Megawati Visit Underlines Burma’s Political Stagnation
By Aung Zaw Friday, April 9, 2004

Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri’s one-week tour of Asian capitals marks an important milestone in Jakarta’s relations with the outside world. The former opposition leader, who once seemed destined to remain in her country’s political wilderness, is meeting with fellow heads of state from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). During her first stopover in the Philippines, Megawati met with President Gloria Arroyo, a leader with whom she has a great deal in common. Both are women who have reached the highest pinnacle of power in their respective countries; and both have recently attained to that position following the ouster of their disgraced but democratically elected predecessors. Also on her itinerary is Burma, a country that remains, unlike Indonesia and the Philippines, under the rule of a brutal dictatorship. There is no small irony in the fact that Burma’s generals must now play host to a woman who has been called "Indonesia’s Aung San Suu Kyi", while the real Suu Kyi is still very much a prisoner in her own country. Like these two remarkable women, Burma and Indonesia have much in common. It’s only recently that the similarities have begun to unravel, as Indonesia moves forward to establish itself as a democratic nation, and Burma’s ruling regime remains as committed as ever to holding onto power, at whatever cost to the country’s social, economic and political development. The close relationship between Jakarta and Rangoon goes back to the early 1950s, when both countries were at the vanguard of the Non-Aligned Movement. Then, when their democratically elected governments were overthrown—by Gen Ne Win in Burma, and Gen Suharto in Indonesia—the bonds between these two nations grew even stronger. Unsurprisingly, the two dictators formed a special relationship that has lasted decades. When then-President Suharto visited Burma in 1997, he paid a special private visit to Ne Win’s residence. In November of the same year, Asia’s most reclusive dictator, Gen. Ne Win, returned the visit. Though the Suharto regime has been toppled, Burma’s leaders still admire his dwifungsi, or dual function, system, which gave the military a leading role in government. When Burma’s current leaders visited Jakarta prior to Suharto’s downfall, they openly professed their desire to adopt the dwifungsi model at home. Despite that system’s failure in Indonesia, dwifungsi remains the de facto political rationale of Burma’s ruling regime, now known as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). Taking their cue from Suharto’s creation of the Golkar Party as a means of cementing military rule in Indonesia, the current crop of dictators in Burma has produced the Union Solidarity Development Association (USDA) to ensure the army’s leading role in national politics at the military-sponsored National Convention. Despite such efforts to legitimize military rule, powerful democratic challenges to the army’s supremacy have been mounted in both countries. In Indonesia, Megawati, the daughter of Suharto’s assassinated predecessor, President Sukarno, assumed a prominent role as a figurehead of the democratic movement; and in Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of Burma’s founding father Aung San, who was killed shortly before the country regained its independence, occupied a similar position. In Burma, despite the efforts of the censors to muffle coverage of unsettling events in Indonesia, Megawati is closely associated with the student protests that ultimately broke Suharto’s hold on power. Suddenly, the Rangoon regime’s state-run newspapers stopped describing Burma and Indonesia as "two nations with a common identity." In Indonesia, it well known that Megawati has taken a strong personal interest in Aung San Suu Kyi’s fate—one that she shared for many years until their two countries’ destinies diverged. Now, when she arrives at Rangoon’s Mingaladon International Airport for her official visit, she may well wonder why she is being greeted by men in green, and not by her Burmese sister. It is indeed, a question that continues to puzzle many of us.

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