News / Asia

    Indonesian President Heads to Burma During Heightened Sectarian Tensions

    Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (2013 photo)
    Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (2013 photo)
    Sara Schonhardt

    Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono will head to Burma Tuesday for his first state visit there since 2006. The trip comes as rising ethnic and religious violence in Burma tests the special relationship that has long bound the two southeast Asian nations.
     

    Indonesia and Burma have a lot in common. Both were once military dictatorships that are now headed by former generals. Both have made the painful transition to democracy and have seen conflicts mar the way.

     

    Scholars and government advisers say those similarities have created an understanding that change takes time, and that has kept Indonesia from pressuring Burma to speed up the pace of reform.

     

    "It’s quite obvious when countries start reforming the political system like Indonesia in the past, we experienced a lot of difficulties in the early stages, a lot of communal conflicts, violence and other behavior which is not conducive for democracy. What happens in Myanmar at this stage is only part of the new realities under democracy," said Teuku Faizasyah, President Yudhoyono’s aide for international affairs.


    In the years after mass protests in 1998 brought down former autocratic president Suharto, Indonesia worked to ease its military out of government. At the same time Indonesia used its close ties with Burma to nudge that country’s military regime toward more openness.

     

    Burma watchers say progress has been notable. Since taking over the government two years ago, Burma’s president, Thein Sein, has loosened controls over the media, released political prisoners and helped negotiate cease-fire agreements with rebel groups.

     

    But ethnic and sectarian clashes have escalated in Buddhist-majority Burma, threatening those celebrated reforms.

     

    Human rights groups and the United Nations have pressured the government to do more to lessen sectarian tensions since last June, when rioting broke out between Buddhist and Muslims in western Rakhine state. Instead, the violence has spread, forcing more than 100,000 people from their homes.

     

    Many of those fleeing the violence have gone abroad and some have sought refuge in Indonesia. For now, Jakarta is favoring engaging with the Burmese government instead of criticizing it.

     

    Moe Thuzar, a researcher on Myanmar at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, says Indonesia’s approach is similar to the non-intervention strategy used in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN.

     

    "Indonesia, as a founding member of ASEAN, is a big proponent of quiet diplomacy, and it’s how things have worked when it comes to advising fellow member countries and to bring about commitments toward change without splashing it in the headlines."

     

    That approach has earned Indonesia Burma’s trust. In August last year former vice president Jusuf Kalla visited Rakhine state. Then, in January, foreign minister Marty Natalagawa gained rare access to one of the areas hit hardest by last year’s anti-Muslim violence.

     

    While Jakarta has expressed concerns about the violence spreading through Burma, however, the president’s aide Teuku Faizasyah says it’s up to the Burmese people to solve the problem.

     

    "Certainly we’ve given our support on how to best handle the problems. We can help in providing training and other ways of bringing little understanding among ethnic groups. But in the end it must be between Myanmarese themselves," Faizasyah said.

     

    Indonesia experienced similar internal violence following its transition to democracy and is well aware of the complexities of dealing with reform. Some analysts say that if Indonesia, which is majority Muslim, is seen to be siding with the Rohingya, it risks dividing ASEAN and could jeopardize its leading role in the regional grouping.

     

    Indonesian companies are also looking to Burma for investment opportunities. If Jakarta starts to exert pressure, it could lose some of its leverage.

     

    Murray Hiebert, a senior fellow on Southeast Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC, says it is important that Indonesia share experiences, provide support and moral encouragement rather than impose pressure.

     

    "The leadership in Myanmar these days is trying to do reforms, they’re really engaged on issues like human rights, how to address communal violence. I think for a country like Indonesia to go in and try to be too pressure-some would just raise hackles," Hiebert said.

     

    Some parliamentarians in Indonesia have talked with their counterparts in Burma about security reform and the potential for discussions with people involved in drafting the Helsinki agreement that brought an end to decades of fighting in Indonesia’s Aceh.

     

    Burma’s legislature has undergone some of the greatest reform in the country - though much of the government is still filled with military figures. Lawmakers in Indonesia say if the parliament is more empowered, it can take a greater role in shaping Burma’s future.

    You May Like

    Ethiopia's Anti-terrorism Law: Security or Silencing Dissent?

