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Presidential Election 2014 and Indonesian Foreign Policy

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Indonesian Presidential general election has been underway on July 9th. There were 2 pairs of strong candidates for Presidential and Vice-Presidential position: Prabowo Subianto-Hatta Rajasa  (Prabowo-Hatta) and Joko Widodo and Jusuf Kalla (Jokowi-JK). There will be numerous challenges for the elected pair, and one of the more important challenge will be regarding Indonesia’s future foreign politics policy. This article will try to foresee the type of leadership of each couple and also their foreign politics performance.

The official results of legislative elections on 9 April 2014 General Election Commission put PDIP at the ranked first with 23,681,471 votes (18.95%), followed by Golkar: 18,432,312 (14.75%), Gerindra: 14,760,371 (11 , 81%), Democrats: 12,728,913 (10.19%), PKB: 11,298,957 (9.04%), PAN: 9,481,621 (7.59%), PKS: 8,480,204 (6.79 %), Nasdem: 8,402,812 (6.72%), PPP: 8,157,488 (6.53%), Hanura: 6,579,498 (5.26%), PBB: 1,825,750 (1:46%), and PKPI: 1,143,094 (0.91%). Bottom two of political parties, namely PBB, and PKPI are declared not qualify parliamentary threshold (3%) and did not get any seats quota in parliament. Since none of the party with the most votes above 20%, as a condition of Presidential thrashhold to be able to carry a pair of candidates for president and vice president themselves, the coalition of political parties is a must. In the presidential system in Indonesia, election of coalition partners is also directed by the vote or seats in parliament (at least 50 percent +1), which is then tied in a mutual political platform.

After the legislative elections is resulted in maneuvering the political elite to form a coalition at the presidential election May 9, 2014. Because the public orientation to the above figures of a political party is still a presidential election winning political formula, then the composition selection of the Presidential Candidate – Vice Presidential Candidate is very important to the victory of the candidate pairs. Of the various movements of some leaders of political parties, eventually converging on a two couples of Presidential Candidate – Vice Presidential Candidate for which respectively carried by supporting political parties to compete seizing power in Indonesia from 2014 to 2019. Two strongest pairs are Prabowo-Hatta and Jokowi-Jusuf Kalla. Prabowo-Hatta  named their coalition as a Red White coalition carried by Gerindra, PAN, PPP, PKS, Golkar and PBB that total votes are 48.93%, or 292 seats in parliament. While the duo Jokowi-Jusuf Kalla brought by a coalition party of PDI-P, Nasdem, PKB, Hanura, and PKPI with a total of 39.97% of the total votes in 2014 legislative elections, or 207 seats in the House.

After receiving the serial number of the National Election Commission, the duo Prabowo-Hatta (serial number : one), and Jokowi-Jusuf Kalla (serial number : two), two sets of candidates on June 3 at Bidakara Hotel signed an integrity pact for peaceful election in Indonesia later dated July 9, 2014. Peace Election Post-Declaration, each contestant campaigned to all corners of Indonesia to share their vision and mission to the community, followed with national or global issues considered to be of importance and urgency. The question that a distinguish colleague and dear frined of mine prof. Anis Bajrektarevic has recently asked in his luminary work “Europe of Sarajevo 100 years later”, ‘Was history ever on holiday?’ – is nearly answered, at least this time in Indonesia – the 3rd largest democracy in the world.

 

Two variant of Leaders
Borrowing the term of Herbert Feith, there are two types of political leadership in Indonesia, namely “manager type” (administrator) and type “unifying type” (solidarity maker). Leaders with the administrator type are those who have the technical ability to govern the state. This type is generally represented by educated leaders who master a particular field. While the leaders of the solidarity maker types are the ones who are able to approach the masses, influence them, as well as gain wider sympathy and support from community.
If seen from figures of Presidential Candidates: Prabowo and Jokowi, both are the solidarity maker type because of their capacities to make both of them are not only popular among their supporters, but also have a relatively high electability in the public eye. The difference is, that Prabowo as a solidarity maker figure has high performance characteristics, while Jokowi is more low performance. High performance of Prabowo is manifested in the figure of confident, assertive and bold, while the existing low performance of Jokowi lies in its simplicity aura everyday.
Meanwhile, Vice Presidential Candidate of Hatta Rajasa and Jusuf Kalla, both equally can be characterized as figures considered expert in managing government (administrator) for some experiences as bureaucrats and state officials. The difference, Hatta Rajasa is more low profile, while Jusuf Kalla is quite a high profile in his performance.

