Burma's new leader could emulate B J Habibie

Comparisons are often made between Indonesia and Burma; two Southeast Asian nations where the militarisation of politics, democracy struggles, their achievements and transitional phases, have defined their people’s recent histories.

Burma’s former military regime; the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), was renamed from State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) in 1997 and is said to have copied Soeharto’s New Order regime that guaranteed the dual role of the army in politics and security affairs.

SLORC initiated the writing of a constitution in January 1993 that was completed by the SPDC in May 2008 with a sham referendum in the wake of cyclone Nargis. It has become known as the 2008 constitution and can be seen to reflect Soeharto and his New Order regime.

The Burmese version of the Soeharto-era Golkar Party, the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), was first created a few months after the constitution drafting process started in 1993. The USDA was renamed the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) in mid-2010, months before the general election in November of the same year, conducted with under the 2008 constitution and according to many; a healthy dose of cheating. General Thein Sein, Prime Minister of the SPDC was a candidate for the USDP and has now been elected to the presidency.

While many are very critical about the 2008 constitution, the 2010 election and its outcomes, including the government of President Thein Sein, some argue that these are inevitable steps in a gradual democratic transition.

Despite many critics lacking faith in President Thein Sein’s ability to initiate democratic transition the developments witnessed lately on his initiative have raised eye brows. These initiatives include formal talks between Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and government ministers; changes in the attitude of government towards the media that include the first ever lively and fairly transparent government press conference in Naypyidaw; public announcement in the newspapers offering armed ethnic groups peace talks, even if it was met with skepticism.

Whilst the historic meeting between the president and the ever iconic Suu Kyi at which both parties express satisfaction could not help but cast a warm PR glow onto the news pages. Lastly but by no means least, the visit of Tomas Ojea Quintana, the UN special rapporteur on human rights on Burma and his meetings with high-ranking government officials and Suu Kyi; he had previously been barred for his frank call for the creation of a Commission of Inquiry for the serious human rights violations in Burma.

Furthermore, the president in his speech to the parliament on Aug. 22 vowed that his government will reach out to the opposition. After all even Suu Kyi’s political tour to Pegu, a town north of Rangoon, was escorted by
government security forces instead of being attacked by them, as was the case in 2003.

Whilst these developments are received cautiously by many observers, it seems unlikely that the president is doing all this just for PR. One hopes it is too much for any PR work. Many people, including Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) view them as positive developments that could be the beginning of long-awaited transition.

These developments once again remind one that major transition took place in Indonesia under president Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie. Once seen as Soeharto’s subordinate and merely an engineer rather than a decisive politician, Habibie surprised the world by introducing aggressive initiatives that made a dramatic transition to democracy possible.

The initiatives included, but were not limited too, Timor Leste’s referendum on independence; introduction of three new political laws — Law on Political Party (Law No.2/1999), Law on General Election (Law No.3/1999) and Law on the Structure and Position of MPR/DPR, or Parliament (Law No.4/1999) — which collectively pave the way for the 1999 democratic general election, the first since 1955.

The successful holding of a free and fair general election and the transfer of power to democratically elected leaders in 1999 was a clear indicator that the most important steps of democratic transition in Indonesia occurred during the presidency of Habibie in less than two years between 1998-1999.

U Thein Sein became president via a controversial election, while Habibie was sworn in by his mentor, Soeharto, in May 1998. But both are considered the nominees or heirs of outgoing strongmen.

It is natural then, that one of the major tasks of the successor is to safeguard the legacy and ill gotten gains of their mentor. Habibie, however, strikingly had the courage to diverge from his mentor. An investigation into alleged corruption by Soeharto was initiated in late 1998, and it later put Soeharto on trial. If Habibie was being controlled by Soeharto during the critical period of 1998-1999, then Indonesia’s transition would have been a very different story.

Despite such a record as a transitional leader, Habibie himself failed to stay in power. Some still saw him as being too close to their bitter memory of the western backed dictator Soeharto.

People perceived Habibie’s initiatives for transition emanating not from a sincere conviction, rather because of pressures from the activists and public. In addition, a majority of lawmakers lost confidence in him largely because of his policy on Timor Leste.

But Habibie, to his credit never tried to extend his grip on power beyond his mandate.

One of the most important factors contributing to the success of transition under the presidency of Habibie was the divergence of the Indonesian Military (TNI) from the Soeharto family and politics. The TNI itself went trough a reform program that greatly benefitted the orderly transition in Indonesia.

Lately, it has not escaped conjecture to wonder if President Thein Sein could be Burma’s Mikhail Gorbachev. The Soviet leader who introduced Glasnost (openness) and Perestroika (restructuring) in the late 1980s. President Thein Sein’s initiatives mentioned above may be considered the beginning of Glasnost despite the fact that initiatives that could be considered Perestroika are yet to come.

President Thein Sein, is widely believed to be one of the more humble and clean from the previous regime and the current government. But despite that was still heavily influenced by his mentor, Senior General Than Shwe, the word yes man has been used to describe mentor and protege.

But President Thein Sein could also be compared to president Habibie as the two countries have been compared for sometime.

If President Thein Sein is to be Burma’s B.J. Habibie for introducing initiatives to pave the way for a democratic transition, two additional, but very important, conditions should be met to make a Burma transition successful.

First, President Thein Sein must have the courage to walk his own walk and diverge from his mentor Senior General Than Shwe. Second Burma’s army; the Tattmadaw, must learn lessons from the TNI on how to contribute and cope with democratic transition.

The writer is deputy executive director of the Democratic Voice of Burma, this article first appeared in the Jakarta Post

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