    Yonatan Tesfaye was detained in December 2015 on charges under Ethiopia's Anti-Terrorism Proclamation; eleven statements from his Facebook page were used as evidence

    Egypt Orders Trial for Journalists Charged With Harboring Reporters

    Order targets journalists' union chief Yehia Qalash, Khaled al-Balshy and Gamal Abdel Rahim for allegedly spreading false news, harboring fugitive colleagues

    Nigerian Oil Production Falls as Militant Attacks Take Toll

    Country no longer Africa's petroleum king due to renewed militancy in its oil-producing region

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    New Chapter for Tunisia's Ennahdai
    X
    Lisa Schlein
    May 31, 2016 1:56 PM
    Tunisia’s moderate Islamist Ennahda party says it is separating its religious and political activities in a broader bid to mark its so-called Muslim Democratic identity. The move appears to open a new chapter for a party that bounced back from the political wilderness of Tunisia’s pre-revolution days to become a key player in the North African country, and a member of the current coalition government. From Tunis, Lisa Bryant takes a look at how Tunisians are viewing its latest step.
    Video

    Video New Chapter for Tunisia's Ennahda

    Tunisia’s moderate Islamist Ennahda party says it is separating its religious and political activities in a broader bid to mark its so-called Muslim Democratic identity. The move appears to open a new chapter for a party that bounced back from the political wilderness of Tunisia’s pre-revolution days to become a key player in the North African country, and a member of the current coalition government. From Tunis, Lisa Bryant takes a look at how Tunisians are viewing its latest step.
    Video

    Video New Mobile App Allows Dutch Muslims to Rate their Imams

    If a young Dutch-Moroccan app developer has his way, Muslims in the Netherlands will soon be able to rate their imams online. Mohamed Mouman says imams rarely get feedback from their followers. He believes his app can give prayer leaders a better picture of what's happening in their communities — and can also keep young people from being radicalized. Serginho Roosblad reports from Amsterdam.
    Video

    Video Moscow Condemns NATO Plans to Beef Up Defense in Eastern Europe, Baltics

    NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Monday an upcoming "landmark summit" will enhance the alliance's defensive and deterrent presence in eastern Europe and the Baltics. He is visiting Poland ahead of the NATO Summit in Warsaw. Zlatica Hoke reports
    Video

    Video Tech Startups Showcase Wares at Amsterdam Conference

    More than 20,000 tech enthusiasts, entrepreneurs and lovers of digital technology came together in Amsterdam recently at the Next Web Conference to discuss the latest developments in digital technology, look to the future and, of course, to connect. In recent years, there has been an explosion of so-called startup businesses that have created devices and applications that have changed the way we live; but, as Serginho Roosblad reports for VOA, there are pitfalls for such startups as well.
    Video

    Video US Military's Fallen Honored With Flags

    Memorial Day is a long weekend for most Americans. For some, it is the unofficial start of summer -- local swimming pools open and outdoor grilling season begins. But Memorial Day remains true to its origins -- a day to remember the U.S. military's fallen.
    Video

    Video Rolling Thunder Rolls Into Washington

    The Rolling Thunder caravan of motorcycles rolled into Washington Sunday, to support the U.S. military on the country's Memorial Day weekend
    Video

    Video A New Reading Program Pairs Kids with Dogs

    Dogs, it is said, are man's best friend. What some researchers have discovered is that they can also be a friend to a struggling reader. A group called Intermountain Therapy Animals trains dogs to help all kinds of kids with reading problems — from those with special needs to those for whom English is a second language. Faiza Elmasry has more on the New York chapter of R.E.A.D., or Reading Education Assistance Dogs, in this piece narrated by Faith Lapidus.
    Video

    Video Fan Base Grows for Fictional Wyoming Sheriff Longmire

    Around the world, the most enduring symbol of the U.S. is that of the cowboy. A very small percentage of Americans live in Western rural areas, and fewer still are cowboys. But the fascination with the American West is kept alive by such cultural offerings as “Longmire,” a series of books and TV episodes about a fictional Wyoming sheriff. VOA’s Greg Flakus recently spoke with Longmire’s creator, Craig Johnson, and filed this report from Houston.
    Video

    Video Chinese-Americans Heart Trump, Bucking National Trend

    A new study conducted by three Asian-American organizations shows there are three times as many Democrats as there are Republicans among Asian-American voters, and they favor Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. But one group, called Chinese-Americans For Trump, is going against the tide and strongly supports the business tycoon. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee caught up with them at a Trump rally and reports from Anaheim, California.
    Video

    Video Reactions to Trump's Success Polarized Abroad

    What seemed impossible less than a year ago is now almost a certainty. New York real estate mogul Donald Trump has won the number of delegates needed to secure the Republican presidential nomination. The prospect has sparked as much controversy abroad as it has in the United States. Zlatica Hoke has more.
    Video

    Video F-35 Fighter Jet Draws Criticisms as Costs Mount

    America’s latest fighter plane, the F-35, has been mired in controversy. Critics cite cost, faulty design, and the attempt to use it to fill multiple roles. Even the pilot’s helmet is controversial. VOA’s Bernard Shusman reports from New York.
    Video

    Video Concerns Over Civilian Suffering as Iraqi Forces Surround Fallujah

    Thousands of residents are trapped inside the IS-held city ahead of a full scale Iraqi offensive aimed at retaking it.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora