Myanmar Follows an Older ‘Indonesian Model’

Editor’s note: Dr Kevin W. Fogg is the al-Bukhari Fellow in the History of Islam in Southeast Asia at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, William Golding Junior Fellow at Brasenose College, and the Islamic Centre Lecturer in the Faculty of History at the University of Oxford. He blogs on the politics and history of Indonesia and Southeast Asia and has agreed to share his recent analysis of a ‘Indonesian model’ for Myanmar’s transition.  

The news out of Myanmar this week is exciting, as they inaugurate a new president (a close deputy of Aung San Suu Kyi) and two new vice-presidents (a Burman Buddhist general and a Chin Christian). My most esteemed Burmese colleague here at Oxford described to me how moving she found the ceremony, where the incoming government had chosen a song about how one must pass midnight to reach the dawn. In any case, the first civilian head of state in 50+ years is a good step toward democratization and rule of law.

Another move, though, looks a little more ambivalent or questionable when it comes to solidifying Myanmar’s path towards the rule of law. The parliament is debating a proposal that would give Aung San Suu Kyi extraordinary powers, basically turning her into a functional prime minister, since she has been denied the presidency. This would be skirting the constitution by changing sub-constitutional law (‘rule by law’ more than ‘rule of law’), but proponents may very well be right that it would reflect the wishes of the voters last November.

Very interestingly, this also follows an Indonesian precedent. I have several times heard Burmese folks talking about the ‘Indonesian model’ for transition from a military dictatorship to a functional democracy (multi-ethnic, with the daughter of the first president, etc. etc.), so much so that I was asked to speak about Indonesia’s transition to democracy when I visited Yangon in 2014. In this case, though, the precedent that Myanmar is following is not from the 1998 overthrow of the Suharto regime (which is the model they usually refer to), but rather the 1945 revolution to overthrow colonialism in Indonesia.

When Indonesia declared independence in August 1945, it immediately promulgated a constitution with a strong presidential system. The president, Sukarno, was a leading nationalist figure whose profile had only grown under the Japanese occupation, a Javanese man, not particularly pious, but heavy on charisma. He was balanced out by Mohammad Hatta, a deeply devout Sumatran with plenty of administrative sensibility. (This is not terribly unlike the balancing act to choose the president and two vice-presidents of Myanmar.) The problem was, after several weeks, the Indonesians found that the presidential system (which they had also set up with only one state political party) was not really working, even in the context of Indonesia’s nascent political consciousness. So, as I have outlined for the End of Empire project, Vice-President Hatta issued a declaration two months into independence that fundamentally changed the system of government without amending the constitution. From late October 1945, Indonesia had a Prime Minister overseeing a Working Party from the parliament—a system much closer to what they were accustomed to from the Dutch model that many Indonesians had observed.

How did this extra-constitutional, prime ministerial arrangement work out for the Indonesians? Pretty well, at first. The 1949 and 1950 temporary constitutions (the first Dutch-backed, the second more autochthonous) both enshrined the Prime Minister as the head of government, while holding onto the President and Vice-President as important figureheads. According to the superb research of Adnan Buyung Nasution, that was also the intention of the constitution that had been basically agreed by the Constituent Assembly of 1956-59 before it was dissolved. In the end, though, the Prime Ministerial system fell when it was unilaterally abrogated by President Sukarno (backed by the army), because he wanted to accrue more power unto himself, ostensibly to break through deadlock in the country. The president and the army re-implemented the original 1945 constitution from July 1959—without the broadly-agreed provision to set a Prime Minister on top of the on-paper arrangements—to reinforce their power as the country drifted towards authoritarianism. That same strong-presidential system was useful for the later strongman Suharto, and had to be tempered by constitutional amendments after Suharto’s fall (e.g., term limits on a president).

In the end, my evaluation is that this kind of extra-constitutional arrangement might be a temporary fix, but should not be relied on in the long-term. Of course, perhaps the MPs in Myanmar only intend to make this arrangement for the extraordinary personage of Daw Suu, but that raises different questions about the respect for rule of law in balance with the charismatic personality of a particular leader. Of all the Indonesian precedents to follow, this one is not my favourite.