Transitions

Why Burma's opposition is playing with fire

Burmese government ministers and their proxies are building up their frequent flyer miles. They've been making trips to their Southeast Asian neighbors as well as Western countries ranging from Norway to the U.S., the newest enthusiasts of Burma's reform. The cynics might characterize these trips as part of a charm offensive, but in fact they're much more substantive than a PR ploy. These are not the usual attempts to solicit aid from the West; they are, in fact, part of a campaign "to bring the exiles back home."

Major Zaw Htay, the director of the Presidential Office, recently made a visit to the U.S., where he met with a cozy reception from the State Department and some Burmese groups. Hla Maung Shwe, a leading businessman-cum-advisor to the regime, is due in August. In fact, Burma's general-turned-civilian president, Thein Sein, has apparently assigned his trusted aides to lead these delegations to court the West and the community of political exiles.

Traditionally the regime has used various combinations of three strategies against dissenters: coercion, containment, and co-optation. Now, for the first time, the Burmese state is relying primarily on co-optation to stabilize and legitimize its regime-led transition. One of the most repressive states in the world is now working hard to embrace and absorb the opposition, both at home and abroad. (In the image above, opposition leaders take the parliamentary oath.)

Thein Sein explicitly announced this agenda in his inauguration speech of March 31, 2011. He urged all parties to "work together in the national interest" rather than engaging in oppositional politics against the government. Parliamentary leaders discourage the non-ruling members of parliament from using the word "opposition" in parliamentary debates.

Aung San Suu Kyi, who entered parliament after a sweeping victory in the by-elections earlier this year, has so far responded to the regime's overtures. She emphasized that she joined the parliament -- which is dominated by the military-backed party -- in order to cooperate with all the forces represented there, not to oppose the government. Suu Kyi has proved her credentials as a member of the "loyal opposition" by accepting an assignment from the parliament to help in lifting Western sanctions against Burma. (For instance, she called U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell and asked him to remove the remaining trade sanctions.)

I have no quarrel with any of this. I have long argued that the opposition should allow themselves to be co-opted into the existing political game as an inevitable part of a dual-track strategy that places equal emphasis on participation and contestation. In this fragile phase of the transition -- one in which the balance of power is skewed toward the ruling elites -- the opposition must work with the incumbents to undertake much-needed institution-building.

However, the recent violent ethnic riots in Arakan state between ethnic Arakan Buddhists and stateless Rohingya Muslims has opened an unexpected and larger opportunity for the regime to put its co-optation strategy into practice by exploiting nationalist passions. Both sides in this communal conflict are underdogs: The Arakan people, who are repressed and exploited by the Burmese-dominated military regime, and the Rohingyas, who reside at the very bottom of the country's discriminatory pecking order. By killing each other, the two groups themselves become the ultimate losers. But the regime -- which has allegedly committed human rights violations against the Rohingyas after having declared a state of emergency in the region -- has successfully managed to stir up a siege mentality within the Burmese people at home and abroad.

In early July, President Thein Sein told UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres that the country will not allow the illegal immigrant Rohingyas to live in the country, and that the only solution to the problem is to hand the Rohingyas over to the UNHCR, which must put them in refugee camps, providing food and shelter. Otherwise, they will be sent to a third accepting county.

Burmese racists are rallying behind Thein Sein's massive resettlement policy. State flags are flying in Arakan state hailing the president's position. There are also plenty of unashamedly racist comments circulating in social media outlets. But it is above all the local media and some leading activists and monks -- the same ones who spent years in the military's gulags for championing democracy and human rights -- who are cheerleading the regime's approach. Even Aung San Suu Kyi, a symbol of morality in the world at large, is silent on the racist nature of this discrimination and violence, instead treating it as an issue of the rule of law.

The once much-despised army is now being regarded as the indispensable defender and savior of "national security." Ironically, many exiled "freedom fighters" -- who sought refugee status in democracies like Japan or England after crying out against the military's violations of human rights -- are now staging demonstrations in support of Thein Sein's plan to expel 800,000 Rohingyas from the country. They use the phrase "national interest" without explaining what they mean by it. They style themselves as defenders of "national sovereignty," without understanding that in the modern world, the matter of external sovereignty (such as territorial integrity) is protected by international law. (And, in so doing, they tend to overlook that the critical issue in Burma right now is actually the democratization of internal sovereignty -- reforming, in other words, the relationship between the state and the people by giving greater power to the latter.)

The Arakan violence shows that the mainstream opposition, along with a considerable segment of the population, have failed to appreciate the universality of human rights and dignity. Contrary to Buddha's teaching, they fail to practice compassion for all victims of violence. (And it's worth noting that, in any case of communal violence, it is always hard to claim that one side is purely innocent and the other the absolute villain.)

All this makes them highly susceptible to the regime's demagoguery. Such situations can lead to different outcomes. In certain cases, where pro-democracy activists have managed to maintain their focus on liberal values, being co-opted by the ruling regime has ultimately led to an open society. (I'm thinking here particularly of Chile in the 1980s.) But there are other cases where opposition forces have succumbed to state nationalism, which then becomes a recipe for fascism and bloodshed. (Just take the Balkans in the 1990s.) Burma's presumed pro-democracy activists would be well-advised to keep these two possible paths in mind.

