Echoes of Indonesia in Myanmar transition

RAKHINE STATE – The brutal images and survivor accounts show a dreadful synchronicity. Once again families huddle around what possessions they salvaged from their homes before they were torched. Children scamper between rows of hangdog wood and bamboo huts. Adults appear frightened and listless.

It is as if the hatred and violence that flourished on the equator over a decade ago in Indonesia has now migrated across the Southeast Asian landmass to Myanmar. In parallel, a nation has exchanged decades of military authoritarian rule for a period of wobbly political reform. And again vicious communal violence has threatened to derail the democratization process.

Mounting evidence hints at a rear guard action by figures in the previous ruling military junta seeking to stoke enough instability to make democracy seem incompatible with stable authoritarian governance. As Myanmar follows the example of Indonesia and relinquishes a centralized authoritarian political system, will its hopeful road to multi-party democracy prove as deadly and tumultuous?

To be sure, Myanmar’s Rakhine (Arakan) State is not a carbon copy of the Indonesian provinces of Maluku (Moluccas), Central Sulawesi and Kalimantan 10 to 15 years ago. The numbers killed and displaced in Myanmar’s recent anti-Muslim pogroms have not yet approached the levels of violence seen in Indonesia following the end of General Suharto’s New Order regime in May 1998.

The fall of Suharto after 32 years of iron-fisted military rule added impetus to long-standing ethnic and religious tensions at opposite ends of the sprawling archipelago. In the resource-rich territories of West Papua and Aceh, separatist movements felt emboldened by the power vacuum in Jakarta and East Timor’s declaration of independence following a United Nations-sponsored ballot for self-determination.

As in present day Myanmar, long-term grudges combined with the entrenched corruption and opportunism of powerful individuals in the security forces proved to be a particularly combustible mix in the immediate post-Suharto era. With the loosening of Suharto’s authoritarian grip, Muslim and Christian thugs rose up against their perceived rivals across the Moluccan Islands.

Villages and neighborhoods were systematically razed, forcing thousands of terrified people to board ferries or take refuge in flyblown internal displacement camps in areas secured by their co-religionists. Entire areas of the once quaint capital of Kota Ambon were swiftly transformed into deserted and firebombed ruins. Communities retreated behind barricades with the occasional gutted mosque or church bearing witness to more harmonious times.

Poso, a port city in Central Sulawesi, was hit by similar waves of violence. Over 700,000 civilians were forced to flee from afflicted areas of Sulawesi, Kalimantan and the north and south Moluccan Islands. This created Indonesia’s largest internal displacement crisis since the departure of Dutch colonialists in 1949.

An estimated 10,000 civilians were killed before two peace agreements signed on December 21, 2001 and February 12, 2002 in the North Sulawesi town of Malino curbed but did not end the violence. That sectarian violence is recalled today by the huddled masses in makeshift bamboo-slat houses or tents now scattered across Myanmar’s western Rakhine State.

Ostensibly directed against the state’s ethnic Rohingya Muslim minority but more recently targeting Muslims across the country, Buddhist mob-led violence erupted in two concentrated bursts last year in June and October last year. The violence has since spread, hitting the central town of Meikhtila, Shan State and Sagaing Region earlier this year.

A sinister deja vu has accompanied the pattern of events, where trivial incidents pitting Buddhist and Muslim citizens later escalate into days of arson, riots and killings. Speaking to the AFP news agency following the Meikhtila violence in April this year, presidential spokesman Ye Htut described the riots as the “ugly by-product” of the country’s new liberalism.

New bouts of communal violence convulsed Rakhine State’s Thandwe township earlier this month, resulting in five deaths and the displacement of hundreds. The anti-Muslim attacks occurred just hours before President Thein Sein was scheduled to visit the troubled remote region. In contrast with last year’s largely unpunished violence, 44 arrests of both Buddhists and Muslims were announced.

Myanmar has one of the most pervasive security apparatuses in Asia. For decades it was deployed against multiple perceived threats to the state’s central authority, including various ongoing ethnic insurgencies. The Thandwe violence has been accompanied by complaints from Muslims about an overwhelmingly Buddhist police force taking suspected participants in the initial attacks into custody, then releasing them soon afterwards without charge. Police have also been accused of disarming Muslims but failing to protect them when Buddhist mobs resumed attacks.

UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Myanmar Tomas Ojea said he had received reports of “state involvement in some of the acts of violence, and of instances where the military, police and other civilian law enforcement forces have been standing by while atrocities have been committed before their very eyes, including by well organized Buddhist mobs”. He was forced to abandon a planned visit to an internally displaced person camp near Meikhtila in August when 200 protesting Buddhists attacked his caravan.