Of both pairs have benefits and deficiencies of each. But the leader of solidarity maker type with high performance (Prabowo) could further demonstrate his capabilities as a leader because he had a better motion and political communication, including in attracting public support. While Jokowi looks less good for political communication. The high imaging seems too strong to be on his shoulder. Signaled himself as the party officer and Doll Presidential Candidate is a heavy burden amid the Presidential Candidates and their popularities. Path “on leave” as the governor also indicated that Jokowi judged not to confident in contestation to face Presidential Election 2014. Currently, campaigned as a Presidential Candidate, executing tasks of Jakarta Governor are undertaken by the deputy governor, Basuki Tjahya Purnama (Ahok). It means, if Jokowi lost the battle for the number one seat in Indonesia later, he could take back his position as Jakarta Governor.

Candidate for Vice President has the low profile administrator type (Hatta Rajasa) seeming to be able to work together in government. This type is similar to the figure of Indonesian vice president, Boediono, now. Not much to say, experienced, courteous, and competent. Jusuf Kalla also balanced. Jusuf Kalla has plenty of experiences in the government bureaucracy. The difference, Hatta Rajassa is the General Chairman of the Party (PAN), moreover Jusuf Kalla is the former coriander of the Golkar Party which also rely on the popularity as Jokowi. The problem is also that Vice Presidential Candidate, Jusuf Kalla (72 years) is much older than Jokowi (52 years) as a candidate for president. The Second Symptom Captain in one vessel can not be avoided. Two captains are not among Jokowi with Jusuf Kalla, but also between Megawati and Jusuf Kalla later.

Foreign Politics Performance
During the campaign period ahead of voting until July 9, 2014, the vision-mission of both pairs are louder presented to the public, ranging from a matter of economics, education, health, environment, food, energy, law enforcement, until about fighting corruption. Which did not escape that should be of concern is how the performance of Indonesian foreign politics of the two couple of candidates later. It’s no secret if the issues of foreign politics is often a secondary priority compared to national issues. But the fact that a peaceful election in Indonesia should be able to be a major capital and stimulus to improve active role in regional and global arena, as mandated by the opening of Constitution 1945 paragraph 4 to participate in creating a world order.

Indonesian Foreign Politics Challenges
In the short and medium term, foreign politics still faces two strategic issues. The first is the traditional security challenges, such as separatism and border disputes. Separatist Action of Free Papua Movement (OPM), or the work of Malaysian who do not appreciate status quo territory, at Camar Bulan and Tanjung Datu in West Kalimantan border needs to be addressed explicitly by the new Indonesian leader. The second is non-traditional strategic issues, as transnational crime such as terrorism, money laundering, climate change, maritime security and others. Crimes at sea such as illegal fishing, illegal logging, illegal mining, human trafficking, drug trafficking passing Indonesia sea channel continued. Moreover, Indonesia is directly adjacent to the 10 countries in the sea and only 2 countries on the land.

In the context of maritime security, Indonesia needs to be a leadership pioneer in ASEAN to be bold against China on issue in South China Sea, especially if China enters the water territory of Natuna as part of its claim. Indonesian shall enforce Exclusive Economic Zone and freedom of navigation in accordance with norms of international laws. Therefore, modernizing Indonesia military is a must.

Performance of Presidential Candidate – Vice Presidential Candidate
As has been described above by the author, figures of Presidential Candidates Prabowo and Jokowi has solidarity maker type. The difference is the leadership style off Prabowo Subianto having characteristics of high performance, while Jokowi is more low performance. Meanwhile, Vice Presidential Candidate of Hatta Rajasa and Jusuf Kalla, both equally can be characterized as figures considered expert in managing government (administrator) for some experiences as bureaucrats and state officials. However, Hatta Rajasa is more low profile at work, while Jusuf Kalla has high profile type.

