Lessons Myan­mar could learn from In­done­sian pol­i­tics

The Myanmar Times - - News - LEX RIEFFEL news­room@mm­times.com

SINCE be­com­ing the leader of Myan­mar’s govern­ment in April, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has of­ten said that her top pri­or­ity is achiev­ing peace – end­ing the civil war that has raged in her coun­try since in­de­pen­dence in 1948. She has also stressed the im­por­tance of over­com­ing the poverty that the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion has sunk into dur­ing the past five decades of mil­i­tary rule.

Progress in both ar­eas will not be easy due to the vested in­ter­ests of mil­i­tary lead­ers and their long­time busi­ness part­ners. These are the peo­ple who will lose rel­a­tive wealth and sta­tus if the re­forms re­quired to bring pros­per­ity to the whole coun­try are un­der­taken. The first or­der of busi­ness for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is to con­sol­i­date suf­fi­cient power to co-opt or over­come these vested in­ter­ests.

Con­sol­i­dat­ing po­lit­i­cal power as a for­mer op­po­si­tion leader in a coun­try un­der­go­ing a tran­si­tion to democ­racy is in­cred­i­bly dif­fi­cult. It can­not be done openly. In­evitably it re­quires com­pro­mises that call into ques­tion the leader’s com­mit­ment to the goals of her or his elec­tion cam­paign and these com­pro­mises can eas­ily lead to a dis­af­fected elec­torate. It also can­not be done quickly. A frontal as­sault on key sources of mil­i­tary and eco­nomic power may have been suc­cess­ful in some eastern Euro­pean coun­tries fol­low­ing the col­lapse of the Iron Cur­tain, but Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is work­ing in a very dif­fer­ent po­lit­i­cal, his­tor­i­cal and ge­o­graphic con­text. An ap­proach that looks like a chess game played out over months and even years is more likely to suc­ceed.

The ex­pe­ri­ence of In­done­sian Pres­i­dent Joko Wi­dodo (Jokowi) sheds some light on the chal­lenge fac­ing Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Of course In­done­sia is un­like Myan­mar in many re­spects, but both Jokowi and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi were cat­a­pulted to lead­er­ship po­si­tions as “out­siders”, per­son­al­i­ties un­con­nected to the long­stand­ing hold­ers of mil­i­tary and eco­nomic power.

Jokowi was a small busi­ness owner when elected mayor of Solo, a mid-size city in Cen­tral Java, in 2005. By fo­cus­ing on the con­cerns of or­di­nary peo­ple and do­ing lit­tle to cater to the elite he be­came im­mensely pop­u­lar, win­ning re-elec­tion as mayor in 2010 with 90 per­cent of the vote. His rep­u­ta­tion as a doer, in con­trast to the talk­ers more of­ten elected to such of­fices, made him the lead­ing op­po­si­tion can­di­date in the 2012 elec­tion for gover­nor of Jakarta. He won hand­ily with 54pc of the vote against the in­cum­bent gover­nor.

Two years later the ma­jor po­lit­i­cal par­ties were woo­ing Jokowi to be their can­di­date in the elec­tion for pres­i­dent of In­done­sia. He opted to re­main with the na­tion­al­ist-pop­ulist In­done­sian Demo­cratic Party of Strug­gle led by for­mer pres­i­dent Me­gawati Sukarnop­u­tri. The op­pos­ing ticket was led by Prabowo Su­bianto, a highly con­tro­ver­sial re­tired Lieu­tenant Gen­eral in the Army and son-in-law of for­mer pres­i­dent Suharto. Prabowo was the epit­ome of an in­sider lead­ing a coali­tion of sta­tus quo par­ties. Jokowi was the quin­tes­sen­tial out­sider, mak­ing un­com­fort­able com­pro­mises with party leader Me­gawati who was more in­clined to­ward tra­di­tional deal mak­ing than pro­gres­sive poli­cies.

Eight months be­fore the July 2014 elec­tion, Jokowi led Prabowo in one highly re­garded poll by 62 to 23pc. His lead steadily nar­rowed to 46pc to Prabowo’s 45pc one month be­fore the elec­tion, with mo­men­tum clearly fa­vor­ing Prabowo. Jokowi’s vic­tory with 53pc of the vote was achieved in large part through an ex­cep­tional so­cial me­dia cam­paign or­ches­trated by young In­done­sians. Post-elec­tion, his pop­u­lar­ity rat­ing rose to 72pc.

But only four months af­ter Jokowi’s in­au­gu­ra­tion 75pc of In­done­sians were dis­sat­is­fied with his per­for­mance. Why? Be­cause in his first 100 days in of­fice he had not suc­ceeded in ‘clean­ing house’ or achiev­ing many of his other cam­paign prom­ises. But then his poll num­bers started ris­ing again: 41pc favourable in June 2015, 52pc at the end of his first year in of­fice, and 69pc in Oc­to­ber 2016 at the end of his sec­ond year.

Jokowi was con­sol­i­dat­ing power by mak­ing com­pro­mises viewed as un­savoury by his strong­est sup­port­ers. As he did this, he was able to move ahead with sen­si­ble pol­icy mea­sures pre­vi­ously blocked by the elite.

This pat­tern of dis­il­lu­sion­ment with the per­for­mance of a pop­u­lar op­po­si­tion leader is un­der­way in Myan­mar. Since Daw Aung San Suu Kyi be­came head of the govern­ment in April, scep­ti­cism about her per­for­mance has steadily grown, re­in­forced by for­eign ad­vo­cacy groups with lit­tle un­der­stand­ing of the power struc­ture in­side Myan­mar. She has not launched a frontal at­tack on any vested in­ter­ests and has made com­pro­mises that seem in­con­sis­tent with the re­formist prom­ises of her elec­tion cam­paign.

Hope­fully Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will be as suc­cess­ful in con­sol­i­dat­ing power as Jokowi has been so far. It will most likely be harder for her to do and take longer. But if she suc­ceeds, the dis­ap­point­ments from her com­pro­mises in the short term will be more than com­pen­sated for in the long term.

– This ar­ti­cle is reprinted with per­mis­sion from East Asia Fo­rum

Lex Rieffel is a non­res­i­dent se­nior fel­low at The Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion in Wash­ing­ton DC.

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