Burma and democratic pendulum's swing in Asean

"The road to democracy in Burma is so narrow that you cannot turn back," was President Thein Sein's reply to a question posed by UN Secretary Gen Ban Kimoon when they last met in November whether the reform process in his country was irreversible. It was a clever answer to a difficult enquiry which nobody knows exactly the outcome. Seizing the president's comment and his speech at the Parliament last week, it indicates that reforms will not face any hiccup. If the current process can be and is sustained, at the very least until 2014 with the Asean chair, it will pose a huge challenge for the grouping's future overall freedom and democratic development.

When Indonesia became democracy after the people's power overthrew former president Suharto in 1998, it sent shock waves throughout the region fearing region-wide negative contagion effects. All sorts of doom-day scenarios came forth about the future of Indonesia including its disintegration and spreading of radical Islam groups. Without knowing then what we know now, nobody expected that political developments and withdrawal of Indonesia military from politics would steadily consolidate the Indonesian democracy and augment its diplomatic weights within Asean and the rest of the world. To reach that level of recognition, the government has created a sustained environment conducive for all Indonesian stakeholders to take part in democratic participation. Local law-makers, civil society groups and the media have done their fair shares. There are potholes here and there, impeding process intermittently, but the overall democratic trajectory has continued unabated which has now become the society's DNA.

However, it would take another five years of consistence before Indonesia left memorable imprints with Asean through chairing the 9th Asean Summit in 2003 at Bali. Truth be told, Indonesia used to be the grouping's laughing stock as it often slowed down decision making process at every turn. Through Jakarta's leadership and determination that year, Asean decisively embarked on a more democratic path calling for additional commitments from member states to promote shared norms and standards to broaden openness and democratic space. Least we forgot, it was Indonesia that opened the Pandora box of non-interference principle by inviting individual Asean members to take part in peace building both in Timor Leste and Aceh. The post-Nargis Cyclone reconstruction efforts through the tripartite core group, also contained--even an iota--of this essential element.

Since 2003, the Bali Concord III has served as a template for all outward looking changes in Asean which included the Asean charter, the roadmap of Asean Community with the three pillars (political and security, economics and social and culture) and the establishment of a human right body. As a result, Indonesia's international profile expanded dramatically when it hosted the Asean summit for the third time last year. Realized the importance of chairing Asean, Jakarta strategically moved up the chairmanship in 2013 by two years to 2011 due to a schedule conflict with the Apec summit it will host next year in Bali. Unmistakably, democratic progress and openness has increased Indonesia's regional power and its global reputation. With continued democratic breakthroughs, Indonesia, the world's third largest democracy, now has the confidence to stake out its own brand of democracy, emphasis the south-south approach and best practices of governance and democratic institutions. A democratic summit, built on the success of Bali Democracy Forum, will also be held later this year.

Indonesia's experience offers a vivid picture of dividends emanating from democratic aspirations. Burma, which just a few months ago carried the tag of pariah state, has to learn effective ways to manage and engage multidimensional challenges both old and new. The Thein Sein administration must show that it can deal with vexing issues of national reconciliation with minorities, remaining political prisoners and nuclear ambitions without reverting to extreme remedies of the past. For the world at large, violent suppression against minorities, monks and ordinary people are still fresh in people's mind. New challenges include the integration with the regional and global economy and harnessing the IT and social media revolution. As the chair preceding the Asean Community, Nayphidaw also has to set a right tone to herald the new beginning in 2015.

More ways than one, Burma's freedom and democratic promotion can quickly reposition the country within Asean and beyond. If the present trend proceeds genuinely and unhampered, Burma has the potential to serve as the grouping's new tipping point when it chairs Asean exactly in 665 days. The 2014 chair coincides with the reviews of the terms of reference of Asean Intergovernmental Commission for Human Rights (AICHR). Last November, Burma established a national human right commission—albeit non-operational at present, it pressures other members to follow suit. It remains to be seen how Burma with the opposition party leader, Dawn Aung San Suu Kyi, in the mix, will navigate its role on human rights and democracy issues that were earlier rejected by former regime during the previous deliberations. For instance, the substances of AICHR which were drafted and agreed in 2009 when Burma was still considered a pariah state could be furthmer amended to reflect on the new reality in Burma and Asean.

In retrospect, Burma's changes have no precedence in the contemporary history of Southeast Asia. After the end of Indochina War, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia made their transformation in incremental manners. Cambodia was more fortunate as the United Nations, after ending the civil war in 1991, helped the country's leadership in the national building efforts. The most notable has been the emergence of democratic space and less restrictive media landscape among the Asean new members that enable debates and civic engagement. In contrast, the scope of reforms in other two new members in the past three decades was far less than Burma's efforts even though they are works in progress.

Take for instance the media reform that is underway now. A new media law will soon be introduced to replace all existing anti-media instruments since 1962. Given the secretive nature of drafted law, there are high levels of skepticism among media community at home and in exile whether the new law would genuinely boost the country's freedom or circumvent it. Government experts have consulted with their foreign counterparts including UN agencies such as UNESCO and UNDP to come out with a framework that will promote freedom of expression and information. Despite lingering doubts, international donors such as Open Society Foundation, International Media Support and Internews are coming out in the open to assist vibrant local journalists with the capacity-building programs. To take advantage of the media openness, Burma's leading exiled media publishers and editors including New Delhi-based Mizzima, Chiang Mai-based Irrawaddy, Norway-based Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), have visited Burma. Mizzima has already been given a license to operate inside the country while the DVB is negotiating for a broadcasting license. This trend alone was in contrast with Vietnam and Laos where exiled media continue to irk their capitals as they try to serve as alternative voices. The Burmese exiled media possess independent thinking, analytic and investigative skills to perform a watch dog function and can train local media local trainers.

As Indonesia's experience manifested, real reforms cannot be done in a piecemeal or half-baked fashion. They have to be comprehensive and wholeheartedly carried out in sustainable manners so that all stakeholders can partake with a deep sense of ownership
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