Soe Than WIN/AFP/GettyImages

Democracy Lab

A new report challenges Indonesia’s collective amnesia

A new official report declaring the purge of communists in the 1960s in Indonesia to be a crime against humanity may be a historic milestone, but the muted public reaction suggests that this tragic episode has almost been wiped from the nation's collective memory.

On Monday, the National Commission on Human Rights, an independent state body, released its findings from a four-year investigation. The commission concludes that the army-led campaign amounted to a gross violation of human rights. It urged the government to prosecute the perpetrators and compensate victims and survivors. It also called upon President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to issue a public apology.

But the report failed to generate much public interest, if the reaction of the country's major newspapers is any indication. They either ignored the story or buried it in the inside pages -- which made for a jarring contrast to the hysterical headlines devoted to shooting in faraway Denver last the weekend. But then the mainstream media have always been complicit in the conspiracy of silence over the killings, whether knowingly or out of ignorance.

The killing campaign in 1965 and 1966 was unleashed after an abortive coup against President Sukarno in October 1965 that the army blamed on the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). Although the massacre happened on Sukarno's watch, he had by then become a lame-duck president. The report instead put the blame squarely on the Command for the Restoration of Security and Order led by General Soeharto, who went on to become president in 1967. The commission's recommendation only says that those most responsible should be prosecuted, though it gives no specific names.

In spite of its massive scale, the killing campaign has been shrouded in mystery. No one -- the Human Rights Commission included -- has ever been able to put a figure on how many were killed. Estimates range from a conservative 200,000 to as many as three million, a figure once boastingly cited by Sarwo Edhie Wibowo, who headed the military campaign at the time as chief of the army's Special Forces.

The Soeharto regime banned any discussion of the entire episode, including the massacre and the circumstances surrounding the transfer of power. For more than three decades, only the military's version of history was allowed to circulate. The veil of silence was lifted only some years after Soeharto stepped down in 1998.

Official history books today still treat the episode as an attempt by the PKI, then the world's largest communist party in a non-communist state, to grab power. They make no mention of the ensuing massacre of party members, their sympathizers and relatives, and even many innocent bystanders, or the harsh treatments meted out to the survivors in the aftermath of the killings.

The report, the most detailed study ever carried out on the massacre, lists the types of crimes committed, including murder, slavery, forced disappearances, limits to physical freedom, torture, rape, persecution, and forced prostitution. It also says the killing was widespread across most major islands in the archipelago, and not confined to Java, Sumatra, and Bali, as had been widely believed. The study also identified at least 17 mass graves where the victims were buried.

Although Indonesians who went through the period are aware of the killings, most have turned a blind eye, and many have even managed to erase them from memory. They accepted the official version that the military had saved Indonesia from communism, and, by logical conclusion, that Soeharto and his military cohorts were the heroes of the day.

Time will tell how far the report will go to break these long years of the conspiracy of silence about the killings, and whether it will succeed in jolting the nation out of its collective amnesia. The report also calls for the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission to look into the tragedy.

Scholars attempting to study the killings say that many of the perpetrators and the surviving victims have refused to be interviewed for events that they said were too traumatic to recount. A few, however, have been brave enough to break their silence, as captured in the film documentary 40 Years of Silence -- An Indonesian Tragedy.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, for whom the report was prepared, responded positively by ordering the office of the attorney general to look into the recommendations, including considering the prosecution of those most responsible for the killings. His office has also said that the president is considering an official apology on behalf of the state for all the human rights violations committed against its own citizens.

All the key players in the killing campaign, however, are dead: Soeharto died in 2008, his deputy Admiral Sudomo this past April, and Sarwo Edhie, in 1989. It will be interesting to see how far the Indonesian military, or President Yudhoyono for that matter, are prepared to see their seniors tried in absentia or be dragged through the dirt in the event that the truth and reconciliation commission is formed. Yudhoyono, a military general himself, is the son-in-law of Sarwo Edhie.

Many human rights activists have their doubts. They note that a report by the same commission about the mass rape of Chinese Indonesians during a riot in 1998 never received any follow-up from the office of the attorney general.

The release of the report was hailed as a milestone by a handful of victims and survivors who had been seeking justice all these years. For most Indonesians, it was non-event.

In one of the rare public reactions to the report, Priyo Budi Santoso, a senior politician from the Golkar Party, said that wallowing in the past was unproductive for the nation.

"It is better if we move forward," said Priyo, whose party provided the political machine that sustained Soeharto in power for more than three decades.

Tragically, he probably spoke for most of the people in this country.

Anyone wondering why the systemic culture of impunity, and with it the culture of violence, are so notoriously strong in Indonesia, may have found the answer this week. They are deeply embedded, along with the nation's collective amnesia.

Carol Goldstein/Keystone/Getty Images