An August 2012 report by Human Rights Watch, based upon 57 interviews, accuses Rakhine security forces of not only standing idly by but actively participating in attacks against Rohingya Muslims. Witnesses in the state capital of Sittwe said they saw security forces firing on Rohingyas. In other accounts, armed Rakhine Buddhists were seen traveling with police and border guards.

For the first time since the official end of direct military rule, Thein Sein declared a state of emergency and called in the army. A sullen order returned across Sittwe, with acrid smoke wafting into the air and thousands of terrified civilians sheltering in makeshift accommodation. Despite clear evidence of security force complicity in the violence, Thein Sein’s response won praise from the United States and European Union – both strong backers of his quasi-civilian regime.

The “new” Myanmar is supposedly pluralist and just as importantly open for business and investment. The refusal to do business with the previous rights-abusing junta, in which Thein Sein served as prime minister, has passed as the West suspends or lifts its previous economic sanctions. The new regime has cleverly ingratiated itself with in the US and Europe through the language of reform and democracy while at the same time neutralizing any real challenge to the military-dominated status quo.

Familiar conundrum

It is a conundrum many Indonesians would have appreciated during the heady days of its post-Suharto reformasi era. If today’s Myanmar is viewed in the West as a frontline bulwark against an expansionist China, Indonesia’s military rulers were first a ready ally against the spread of communism and more recently a willing partner in the fight against radical Islamism.

Significantly, much of the violence that threatened to derail reformasi and restore military rule, particularly under the administrations of Abdurrahman Wahid (1999-2001) and Megawati Sukarnoputri (2001-4), was concentrated in the nation’s outer islands. These volcanic stepping stones in the archipelago, rich in spices and fossil fuels, are inhabited mostly by Christians and animists rather than Muslims.

Under Dutch colonial rule, the outer islands were deliberately populated by waves of migrants (transmigrasi) from the mostly Muslim islands of Java and Sumatra. This was ostensibly to relieve population pressures along with shortfalls in labor in local extractive industries. After achieving independence in 1945, this also became a strategy – never officially acknowledged – aimed at forestalling any separatist rebellions by diluting the indigenous population.

Like Myanmar after 1948, newly independent Indonesia was challenged by multiple ethnic and religious rebellions. As early as April 1950, the Republik Maluku Selatan (South Moluccas) was declared and although the rebellion was soon extinguished, the fear of residual nationalism in the islands still haunts Jakarta.

It was partly on the pretext of quelling revived “Christian” separatist aspirations supposedly let loose by the end of the New Order that thousands of “volunteers” were dispatched to Maluku, Poso and more recently West Papua. The largest of several Islamist groups active in these regions was known as Laskar Jihad. Its leader, Jafar Umar Thalib, was a veteran of the anti-Soviet Jihad during the 1980s who had studied in a Saudi-funded university in Jakarta and the Maududi Institute in Pakistan.

The specter of the preman (hired thug) used as an enforcer to intimidate rivals is an old tradition in Indonesia, long predating Suharto’s iron-fisted rule. To a large extent, the reformasi period represented a synthesis of the preman and the jihadist Laskar Jihad, like other Islamist groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front (IDF), have also boycotted foreign concerts, attacked bars, brothels, nightclubs and perceived as heretical forms of Islam such as the Ahmadiyya sect.

That the radical groups had sympathizers within the predominantly Muslim armed forces was evidenced when Wahid’s executive order of a naval blockade against jihadists traveling to the outer islands in mid-2000 was openly ignored. The IDF is notorious for having links to the Jakarta police, despite vociferous denials, and former armed forces commander Wiranto.

In today’s Myanmar, the radical Buddhist 969 movement and the ultra-nationalist Rakhine National Development Party are known to have powerful, national-level political patrons. 969 spiritual leader U Wirathu has goaded on violence against Muslims in xenophobic speeches. 969 followers have led many of the recent anti-Muslim riots, including the recent violence at Thandwe.

In June, The Irrawaddy newsmagazine quoted anti-969 monk U Pantavunsa saying: “Thirty thousand copies of a DVD with 969 talks have been distributed in Yangon. So it’s very evident that they have a sponsor to distribute them on a large scale. There are several possibilities: cronies who would be comfortable doing business with the former military regime or some hardliners reluctant to undergo reform who might secretly finance them.”

During Indonesia’s communal clashes, collusion between armed gangs and national security forces was not always part of a grand conspiracy. Over decades many a separatist guerrilla in Aceh, East Timor or West Papua was able to source weaponry – if the price was right – from corrupt or underpaid police or soldiers. On numerous other occasions, weaponry was looted from government facilities. Aside from machetes and spears, local gangs and militia in Poso and Ambon improvised homemade guns accurate to a range of around 80 meters.

