It took two elections spaced over a quarter of a century, but Myanmar’s military junta has finally got the message and is obeying the will of the citizens as expressed in the 2015 elections. In November, the ruling Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP) woke up to find out just how reviled it really is, winning just 6.8 percent of seats in the House of Representatives.
Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NKD) have finally ousted the military leaders who have misled their country for more than half a century, winning an absolute majority in both houses of parliament; 25 percent of the seats were not contested because they were reserved for those nominated by the military. In the lower house, the NLD won 255 seats versus the USDP’s 30, a humiliating thrashing for a kleptocractic elite that arrogantly imagined that it could fool the people into believing that only they could be trusted.
In 1990, the NLD also won an overwhelming majority in the elections, but the obdurate and paranoid junta refused to acknowledge the results. Due to Suu Kyi’s perseverance through a total of 15 years of house arrest and the people’s belief that hope could prevail over oppression, Myanmar is emerging from a prolonged nightmare. For this triumph, as well as her commitment to realizing what she terms “freedom from fear,” she is Asia’s person of the year. The 1991 Nobel laureate is barred by the military’s misbegotten 2008 constitution from assuming her rightful position as president, but her inspiring presence since the military slaughtered peaceful protesters in 1988, denied democracy in 1990 and gunned down monks on the streets of Yangon in 2007 (the so-called Saffron Revolution) has kept the dream alive and, because of that, she is the people’s president.
However, with power comes responsibility and the nigh impossible task of meeting the unrealistic expectations of a people who have suffered far too long under incompetent leaders.
Various pressures that have been building over the years, kept in check by military despotism, will pose significant challenges. As the Economist pointed out, the victory represents “a stepping stone to an uncertain future.” Just imagine if the military had stepped aside in 1990 and the NLD had these “lost” 25 years to address the endemic problems of poverty and ethnic tensions, as well as inadequate health care, educational opportunities and vocational training. The military has much to answer for, and has dug a very deep hole to climb out of, but for now the main task is ensuring that the people can translate their empowerment into improved living conditions, better prospects and implementation of the rule of law.
Therefore, reconciliation is the main task as the NLD makes the difficult transition to governing with inadequate resources at their disposal and powerful vested interests eager to sabotage their efforts. It is an open secret the junta has supported militant monks that have stoked ethnic tensions with their anti-Muslim pogroms targeting the ethnic Rohingya, but getting that genie back into the bottle will be a very difficult task.
The military still has a powerful voice in the parliament because it took out “constitutional insurance” by reserving 25 percent of the seats and, more importantly, can derail democracy by coup d’etat if pressed too hard on its human rights record, shady business dealings or anything else it deems crucial to national security.
Indonesia has made great progress in democratization since President Suharto stepped down in 1998 as military reformists embraced a “back to the barracks” policy. Subsequently, the military relinquished its 20 percent allotment of parliamentary seats.
However, the military remains vigilant about its vested interests and political leaders in Indonesia tread warily on issues of human rights accountability, corrupt business dealings and anything that might spark the ire of the generals who remain an eminence grise lurking behind the remarkable transition that swept Joko Widodo, the first nonelite outsider, into power in 2014.
On Dec. 13, we lost Benedict O’Gormon Anderson, an intellectual giant known most for his “Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism” (1983). As a graduate student in Indonesian studies, I knew him as a leading Indonesianist and learned much from reading his earlier incisive works on Indonesian politics under the Japanese occupation, the 1945 Indonesian revolution, Javanese mythology and his co-authored report with Ruth McVey, which debunked the official version of what happened in the 1965 coup that unleashed massacres across the archipelago with a death toll of up to 1 million.
Anderson implicated the military in this murky horror and did much to highlight the failings and excesses of Suharto’s “New Order” military regime (1967-98). He was expelled and, subsequently, barred from entering Indonesia between 1972 and 1998 because of his criticism and unwelcome analysis of the coup, but remained a hero to Indonesian dissidents while also influencing activists and scholars worldwide. Back in early ’80s, Anderson spoke to me and other neophytes about the importance of fieldwork — how it was not only about the research topic but a chance to discover the unanticipated while trying to understand how locals saw things. Fieldwork was also, he said, an odyssey of self-discovery. My unanticipated discovery was that it is easy to drop 25 kg provided you pair malaria with amoebic dysentery.
Despite advanced years, Anderson remained intellectually engaged as evident in his review essay in the November issue of Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, where he analyzes Mary Steedly’s “Rifle Reports: A Story of Indonesian Independence” (2013), in which she draws on extensive fieldwork in Sumatra during the mid-1980s.
At the time of his death, Anderson was finalizing the English translation of his intellectual memoir, “Life Beyond Boundaries,” which was first published in Japanese due to strong interest here about this towering figure and his views on research, the beauty of language learning (he was a polyglot, fluent in Indonesian, Javanese, Thai and Tagalog and read Dutch, German, Spanish, Russian and French), fieldwork and the “new left.”
Anderson was relentlessly curious and seemed to acknowledge no barriers or borders; he was a passionate man who imparted a rich and inspiring legacy.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.
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