The two countries have evolved in strikingly similar ways

How does one get a sense of the political developments or the road-map that the regime in Myanmar has laid out for the future? Is there a model that gives us a key to an understanding of the pathology of the regime in Myanmar? Historical parallels can sometimes be misleading, but the Burmese experience parallels that of Indonesia in a number of respects. The militaries of both nations are inheritors of the legacies of Japanese occupation, are obsessed with law, order, discipline, unity and territorial integrity; gave high premium to intelligence agencies in maintaining regime survival; debilitated their civil societies; acquired stakes in the country’s economy, and legitimised the political role of the armed forces through constitutional provisions. Both are multiethnic states are haunted by the twin spectres of racial tension and a separatist periphery. And, both have inflated views of their importance to national survival.

As in Indonesia, nationalism flowered in Burma during World War II and Burma’s post-independence leadership had been closely associated with the anti-colonial Burma Independence Army (BIA) recruited and trained by the Japanese. “Unity in diversity” was a vision Indonesia and Burma shared in the immediate aftermath of colonial rule, when both Sukarno and Aung San, young and charismatic political leaders, sought to bring heterogeneous peoples under a banner of national unity. The Indonesian armed forces, created in 1945 to support the revolutionary struggle, were recruited largely from the military force, Pembela Tanah Air (Defenders of the Fatherland, PETA), recruited from amongst nationalist elements by the Japanese in 1943, the military played a major role in the revolutionary war; it also inherited a distrust of civilian politicians. In both Burma and Indonesia, the military had played a prominent part in the achievement of independence. In both countries, having intervened decisively, the military consolidated its position by expanding into civilian administration and business and by establishing a military-dominated political party.

As in Indonesia, the Burmese army was initially composed of diverse elements. During the British colonial period the Burmese army was recruited predominantly from among the ethnic minorities, especially the Karen. During World War II, when Burmese nationalists joined the Japanese-trained BIA and initially fought alongside the Japanese, many of the ethnic minorities fought with the Allies.

With the outbreak of communal violence between Burmans and Karens, the Karen head of the army was removed; Ne Win was given command, and the multi-ethnic composition of the army gave way to Burman domination. Indeed the suppression of ethnic minority revolts became the army’s principal task.

Similarly in Indonesia, as the country was divided along ethnic lines and rocked by civil war in the 1950s, the armed forces were dominated by the majority Javanese.

Under somewhat different circumstances, but with common elements of ethnic fragmentation and class division, Burma also went through a period of considerable turbulence following independence in 1948 and in 1958 Prime Minister Nu stepped down, inviting the armed forces to set up a caretaker government. Elections were held again in 1960 but the political party which the military supported was defeated and two years later a military coup brought an end to parliamentary democracy and reinstated army commander General Ne Win as head of government. Indonesia also experienced a period of parliamentary democracy, followed by Sukarno’s guided democracy and eventually a military-supported regime of General Suharto.

Dual function

In the 1950s, Indonesian army chief-of-staff, Colonel Nasution had put forward the idea of a ‘Middle Way’ for the armed forces, which combined their conventional role in the defence of the country with participation in government. After the overthrow of Sukarno this idea was formally embodied in the principle of dwifungsi (dual function); in the ‘New Order’ regime of President Suharto, ABRI (Indonesian Armed forces) was formally represented at all levels of government. If the Golkar party was the civilian face of military rule in Suharto's Indonesia, in Burma it was the Union Solidarity and Development Association set up by the military in 1993, later transformed into Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) when it contested the election in 2010. In 2008 Myanmar’s benighted people were forced to endorse a dual function constitution in a referendum, giving legitimacy to the soldiers’ heft in parliament and government.

But there are differences too. Unlike in Indonesia where the military got involved in businesses as they consolidated their political control in course of time, in Burma the take-over was simultaneous. Almost all private property was confiscated and handed over to a number of military-run state corporations. The old mercantile elite, which to a large extent were of ethnic Indian and Chinese origin, left the country, and so did many of Burma’s intellectuals.

Prior to the 1962 coup, Burma had had one of the highest living standards in Southeast Asia, and a fairly well-educated population. But thereafter, the military became the only elite with very little formal education.

Another important difference between the Burmese military and the militaries of Indonesia is that whereas the latter wanted to integrate their country’s economy with the outside world and took the help of technocrats and the international economic institution to do this, the former was deeply suspicious of the outside world and, therefore, isolated itself. Indonesia’s newspapers had more room than the Burmese press.

Despite these minor differences, the pathology, the ideological outlook and the experiences of the two countries are so similar that Myanmar is likely to follow the same trajectory in its movement towards democracy — a guided political system with a certain role for the armed forces till the economy grows to accommodate both the security and economic interests of the armed forces through an expanded defence budget, and creates a middle class demanding greater transparency and accountability from the government.