HRW’s account of last year’s collusion between Rakhine Buddhist extremists and security forces recalled the notorious attack on Duma, a Christian village on the Moluccan island of Halmahera in June 2000. As Laskar Jihad fighters descended on the village, eyewitnesses described how soldiers from Battalions 511 and 512 donned white robes and began joining in the attack.

Laskar Jihad had received shelter and possibly even training from Kopassus, the Special Forces group of the Tentara Nasional Indonesia (TNI) in West Java. This was before the 10-point Malino Agreement brought an uneasy peace to Central Sulawesi at the end of 2001, following a consultation process between representatives of both communities and brokered at Jakarta’s behest by veteran politician Yusuf Kalla. Although Lakar Jihad “officially” disbanded after the Bali nightclub blasts that killed 202 people the following year, it was widely reported that they resurfaced in West Papua thereafter.

Nor were the jihadists, at least in the early stages, beyond the pale of acceptable political discourse. In the febrile atmosphere during the run-up to Indonesia’s first free election since 1955, and well before September 11,2001 and the 2002 and 2005 Bali nightclub blasts, many pre-eminent reformasi politicians attempted to court the young radicals.

When Laskar Jihad’s parent body Forum Kommunikasi Ahlus Sunnah Wal Jama’ah called a mass rally of Muslims at Jakarta’s Senayan Stadium in April 2000, the attendees included Amien Rais, leader of the Partai Amanat Nasional (National Mandate Party). Also in attendance was Hamzah Haz, the future vice president under Megawati.

Rais and Haz were leading figures in the resistance to Suharto and associated with the Poros Tengah (Central Axis) of Muslim political parties. These parties felt disgruntled because they had failed to make a breakthrough in the June 1999 elections and felt that the eventual victor, the elderly cleric Abdurrahman Wahid, was too liberal in his interpretation of Islam.

To her credit, Myanmar opposition leader Aung Suu Kyi has not engaged in anything as opportunistic in the face of the Buddhist fundamentalism epitomized by U Wirathu and his 969 movement. Even so, her insipid response to the attacks on Rohingyas and other Muslims has disappointed many within and outside Myanmar.

“We’re very disappointed that [Myanmar’s] democracy leaders haven’t taken a stronger lead on this,” says Mark Farmaner of Burma Action UK. “And we think if … when the attacks on the Rohingya first began you’d have seen the democracy leadership taking a stronger more principled stance, showing more leadership. Then you wouldn’t have seen the anti-Muslim violence spreading right across [Myanmar].”

Many of Myanmar’s Muslims, like minority Christians in Indonesia, prospered under privileges granted by colonial rule. Resentment towards both minorities thus has deep historical roots in both countries.

Myanmar national founder General Aung San initially welcomed the Burmese Muslim Congress into coalition with his Anti-Fascist Peoples’ Freedom League, but after achieving independence Muslims were forced out of the cabinet. In August 1961, prime minister U Nu made Buddhism the state religion and anti-Muslim persecution continued after General Ne Win’s military coup in March 1962.

Following the 1965 coup de etat that eventually installed Suharto, the New Order regime effectively began as a secular dictatorship. Suharto elevated his own party, Golkar, by the late 1970s and his regime was buttressed by a Golkar-affiliated civil service, neutered opposition and censored media. When Muslim revivalism swept the world after 1979, Suharto tried belatedly to cultivate Indonesian Muslims. He built new mosques, undertook the pilgrimage to Mecca in 1991 and began to emphasize Haji Mohammed as his first name.

Fundamentalist parallels

The international media has seized upon U Wirathu and his 969 movement as a kind of Buddhist corollary to a generation of Islamist bigots who spouted bile against kufr, or infidels, in Indonesia and beyond. But the 45-year-old Buddhist monk was arrested in 2003 under military rule for inciting hatred against Myanmar’s Muslims, while many in the country’s Buddhist clergy actively oppose the 969 movement.

Myanmar’s military regimes promoted themselves as guardians of Buddhism while simultaneously clamping down on individual monks viewed as too philosophically radical or politically active. Suharto had a divergent policy for dealing with the rising tide of Islamism. While clerics such as Abu Bakir Bashir who were openly opposed to the Indonesian state spent most of the latter years of the New Order in neighboring Malaysia, Jafar Umar Thalib was able to open a boarding school in 1994.

Despite sharing the same type of Wahhabi/Salafist ideology, Laskar Jihad was not the same kind of organization as Bashir’s Jemaah Islamiyah or its offshoot Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid – both of which see themselves as part of a global campaign. The jihadists dispatched to fight Christians in Ambon, Poso and elsewhere, while antagonistic towards Abdurrahman Wahid (too liberal) and Megawati Sukarnoputri (too female), were essentially committed to upholding the integrity of the Indonesian state.

