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Op-Ed / Asia

History lessons

Originally published in Myanmar Times

This op-ed is also available in: Burmese

Indonesia, with its free media, rambunctious democracy and frequent elections could well be the most democratic country in Southeast Asia. Its robust economic growth is something others want to emulate. It is not surprising that it is regarded as something of a global success story and has  been studied by those leading Myanmar’s transformation as they also try to create a stable, prosperous and democratic post-authoritarian nation.

But Indonesia is neither a perfect nor model democracy. Its transition 15 years ago was incredibly violent. The sudden end of 32 years of authoritarian rule brought about dramatic political change, but it also unleashed a series of deadly ethnic and religious violent conflicts across the archipelago. It is easy to forget the first dark years of “reformasi” and how many feared that this diverse country would break up into its component ethnic parts. The lessons from this period provide Myanmar with the opportunity to learn from Indonesia’s mistakes.

According to one study, between 1998 and 2002, six Indonesian provinces, including East Timor, experienced large-scale extended violence that killed almost 16,000 people. This is a conservative estimate, and the death toll was almost certainly higher. But the good news is that in the last decade, four out of the remaining five of Indonesia’s extended violent conflicts have ended. How  did this happen?

For answers, it is useful to look at how the government halted communal fighting in Poso in the province of Central Sulawesi. Between 1998-2001, this conflict was one of several outbreaks of Muslim-Christian fighting in eastern Indonesia that had its origin in something else – political struggles, land disputes, elite competition for jobs – but ended up with parties identified by religious affiliation.

The imperfect 10-point Malino Declaration brokered by the government in 2001 did not end the killing but it was the turning point. It led this community away from deadly conflict to a wary but durable peace. Each community sent representatives to talks in a resort area outside the conflict zone. The government did its best to get those in command of militias committing violence or otherwise directly involved in the conflict to the negotiating table. After three days, an agreement was signed.

When trying to distil lessons from the Malino agreement for Myanmar’s recent inter-communal violence, it is important to look not at the negotiations but the agreement’s pragmatic substance. Conflict-weary community leaders pledged to cease all disputes, abide by the law and punish wrongdoers. The signatories requested the state take firm and impartial measures against those who broke the law.

Leaders made a public commitment to respect one another in an attempt to foster an atmosphere of religious tolerance – a pledge that has for the most part held. They recognised that any citizen had the right to come and live peacefully in Poso as long as they respected local habits and customs. It was important in this multi-ethnic and multi-religious country that the agreement reinforced respect for followers of all faiths to practice their respective religions as stipulated by the constitution.
The agreement said property would be reinstated to their rightful owners and those displaced by the violence returned to their place of origin. Government support was given to rehabilitate the economy and damaged infrastructure.

Analysts studying Indonesia’s conflicts believe that one reason widespread inter-communal fighting persisted for so long was poor law enforcement. The police and government lacked experience and did not act quickly enough to contain violence before it escalated out of control. The reluctance of law enforcement agencies to act meant either that violence went unpunished to the point that people lost faith in police and courts, or that people took the law into their own hands. In the end, the central government had to reassert itself in provincial conflicts, rather than leave it to local leaders to resolve.

The Indonesian experience should be instructive for Myanmar as it lays some practical, if difficult steps, that are in line with President U Thein Sein’s speech on March 28. In the long term, the country needs to imagine itself as a modern state rather than dwell on the glory of ancient kingdoms. Looking to Indonesia, another multi-ethnic nation with ethnic and religious tensions unleashed by the easing of tight central control, may help. The mosaic of cultures and religions that is modern-day Myanmar must be the foundation upon which its democracy is built and the state must be unequivocal about protecting all the people inside its borders.

But to succeed in achieving a national vision of unity and prosperity, resolving local conflicts is essential. There cannot be development if violence spreads. To succumb to mob rule at this point in the transition will only encourage the spread of violence and the postpone any future democratic dividend.

Briefing 139 / Asia

Indonesia: Tensions Over Aceh’s Flag

A dispute over a flag in Aceh is testing the limits of autonomy, irritating Indonesia’s central government, heightening ethnic tensions, reviving a campaign for the division of the province and raising fears of violence as the 2014 national elections approach.

I. Overview

The decision of the Aceh provincial government to adopt the banner of the former rebel Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, GAM) as its official provincial flag is testing the limits of autonomy, irritating Jakarta, heightening ethnic and political tensions, reviving a campaign for the division of Aceh and raising fears of violence as a national election approaches in 2014.

On 25 March 2013, the provincial legislature adopted a regulation (qanun) making the GAM’s old banner the provincial flag. It was immediately signed by Governor Zaini Abdullah. The governor and deputy governor are members of Partai Aceh, the political party set up by former rebel leaders in 2008 that also controls the legislature.

The central government, seeing the flag as a separatist symbol and thus in violation of national law, immediately raised objections and asked for changes. Partai Aceh leaders, seeing the flag as a potent tool for mass mobilisation in 2014, have refused, arguing that it cannot be a separatist symbol if GAM explicitly recognised Indonesian sovereignty as part of the Helsinki peace agreement in 2005 that ended a nearly 30-year insurgency. Partai Aceh believes that if it remains firm, Jakarta will eventually concede, as it did in 2012 over an election dispute.

Indonesian President Yudhoyono’s government is torn. On the one hand, it does not want a fight with the GAM leaders; the 2005 peace agreement is the most important achievement of a president who, in his final term, is very much concerned about his legacy. It also is unwilling to provoke GAM too far, fearful that it will return to conflict, a fear many in Aceh discount as unwarranted but one that Partai Aceh has exploited with relish. On the other hand, it does not want to be branded as anti-nationalist as the 2014 election looms, especially as some in the security forces remain convinced that GAM has not given up the goal of independence and is using democratic means to pursue it. The president and his advisers also know that if they allow the GAM flag to fly, it will have repercussions in Papua, where dozens of pro-independence activists remain jailed for flying the “Morning Star” flag of the independence movement.

GAM leaders see little to lose by standing their ground. The flag is a hugely emotive symbol, and defying Jakarta is generally a winning stance locally. Some individual members of parliament see it as a way of regaining waning popularity for failing to deliver anything substantive to their constituencies. Also, Partai Aceh took a controversial decision to partner with Gerindra, the party of former army General Prabowo Subianto, for the 2014 election. Leaders like Muzakir Manaf, deputy governor and former commander of GAM’s armed wing, may want to use the flag issue to show they have not compromised their principles by allying with a man whose human rights record is often questioned.

Within Aceh, adoption of the GAM flag has sparked protests from non-Acehnese ethnic groups in the central highlands and south west. The GAM heartland has always been along the east coast; to highlanders like the Gayo, the flag thus represents the domination of the coastal Acehnese at their expense. The issue has revived a dormant campaign for the division of Aceh into three by the creation of two new provinces, Aceh Leuser Antara (ALA) for the central highlands and Aceh Barat Selatan (ABAS) for the south west. If GAM does not back down on the flag, support for that campaign by the intelligence services is likely to rise, and with it, the probability of increased ethnic tensions.

The options for breaking the stalemate seem to be as follows: the government concedes; GAM concedes, making slight changes to the flag by adding or removing an element; GAM agrees to limits on how or where the flag can be displayed; or the dispute is taken to the Supreme Court, thereby delaying any resolution.

In the meantime, the power of the GAM machinery in Aceh continues to grow.

Jakarta /Brussels, 7 May 2013