At glance there are similarities if you look at the vision-mission of foreign relations between Prabowo-Hatta and Jokowi-Jusuf Kalla. Both pairs equally lays self-reliance principle of Indonesian people in facing the global challenges ahead. Prabowo-Hatta and Jusuf Kalla Jokowi Visions in maritime sector both want to build ports. Each of the Presidential candidate pairings equally want contract re-negotiation between the Indonesian Government with the foreign companies that have been operating in Indonesia for quite some time, who have a number of issues that deemed harmful to the interest of the Indonesian people, for example Freeport in Papua and Newmont in West Nusa Tenggara. National needs and interests are articulated through foreign politics of both pairs. But masculine characteristics in the implementation of the Indonesian foreign politics from Prabowo-Hatta are more pronounced for protecting the nation, play an active role and confident in facing the global arena (Outward Looking). The hope of Indonesian nationals are more respected by other countries, inside or outside the regions. Prabowo-Hatta is considered to have the competence to anticipate issues and challenges of traditional security. Prabowo-Hatta International slogans about ‘Revival Indonesian’ becoming Asian Tiger is a high performance leadership style in Indonesian foreign politics.

While the more feminine performance of Indonesia’s foreign politics looks of the duo Jokowi-Jusuf Kalla. Concentration of Indonesia’s foreign relations will be more focused inward looking. Visions-Missions of Jokowi-Kalla are more based on the national interest and the desire to strengthen the identity of Indonesia as a maritime nation. The idea is to save Indonesia’s marine wealth that will be done by building the fish processing industries, as well as improving transportation links for large ships at strategic locations. The idea of the need for the Indonesian people to do ‘mental revolution’ as a guide to the ‘Wonderful Indonesia’ is the slogan of the foreign politics implementation of a low-performance-high-profile.

Closing
Visions and missions from both pairs of Presidential Candidate – Vice Presidential Candidate are in fact complement each other and fill the two polugri major issues mentioned above. As head of state and head of government, the elected president later will have to have a vital role and influence on the implementation direction of the foreign politics that strived for the prosperity of the Indonesian people, keep maintaining integrity of the Republic, as well as a commitment to be part of an international collaboration in creating world peace. In 2015, Indonesia will face the ASEAN Community. Indonesia needs to show the attitude of ‘do not come home’ in agreements towards ASEAN economic society later. When viewed from its history, Indonesian foreign politics are closely related to the issue of its national pride, position, and role in the international world. The fact that a peaceful election in Indonesia should be a major capital and stimulus to improve the active role in regional and global arena, as mandated by opening of the Constitution 1945 paragraph 4 to participate in creating a world order, as well as to resolve issues and security challenges

References :
Herbert Feith, The Decline of Constitutional Democracy in Indonesia,  Jakarta, Equinox Publishing, 2007.

Rebecca Grant & Kathleen Newland, Gender and International Relations, Buckingham, Open University Press, 1991.

Prabowo Subianto, et. all, Membangun Kembali Indonesia Raya, Jakarta, Institute Garuda Nusantara, 2009.

Anis H. Bajrektarevic, From WWI to www. – Was history ever on Holiday?, Addleton Academic Publishers/GHIR, New York

http://www.themalaysianinsider.com/sideviews/article/on-the-indonesias-election-2014-igor-dirgantara

http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2013/09/18/prabowo-could-be-indonesia-s-lee-kuan-yew.html

http://www.geopoliticalmonitor.com/voting-trends-in-upcoming-indonesian-elections-4936/

http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2014/05/12/jokowi-wants-start-mental-revolution.html

Mood, Wisdom and Passions of Middle Class in Upcoming Indonesian Election

http://www.thejakartaglobe.com/opinion/race-strengthen-foreign-ties/

http://www.antaranews.com/en/news/93655/observer-raises-suspicion-over-jokowi-blake-meeting

http://www.teraspos.com/en/read/2014/03/15/84284/jokowi-breaks-his-campaign-promise-for-his-presidential-candidacy

Public Favors Presidential Candidates with Military Background

Igor Dirgantara is Lecturer at Faculty of Social Politics, University Jayabaya, Jakarta, and Director Survey & Polling Indonesia (SPIN).

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UNHRC Resolution on Myanmar: Another Global Action against the Military Regime

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The United Nations has taken another landmark decision against the continuing atrocities of the Military regime in Myanmar. The global action through the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution on 12 July 2021 gave a powerful message to the regime for its gross violations of human rights specifically against the stateless Rohingyas. Bangladesh has played a crucial role behind the approval of the resolution. The UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution on the “Human Rights Situation of Rohingya Muslims and other Minorities in Myanmar” in its 47th session condemning human rights violations by Myanmar’s military against the Rohingya and other minorities, and called for a process of reconciliation. The resolution was approved without a vote in the Geneva-based council. China, one of the 47 council members, told it could not join the consensus but nonetheless did not insist on bringing the text to a vote.

The text of the resolution calls for a “constructive and peaceful dialogue and reconciliation, in accordance with the will and interests of the people of Myanmar, including Rohingya Muslims and other ethnic minorities.” It also voices “unequivocal support for the people of Myanmar and their democratic aspirations and for the democratic transition in Myanmar.” The resolution calls for the immediate cessation of fighting and hostilities, of the targeting of civilians and of all violations of humanitarian and rights laws. It voices “grave concern” at continuing reports of serious human rights violations and abuses, including of arbitrary arrests, deaths in detention, torture, forced labour and “the deliberate killing and maiming of children.”

It has also emphasized the need to bring those accused and responsible for all forms of torture, crimes against humanity and war crimes against Rohingyas, including sexual offenses, to justice under appropriate national, regional and international judicial mechanisms. In this spirit, the resolution acknowledges the ongoing criminal proceedings in the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice. The resolution also reiterates the authority of the UN Security Council to determine what to do in such a situation. It requested the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to submit a report to the Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly on the progress made in implementing the recommendations of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar. It also called for a panel discussion in the Human Rights Council on “the root causes of human rights violations and abuses against Rohingya Muslims and other minorities in Myanmar.”

The resolution appears to be comprehensive in its scope and mandate. It is the first of its kind adopted unanimously since the horrific attacks on the Rohingyas in August 2017. The Human Rights Council has been proactive in protesting against the Myanmar regime for its perpetration of ethnic cleansing and genocide. This UN body has, for the first time, termed the Myanmar regime’s brutality and atrocity against the Rohingyas as ‘the textbook case of ethnic cleansing’. The resolution is significant for several reasons. First, the resolution has been adopted unanimously although China, India and Russia are the members of the UNHRC. China as the staunch ally of the Myanmar regime did not hinder the passing of the resolution based on the rare consensus in the UN forum. Second, the resolution remains a unique case of strong message to the military regime of Myanmar. Unlike the UN Security Council, the Third Committee and the General Assembly, the UNHRC has been able to bring together all 47 member countries to create a consensus on the gross violations of human rights against the Rohingyas and other minorities in Myanmar.

It may be mentioned that the Human Rights Council is an inter-governmental body within the United Nations system, made up of 47 States, which are responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe.  The Council was created by the United Nations General Assembly on 15 March 2006 with the main purpose of addressing situations of human rights violations and making recommendations on them. The composition of the Human Rights Council shows participation of member countries from different regions in the world. Members are elected from Africa, Asia Pacific, West Europe, East Europe, Latin America, North America and other regions. Third, the resolution has strongly condemned and warned the military regime for its brutality, atrocity and illegal grabbing of power. No international body has so far applied such a powerful statement against the military regime in Myanmar. Fourth, it gives a hope to the Rohingyas and other ethnic minorities that the UN puts the issue on high level of agenda. It is also encouraging for the anti-Junta political activists that the global community keeps pressure on the Myanmar regime. Finally, the resolution has echoed Thomas Andrews, the UN’s special rapporteur on the rights situation in Myanmar, who told the Human Rights Council earlier that the military had carried out crimes against humanity since taking control, and slammed the international community for failing to “end this nightmare.” He decried the “widespread, systematic attacks against the people” since the coup five months ago. Referring to the view of the people of Myanmar, he asserted that the junta is an illegitimate regime and, indeed, a terrorist scourge set loose upon them.

Another remarkable factor is that the adoption of this resolution reflects a major success of Bangladesh’s Rohingya diplomacy. Bangladesh has sheltered more than 1.1 million Rohingyas in its own soil. The country has been diligently working for a permanent solution to the Rohingya crisis, beginning with their safe, dignified and sustainable repatriation in Myanmar. The resolution has rightly praised Bangladesh for providing shelter to the displaced Rohingyas while it called on the international community to continue providing humanitarian assistance until they return to Myanmar. It is emphasized that since the massive influx of Rohingyas from Myanmar into Bangladesh in August 2017, this is the first time that any resolution on the Rohingya was adopted in the UN without a vote, due to the intense diplomatic efforts made by the Bangladesh. The ministry of foreign affairs observes that the adoption of the resolution by consensus is a big milestone for Bangladesh. During the adoption, Bangladesh Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations Office at Geneva argued that the issue of addressing the Rohingya crisis and the protection of the human rights of Rohingyas must remain high on the UN agenda. 

Bangladesh strongly pointed out that the current political turmoil in Myanmar should not detract the international community from paying due attention to this crisis and seeking a durable solution. Bangladesh urged the international community to play a visible and effective role in ensuring the return of the forcibly displaced Rohingyas with full security and dignity. Bangladesh continued pressure on different UN bodies and international community to provide a roadmap and clear direction to mitigate the sufferings of Rohingyas, particularly their repatriation in their home country. In the wake of adopting the resolution, the Bangladesh foreign minister AK Abdul Momen urged UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and international community to constructively engage with Myanmar for early commencement of Rohingya repatriation to their homeland in Rakhine. He made it clear that the Rohingyas are Myanmar nationals and they must return to Myanmar.

It is critical to reiterate that Tom Andrew, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, fiercely attacked the states who are supporting the Myanmar regime and called for the urgent formation of an “Emergency Coalition for the People of Myanmar” to stop what he described as the military junta’s “reign of terror” in the country. He stressed that it was time to the end “the failure of those outside of Myanmar to take measures that could help end this nightmare”. He raises a fundamental question: “Future generations may look back upon this moment and ask: ‘Did the people and nations of the world do all that they reasonably could to help the people of Myanmar in their hour of great peril and need?’ In his view the answer is negative. Besides, the UN Human Rights Chief Michelle Bachelet told the council that the situation in Myanmar had “evolved from a political crisis to a multi-dimensional human rights catastrophe”.

In conclusion, both Bangladesh and the UNHRC have again played a vital role in advancing the cause of the Rohingyas in times of intense geopolitical rivalry and COVID-19 pandemic by adopting the resolution with biting attacks on the Myanmar regime for its atrocities. It may be recalled that the similar resolution was adopted by the UNHRC on 3 July 2015 in the backdrop of the torture and the Rohingya influx to Bangladesh. In that resolution (A/HRC/29/L.30) on the human rights situation of Rohingya Muslims and other minorities in Myanmar, the Council condemned the systematic gross violations of human rights and abuses committed against all, including Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State. In six years, the UNHRC has passed another historic resolution against the Myanmar regime that creates an opportunity for the international community to continue diplomatic pressure on the Military regime and its allies.  

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Does Indonesian have to Pay Extra Taxes within Rampancy of Covid?

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Various countries in the world are slowly starting to remove the outdoor mask rule and  give  leeway  for  Covid-19  social  restrictions,  but  it  doesn’t  happen  in  Indonesia. Indonesia is running under peculiar circumstances until July 2021. The worst scenario that has always been feared finally happened along with a surge in Covid-19 patients as many as 40,000 people per day. This fact became even more terrible when the Indonesian Government presents Draft Law Number 6 of 1983 concerning General Provisions and Tax Procedures. The government plans to impose a value-added tax (VAT) on groceries as basic necessities, education, and health services. So, how does the Government create a scenario to call this a normal policy?

In this bill, the government is known to remove several types of services that are currently included in the non-taxable objects group. The services that are removed and will be subject to VAT include health services, education, and groceries as necessities. Groceries are classified as basic necessities that are needed by many people which constructed as non- taxable object group as regulated on Article 4A paragraph (2) of Law Number 42 of 2009 concerning the Third Amendment to Law Number 8 of 1983 concerning Value Added Tax of Goods and Services and Sales Tax on Luxury Goods. As well as groceries, medical health services and educational services are also classified as non-taxable objects based on Article 4A paragraph (3) of the same Law.

The Government’s plan to add tax objects has not been submitted yet to the House of Representatives, but whatever the taxation policy takes, it must still be guided by the principles of tax collection stated by Adam Smith, which are the principles of equality, certainty, the convenience of payment, and the principle of efficiency. The addition of tax objects is out of the line with the principle of the convenience of payment, which means that the tax must be collected at the right time for the taxpayer, for example when the taxpayer has just received his income. However, if we look at the current situation, the government is implementing a policy of Restricting Community Activities which is not the right time for taxpayers to receive information on additional tax objects. People tend to need financial assistance from the Government rather than pay extra tax.

The issue of maternity tax arises when the government removes health services from the   non-taxable   objects.   Based   on   the   Minister   of   Finance   Regulation   Number 82/PMK.03/2012, health services include general practitioners, specialists, and dentists, acupuncturists, nutritionists, dentists, physiotherapists, and veterinarians. Furthermore, midwifery services and  traditional birth services, paramedic and nurse services, hospital services, maternity homes, health clinics, health laboratories, to alternative medicine services are constructed as part of health services.

