October 10, 2022
JAKARTA – As Indonesia prepares to take over ASEAN’s chairmanship, it finds itself at a historical crossroads. In Myanmar’s struggle to becoming an inclusive democracy at peace governed by the rule of law, Indonesia and fellow ASEAN partners have a choice: stand with the people and their legitimate representatives and support their attempt to rebuild their country as a genuine democracy; or giving in to the military’s illegitimate and increasingly fragile quest for domination, enforced by sheer brutality and ruthless violence, that has newly displaced a million people since the coup and killed thousands of democracy defenders and innocent civilians.
The defiant execution of four democracy activists earlier this year and the recent bombing-massacre of an elementary school in Sagaing region are just two examples that stood out to make it into international news, but are only symptomatic, for a campaign since the military grabbed power on Feb. 1, 2021.
Sometimes, even illegal coups succeed, when they quickly establish a new status quo and are accepted by most members of the United Nations, in the face of popular acquiescence. But not in Myanmar, where hundreds of thousands of civil servants have gone on strike and refused instructions from military self-appointed masters, and where millions have joined street protests, raise funds to support the representative interim institutions or have joined active resistance and self-defense groups.
The military’s coup was not only a breach of the 2008 Constitution, which it had itself imposed at the end of a lengthy era of arbitrary and autocratic rule, but it also blew off the veneer of legitimacy the basic law had gained over a decade of opening. Now the 2008 Constitution, which reserved a special privileges status to the military and enshrined its veto power, is legally and politically dead.
The military cannot claim to have established effective control. The Special Advisory Council on Myanmar, a group of human rights experts including Indonesian lawyer-cum-politician Marzuki Darusman, recently concluded that the military can only exercise stable control over some 17 percent of the territory, with the rest contested among various armed groups and liberated areas under the National Unity Government (NUG).
Meanwhile, the MPs duly elected in November 2020 have joined forces with other parties, civil society and protest groups, as well as ethnic armed resistance organizations to form interim institutions, including an interim parliament and the NUG.
The NUG, which works mostly online at the ministerial level, but also administers some of the liberated territories in parts of Myanmar, is the most inclusive and diverse government Myanmar ever had. It draws from a variety of professional and political backgrounds, as well as civil society. The focus of the NUG is to deny legitimacy to the military usurpers, to provide basic services wherever it can (e.g. through a growing country-wide underground education system) and to lay out the path toward a new constitution.
The Federal Democracy Charter, adopted by a diverse and inclusive online People’s Assembly in January 2022, provides a blueprint for a new legal order. It would be based on a very decentralized form of federalism, genuine and full democracy with civilian control over armed forces, and a strong commitment to human rights, inclusion and non-discrimination. An inclusive Constituent Assembly representative of all groups is to take on this task as soon as the military hands back power.
For the Rohingya community and the often marginalized Muslim minority in Myanmar, the prospect of building such an inclusive new order is the best chance in generations. Certainly, under military rule, which relies on continued genocidal denial of identity and stoking tensions among faiths, no such opportunity will arise.
The NUG has publicly recognized the Rohingya’s plight, accepted the International Criminal Court’s jurisdiction for international crimes and has promised full reintegration and dignified return from the squalid camps in Bangladesh’s border region. For anyone supporting the Rohingya’s search for justice, helping democracy to prevail in Myanmar is a must.
Accepting the military’s narrative and playing along with the PR-exercise of a sham-election in 2023 would be a blatant betrayal of the people of Myanmar and could deal a deadly blow to the credibility of the ASEAN Charter’s commitment to the rule of law and constitutionalism and its claims to be a “rules-based, people-oriented, people-centered community where people enjoy human rights and fundamental freedoms”, as laid out in its ASEAN Community Vision 2025.
The military chiefs have repeatedly made clear, by their statements and actions, that they do not consider themselves bound by the elusive “five-point consensus” issued by an “ASEAN leaders meeting” in Jakarta last year. The content of the formula – meaningful dialogue toward a swift return to democracy – would be acceptable enough, if only the military fulfilled its homework and complied. It has consistently done the opposite and has slapped Aung San Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy party won 80 percent of the elected seats in the 2020 election, with 12 “court” sentences banishing the 78-year-old to 23 years in prison. It should not be rewarded for that.
Indonesia’s long-standing commitment to non-interference and ASEAN centrality can be strong assets and effective tools in resolving the Myanmar crisis. But passive neutrality in the face of gross injustice is as much as taking sides with the oppressor and converging towards the lowest common denominator in ASEAN does not do justice to the association’s stated principles.
Indonesia should team up with like-minded partners and take the lead in making it clear to the junta in Naypyitaw that it has no future and support the Myanmar people’s agenda of genuine democracy and inclusive peace. The people of Myanmar look up to ASEAN under Indonesia’s leadership but understand this is the last chance to salvage Myanmar’s implosion and disintegration, with far-reaching consequences beyond its borders.
The writer is head of mission of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) in Myanmar. Indonesia joined IDEA in 2013.