In March, six weeks after the military in Myanmar staged its shocking coup, Indonesia’s military commander offered to share with it Jakarta’s “experience in building professional armed forces in the context of a democracy.”
Air Chief Marshal Adi Tjahjanto’s well-intentioned offer was ignored. Myanmar’s military, which decades ago sent officers to learn from Indonesia, doesn’t want lessons on coping with the transition from an authoritarian country to a democratic one. The Indonesian military, after Suharto’s dramatic fall in 1998, did what Myanmar’s Tatmadaw needs to do (but won’t): relinquish an overt role in politics.
After the February 1 coup that crushed Myanmar’s fledgling democracy, the junta has turned away from Indonesia and instead looked to Thailand as a potential model. Ten days after the coup, its leader Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing asked for help to “support democracy” from general-turned-Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who in 2014 staged a coup that overthrew a democratically-elected Thai premier. After the Thai coup, Prayut entrenched himself in power via a re-tooled political system that let him fend off calls to quit and which made Thailand into what scholar Paul Chambers calls a “pseudo-democracy.”
Tellingly, Thailand hasn’t criticized the coup, calling it Myanmar’s internal affair, but Indonesia has firmly criticized it and the brutal killings by Tatmadaw, as Myanmar’s military is known, and called for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. And the Indonesians, unlike the Thais, didn’t join Myanmar Armed Forces Day ceremonies in Naypyidaw on March 27 – a day on which more than 100 unarmed civilians were shot dead.
In Indonesia, the military had to accept and respond to a loss of popularity when Suharto, the retired general for whom it was a pillar of support for 32 years, lost power. In Myanmar, where the Tatmadaw said that the thrashing of its proxy party at elections in November of last year was due to fraud not public rejection, there was no such catalyst to induce a change away from entrenched thinking.
“The Tatmadaw still holds the perception that only it can hold the country together,” said retired Lieut. Gen. Agus Widjojo, a key figure behind major reforms in Indonesia’s military after Suharto’s fall. Myanmar’s army, he opines, is basically “where Indonesia was in the 1980s.”
With that time warp, there was no chance Myanmar could learn from the fall of Suharto, who lost popularity quickly amid suffering rooted in the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis and the May 1998 Jakarta riots in which hundreds died.
The Indonesian army’s post-Suharto reforms “give Myanmar a lot of useful models, but they are only interested in the pre-1998 model,” said Leonard Sebastian, coordinator of the Indonesia program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore.
A brief look at some aspects of the history of the Indonesian and Myanmar armies, and the path the countries took in past decades shows why at one time the Tatmadaw was interested to learn from Jakarta, but after Indonesia moved decisively away from authoritarianism, dropped it as a mentor.
Historically, there are some significant similarities between the Myanmar and Indonesian armies. Both fought wars of independence, ousting colonial masters and in the process gaining nation-creating credentials. These successes laid the foundation for both militaries to play big roles in their respective countries’ politics. Both also held significant business interests, ostensibly to help cover shortfalls from tight state budgets. (The Tatmadaw, whose business activities are bigger, in particular benefits from lucrative jade auctions.) Both have faced accusations of major human rights abuses. Each country has been led, for the bulk of the time since independence was declared – 1945 in Indonesia, 1948 in Myanmar – by the military.
In other ways, the course of the two countries was very different, given the different economic paths that two powerful generals – Suharto in Indonesia and Ne Win in Burma (as it was called until 1989) – pursued.
Suharto brought in – and kept around for decades – a group of capable technocrats called the “Berkeley Mafia,” since most had PhDs from the University of California. They opened the country to needed foreign and private domestic investment, and got Suharto to deregulate significant parts of the tangled economy. Over the years, growth averaged above 6 percent.
Ne Win isolated his country from the world and declared the “Burmese way to socialism,” a calamity that caused the resource-rich country to fall into inexcusable poverty. In 2010, after Aung San Suu Kyi was released from her long house arrest, the military allowed some opening of the economy to draw in foreign investment. The opening began to raise living standards. However, in 2020, COVID-19 battered the economy, and the February coup has produced an economic disaster. Fitch Solutions on April 8 forecast Myanmar’s economy would contract 20 percent this year – and said it could get worse.
Suharto, who ruthlessly suppressed staunch opponents, built a system of governing that included parliamentary elections every five years. The system produced stability that investors liked, and kept him and Indonesia’s military on top. In the early 1990s, Myanmar sent officers and officials to Indonesia to learn about Suharto’s system. This was in the wake of massive 1988 anti-government protests in which thousands of young people were killed, and a 1990 election victory for Aung San Suu Kyi that the regime refused to recognize.
One central feature of Suharto’s Indonesia was that the armed forces had given itself a dual function (dwi fungsi), to be a “socio-political” force and not just a defense one. The doctrine meant it was active in politics and many other endeavors. To show that soldiers were supposedly neutral, they weren’t allowed to vote in parliamentary elections. Instead, the armed forces were given 100, or 20 percent, of the body’s 500 seats.
