JAKARTA — A cursory glance at the political trajectories of Burma and Indonesia might tempt a casual observer to draw parallels: once ruled by top-down authoritarian dictatorships, both Southeast Asian nations now appear committed to democratic systems of governance.
However, a closer look reveals notable differences. Despite the two multiethnic countries’ similar histories, their approaches to political reform—and the traction that democracy has gained in each—are not presently on par, observers and analysts in both countries have told The Irrawaddy.
While the role of the military as an institution in Indonesia has been in steady decline since the collapse of the dictator Suharto’s rule, the Naypyidaw government has made clear that Burma’s military won’t shy away from politics any time soon. In ways big and small, a comparison of the two countries makes clear that while Indonesia can be regarded as a largely successful transition from dictatorship to democracy, Burma’s current reform process and future political fate remain very much up in the air.
Significantly, military officials, soldiers and police officers in Indonesia are barred from voting—a measure of how wary the world’s third-largest democracy is of direct military influence on governance today. Conversely, the guarantee of 25 percent of seats in Parliament for unelected military appointees is an equally clear testament to how the military in Burma remains a privileged and potent political force.
What’s more, Burma’s ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which dominates the national Parliament, is the political reincarnation of Burma’s former junta, maintaining military backing to this day. And Burma’s president? Thein Sein, an ex-general who formerly chaired the party. His replacement as party leader? Shwe Mann, also a former senior general.
In another comparison of how much political power the two countries have granted their people, Indonesia’s president is directly elected by the voting public, whereas members of Parliament choose the head of state in Burma.
There is no state-run media in Indonesia tasked with disseminating propaganda or undertaking public relations campaigns on the government’s behalf. In Burma, consumers of media are treated to government mouthpieces like The New Light of Myanmar and The Mirror daily newspapers, broadcaster MRTV-4 and state-run radio, all of which offer news with a pro-government agenda.
Indonesia’s Ministry of Communications and Information Technology has no mandate to influence the country’s media environment, while Burma’s Ministry of Information closely monitors the press. The latter sometimes takes action—directly or indirectly—against those who report on sensitive issues such as military affairs, often labeled “official secrets” that subject those who write about them to harsh criminal prosecution.
There are also elements within the social media sphere that some suspect of acting in support of Burmese government aims.
Nay Phone Latt, a prominent Burmese blogger, puts the blame in part on a group of people with “fake” Facebook accounts who attempt to discredit some media outlets and launch pro-government campaigns online.
“We can see some of the Facebook users, most of them are fake accounts, but we can’t say that they are related to the government ministries. But, we can say that there is a big group who intentionally are undertaking assignments and publishing [pro-government postings]. They have big financial support. When they post something on Facebook, they get so many ‘Likes’ and ‘Shares’ within one or two minutes,” Nay Phone Latt said.
Indonesia ended 32 years of authoritarian rule in 1998 by driving out President Suharto, an ouster following widespread protests that were themselves prompted by the country’s economic tailspin in the wake of the 1997 Asian financial crisis. The country has undergone democratic reform over the last 15 years, but challenges remain, including tackling rampant corruption, strengthening the country’s bureaucratic institutions, and ensuring judicial independence.
Despite these challenges—or, because of them—mechanisms and institutions have grown up to address the problem areas. Perhaps most notably, Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission, more commonly known by its Indonesian acronym KPK, has established a reputation as a formidable scourge of graft.
Adnan Pandu Praja, vice chairman of the Jakarta-based KPK, said that “40 percent of the national budget is corrupted. Corruption is like a part of our culture in the country. It is normal to pay bribe to government officials. Fifty percent of the population says paying bribes is normal,” Praja said.
The KPK includes police officers, auditors, lawyers and prosecutors, and it has a mandate to take action against corrupt individuals. The commission has the power to handle corruption cases from start to finish, from arrests and investigations to prosecution of the accused.
“We are given power to combat corruption. … 396 cases were handled by the KPK since 2003 and we haven’t lost a single case,” said Praja, referring to the commission’s 100 percent conviction rate in graft cases it has brought to court.
Burma’s KPK equivalent was written into an anti-corruption law passed last year, but the body has yet to make much of a splash in rooting out graft in the country, ranked 157 out of 177 nations in Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index.
Sidney Jones, director of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, notes both similarities and divergence between the two Southeast Asian countries.
“I’m not sure whether they [the Burmese government] are copying Indonesia as a role model. But some say that the USDP is basically [based on] the idea of the Golkar party,” said Jones, referring to the Indonesian political party also known as the Partai Golongan Karya, the former political vehicle of the deposed Suharto.
However, “It is clear,” she added, “that the military has gotten out of politics in Indonesia. The military wants to be loved by the people, and they were fine to relinquish the power [in 1998].”
The USDP is made up of former generals and government officials from the ex-military regime. It became the ruling party after claiming a landslide victory in 2010 general elections that were widely regarded as flawed.
Indonesia is preparing to hold its fourth presidential election since Suharto’s fall, with more than 180 million voters in Indonesia eligible to elect a new president in July.
Though one likely contender for the Indonesian presidency is a former military general, the odds on favorite to win is Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, a man with no discernable ties to the military whose everyman image has won widespread public support.
Next year, Burma will hold another general election presided over by Tin Aye—also a former general who now chairs the country’s Union Election Commission. Tin Aye has made clear that the involvement of the army in Burmese politics will continue.
“The military MPs make up 25 percent of Parliament,” he said in early April. “To be clear, we have them because we don’t want a coup. The military is in Parliament not because of power, but for negotiation,” Tin Aye said.
He added that the military would leave politics “only when democratic standards are high in the country”—a bar that, if the chairman is to be believed, Indonesians appear to have cleared but Burma has yet to achieve.
The Irrawaddy reporter Saw Yan Naing is a fellow of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), and this article is published under a SEAPA-sponsored program covering the 2014 Indonesian elections.