Obama in his effort to help establish a genuine democratic society in the Union of Burma.


Nehginpao Kipgen is general secretary of the U.S.-based Kuki International Forum (www.kukiforum.com) and a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Burma (1947-2004). He has written numerous analytical articles on the politics of Asia published in different leading international newspapers.