Myanmar ‘looking at Indonesia as a model’

STRAITS TIMES INTERVIEW WITH UN ENVOY TO MYANMAR

Junta studying Thai transition from military to civilian rule, too.

MYANMAR’S ruling generals are looking at Indonesia as a model for returning their country to civilian leadership.

“I can reveal to you that the junta has been looking for a model closer to Indonesia where there was a transition from military to civilian rule and ultimately to democracy,” United Nations envoy to Myanmar Ibrahim Gambari told The Straits Times.

He said the experience of Thailand, which has also been under military rule, was also being considered.

Professor Gambari returned recently from a trip to Myanmar, in which he appeared not to have made any headway with the ruling junta.

The United States Ambassador to the UN, Mr Zalmay Khalilzad, for example, expressed disappointment at “the lack of any concrete achievement” during the visit.

Indeed, Prof Gambari was rebuffed when he suggested that the junta amend its “road map to democracy” to include input from the country’s pro-democracy movement and other political parties.

The military also rejected any UN role in the referendum scheduled for May on a new Constitution. The referendum is to be followed by a general election in 2010, both key steps in the seven-point road map.

Prof Gambari, who insisted that he was not giving up consultations, is planning another trip in May.

He spoke at length during the interview about the proposed Constitution, which critics have brushed aside as faux democracy – yet another means for the military to hang on to power.

He said that the guidelines on which the Constitution is based were drawn up by a convention established by the military.

The text includes clauses that would maintain the army’s dominant role in politics. About 25 per cent of the seats in Parliament will go to the junta, which will also have the power to appoint personnel to key ministries – home affairs, defence and border affairs.

Although the Constitution formally establishes a multiparty democracy with regular elections, extensive power is vested with the president, who can appoint or dismiss legislative and judicial officials.

UN experts believe that should opposition groups campaign for a “no” vote in the referendum and succeed, moderate military officers might rethink their options.

This could include finding common ground – and prompt them to look even closer at the Indonesian model.

Prof Gambari did not go into specifics of the model that former Indonesian president Suharto created when he took over power in 1968.

Mr Suharto retired from the military soon after, but he ensured that the military continued to play a dominant role in Indonesian politics through a doctrine of dwi fungsi or dual function.

This guaranteed the army seats in Parliament and allowed soldiers to take on the role of administrators.

Political parties were not banned outright but were consolidated into a single party, Golkar. Though Mr Suharto would allow the formation of two non-Golkar parties, these were kept weak during his 30-year rule.

Only after he fell from power in 1998 did the military return to the barracks, though it still wields influence in Indonesia.

If the Myanmar junta pursues this model, it would mean that democracy is still a long way away for the country.

Prof Gambari, however, felt that all was not lost. The opposition, he maintained, had not rejected the Constitution outright.

“It suggests that they are still looking at the referendum and elections as a chance for change,” he said.

A UN assessment of the road map explains that even if the junta gets its way and secures a “win” in future elections, “this does not necessarily sentence the country to another half-century of military rule”.

The UN report obtained by The Straits Times said: “The new Constitution contains significant changes in the structure and institutions of power, which may take on a life on their own and gradually lead to bigger changes.”

The report noted that this, after all, is how democratic transitions have occurred in many other countries, including Indonesia.

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