It took many years to implement, but eventually Myanmar followed Indonesia in giving a block of parliamentary seats to the military. The 2008 constitution, which gave the Tatmadaw a bloc equivalent to the Indonesian military under dwi fungsi: 25 percent, enough to block any proposed amendment to the charter. Ironically, this arrangement came about five years after Indonesia, as part of major post-Suharto political reforms, scrapped the policy.
Also scrapped in the post-Suharto era – by the military itself – was dwi fungsi, in 1999. This was welcomed by many as promoting the development of a professional military not directly involved in politics. Ironically, during the current second term of President Joko Widodo, who has no background in the military, the influence of the military seems to have increased, and retired generals got key cabinet posts and other positions. Not surprisingly, given its nationwide reach, the military has helped with logistics for COVID-19 vaccinations.
Another central feature of politics in Suharto’s time was that parliamentary elections were always won handily (with around 70 percent of the vote) by Golkar, an election-time vehicle that basically ensured that all civil servants – and Indonesia had millions of them – voted for it, as did members of various organizations with some links to the government. After wresting power away from founding president Sukarno in 1966, Suharto rebuilt the political system to ban the Communist and other parties, allowing only two besides Golkar to contest polls. All three contestants had to pledge to follow the same national ideology, known as pancasila, or five principles. The elections – which Suharto always billed “a festival of democracy” – were no such thing.
In Myanmar, the Tatmadaw had a vehicle it wanted to be its election-time machine like Golkar, called the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). But that vehicle, involving army retirees, sputtered at best, aside from winning a 2010 election simply because Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy boycotted it. When the USDP faced the NLD at elections in 2015 and 2020, it got crushed, thanks to Aung San Suu Kyi’s continuing popularity.
The Tatmadaw “thought USDP could be something like Golkar, but never learned to build it up,” said Evan Laksmana, a senior researcher at Jakarta’s Center for Strategic and International Studies.
In his view, Myanmar made a “bad carbon copy” of the Indonesian election model, and used a first-past-the-post system for determining winners, instead of proportional representation, as Indonesia uses. The former is “awful, especially for authoritarians,” Laksmana said.
For Indonesia, scrapping the military’s parliamentary seat allotment was just one part of the dramatic political changes brought in during the “Reformasi” era that followed Suharto’s fall. The conditions for real reform were there, as the army was on the back foot and President B.J. Habibie, a civilian who wanted to set himself apart from his patron Suharto, moved boldly. Political prisoners were freed, an East Timor referendum (a calamity for Jakarta) was set and, later, the constitution was amended so Indonesians could vote directly for their president (who could serve no more than two five-year terms). The first direct election was in 2004, only six years after Suharto’s exit, and the winner was a retired general, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
During Yudhoyono’s presidency, Indonesians were still meeting with Myanmar officials to talk about Jakarta’s new ways and encourage democratization. “We tried to share our lessons… (but) the Tatmadaw wanted an image of transitioning while also wanting to keep control,” Laksmana said. “There’s no pro-reform wing in Tatmadaw.”
Widjojo, the retired Indonesian three-star general, asserts that Myanmar lacked two things that helped Indonesia in its post-Suharto reform process and other times.
The first is pancasila, the five-point national ideology laid out by Sukarno in 1945. One point is democracy and another is belief in one god (citizens are supposed to have a religion, but there’s no official religion). In Widjojo’s view, Myanmar “didn’t have a philosophy that unites the country.”
The second is steady contact with the world. Sukarno in 1965 suspended Indonesian participation in the United Nations, angry that Malaysia was elected to the Security Council, but Suharto in 1966 stopped that, and Indonesia during his tenure had a sizable number of students and military officers – including Widjojo – go to the U.S. and elsewhere for study. And virtually all the Indonesians returned home after completing programs, bringing back their expanded knowledge and a broader worldview, rather than staying abroad.
“One cannot advance if they don’t have any comparison… they think what they have is already the best,” said Widjojo, noting that Myanmar “was a closed society continuously for some years.”
At times, depending on the state of relations, Myanmar sent military officers to the U.S. But according to a military analyst, they generally shunned interaction with American officers, after warnings that “spies” wanted to learn Myanmar’s secrets. He also said that in Myanmar, the only media channels allowed in barracks were state propaganda; there was a ban on the BBC or other foreign broadcasters.
Since its coup on February 1, the Tatmadaw has been rejected by swaths of the Myanmar public, especially the tech-savvy young who have no trust in it, nor any promise of fair elections and democracy.
“It is not easy in a democratic transition to arrive at the correct form for building trust between civilians and the military,” said Widjojo. “And in Myanmar, there’s no trust at all.”