The rise of fundamentalist Buddhist and Muslim rhetoric during Myanmar’s and Indonesia’s respective political transitions is striking. Both are characterized by a massive victim complex, a legacy of their subservient roles during their respective colonial eras and the proselytizing success of Christian missionaries. Both have denigrated a religious minority in their midst as a Trojan horse, part of an imagined international conspiracy to undermine or eradicate their faith.

In the words of Kyaw Min, a Rohingya who was elected to Myanmar’s parliament in 1990 and spent seven years in prison when the junta annulled the election result: “According to [969], Muslims are a danger to our national survival. They pointed out that countries like Indonesia and Malaysia were once Buddhist. Now they are 90% Muslim.”

The Suharto era ideology of “dual function”, where Indonesia’s generals also served as ambassadors, ministers and captains of industry, provided a hopeful blueprint for Myanmar’s soldier politicians after the regime jettisoned socialism as the nation’s guiding philosophy in 1988.

Under military rule, junta members and their business cronies were involved in rampant land grabbing. Thein Sein’s “reformist” administration has so far done little to address underlying land reform issues. The Myanmar Farmers’ Network complained last month that the government can still circumvent the new land law by invoking the “national interest” while security forces still have wide powers to suppress those protesting against their land grabs.

In post-Suharto Indonesia, similar conflicts flared over land rights in rural areas and jobs in the cities. The outer islands were particularly hard hit by the 1997-98 economic slump, which depressed the prices of ebony in Sulawesi and cloves in the Moluccas. By the time of the first major riots in Ambon city, a major imbalance existed with Protestant Ambonese in control of the local political machinery and Muslim transmigrasi holding an economic edge.

The 1999 election resulted in the collapse of Golkar’s influence in the outer islands; in Maluku it only polled 19% of the vote. Although Megawati’s Partai Demokrasi Indonesia (PDI-P) was not overtly “pro-Christian”, its Ambon branch was at the time protestant dominated. Muslim antagonism was exacerbated by the fact that the Islamic parties combined only managed to poll 21% of the vote.

The election of Susilio Bambang Yudhoyono in 2004 represented a compromise of sorts between the forces of conservatism and reformasi. An American-trained Kostrad (Army Strategic Reserve) veteran of the East Timor occupation, Yudhoyono had enthusiastically supported the overhaul of the security forces after the end of the New Order.

His first vice president, Yusuf Kalla, was a senior Golkar politician with extensive business interests in eastern Indonesia. Kalla was appointed mediator (meko kesra) between Christian and Muslim communities during the process that led to the twin Malino peace agreements. Multi-party democracy has since taken root in Indonesia, despite ethno-religious violence which still erupts in spurts.

Similar patterns of violence characterized by isolated incidents or rumors escalating into days of riots and arson are emerging across Myanmar. Even before the major riots hit Maluku and Central Sulawesi in early 1999, hundreds had been killed in similar clashes in West Kalimantan between indigenous Dayaks and transmigrasi from the island of Madura in 1997.

Before Myanmar’s violence reaches Indonesia’s levels, could government leaders and religious communities reach the equivalent of the Malino Accords before security threats are used as pretense to delay the 2015 elections? One key difference in Myanmar’s context is that, at least from the Meikhtila clashes onwards, the attacks are scattered across the country. The violence in Rakhine State, however, resembles the Indonesian clashes in so far as the “religious” element is conflated with very localized ethnic and economic issues.

The signing of the Malino I and Malino II Accords on December 21, 2001 and February 12, 2002 reflected post-9/11 international pressure on Indonesia to bring stability to outer regions that had become fertile breeding grounds for Islamic extremism. By contrast, Western governments are now flocking to court Thein Sein’s regime in Naypyidaw, despite security forces-supported violence against minority Muslims.

It took four years after the 9/11 attacks before the US restored full military ties with Indonesia, which were originally suspended by the Bill Clinton administration in response to the military-backed 1999 massacres in East Timor. With an eye towards geopolitical and commercial objectives, Thein Sein’s visit to London in July was followed this month by defense secretary Philip Hammond announcing the resumption of British military ties with Myanmar.

Hammond said “the focus of our defense engagement will on developing democratic accountability in a modern armed force.” When the US allowed Myanmar soldiers earlier this year to observe portions of its annual “Cobra Gold” joint military exercises in Thailand, US embassy spokesperson Kristin Kneedler said the maneuvers would encourage them “to institutionalize civilian control, accountability and the protection of human rights”.

Judging by the ongoing state-supported violence against Muslims in Myanmar, democracy and human rights are among the last things on the minds of those who aim to scupper reforms and maintain the military-dominated status quo. While Indonesia’s tumultuous path to democratic governance offers hope for Myanmar’s now imperiled roadmap, the striking similarities in their transitional experiences are no guarantee that Myanmar ends up at the same democratic destination.