Until now, it is not explained in detail which health services will be taxed. However, if referring to that Minister of Finance Regulation, then midwifery services or childbirth costs will also be subject to a value-added tax (VAT). Here is where the dilemma comes in, childbirth is a basic right inherent in every human being which is stipulated in Article 16 paragraph (1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and revealed through Article

28B paragraph (1) of the 1945 Constitution of the Republic of Indonesia which prescribe “Everyone has the right to build a family and continue their generation through a legal marriage”. As a constitutional right, the state should protect, respect, and fulfill these rights by not collecting taxes from a basic right.

In the same boat to groceries, this plan got criticism from society because it is not clear yet which types of groceries will be taxed. Based on the Minister of Finance Regulation Number 116/PMK.010/2017, the types of necessities that are VAT-free include rice and grain, corn, sago, soybeans, consumption salt, meat, eggs, milk, fruits, vegetables, sweet potatoes, spices, and sugar consumption. The collection of groceries taxes will be more effective if the groceries are classified as premium groceries and groceries that do not recognize social class (non-premium groceries). Examples of premium groceries constructed as wagyu beef, kobe beef, shirataki rice, and basmati rice which have relatively wide price ranges from local goods.

Education is also considered to be the object of VAT. This purpose is immensely counterproductive to the philosophy of education as a basic right as stated in Article 31 of the 1945 Constitution of the Republic of Indonesia. Tax collection from education opens up opportunities for commercialization in the education field. Commercialization is the process of changing and/or exploiting something for a profit. In line with the statement expressed by Milton Friedman and Frederik Van Hayek, that commercialization of education is a state of education  that  adheres  to  industrial  society  and  market  society.  Education  should  be inclusive for the whole community to increase the education participation rate.

One thing that must be understood is that tax collection must be in line with the capacity of taxpayer. There are two approaches to measuring the capacity of each person, which are (1) objective elements, by looking at the amount of income or wealth owned by a person, (2) subjective elements, by paying attention to the number of material needs that must be fulfilled by each person. Thus, the collection of maternity taxes, groceries, and education taxes must go through a comprehensive review to avert conflict with these elements. Is the government able to clearly classify which health services are taxed, as well as groceries and education? Take a cup of your coffee, and we will see…

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Stabilization And Digital Dialogues For Myanmar: Stepping Back From The Brink Of Civil War

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Abstract: Five months into the military coup of 1 February, Myanmar is on an increasingly fragile trajectory with clear signs of conflict escalation. World attention tapered off after the first few weeks and shifted to other hot spots, including in the Middle East. Regional ASEAN diplomacy and western sanctions pressure have failed to provide a breakthrough while influential neighboring countries are locked in competition and preoccupied with the COVID-19 Pandemic. The weakened multilateral system seems unable to respond decisively to growing mass protests and violent repression by the military. Basic levels of protection for civilians and essential services have been eroded amid a resurging COVID-19 Pandemic.

National cohesion in Myanmar has come under severe pressure. Although the country has weathered low-intensity conflicts over the years and state disintegration is a remote scenario, regional stability hinges on peace and prosperity in Myanmar which is located between Chinese and Indian spheres of influence. Democratic transition has remained incomplete in Myanmar since 2011. Inclusive civic dialogue can help reduce tensions through leveraging communications technology for digital grass-roots engagement, especially with Myanmar’s youth. This might restore a modicum of calm and provide a conducive environment for peace talks. International friends of Myanmar and ASEAN states are well placed to provide critical support, in line with ASEAN commitments. Civic digital dialogue could also boost human capital for addressing longer-term challenges, including the impact of climate change and the Pandemic.  

Evolving Conflict Dynamics- Violence Expands from the Center to the Periphery

While renowned National League for Democracy (NLD) party leader Aung San Suu Kyi remained under house arrest, charges of corruption were formalized in June concerning a charitable foundation, in addition to  alleged breaches of COVID-19 protocol and communications regulations. After some delay, a court hearing was held on 26 May. Meanwhile, the number of detained civilians grew over tenfold from the first weeks of mass protests to 6,000. On 30 June, the government released 2,300 detainees nationwide, including media and NGO workers who had not committed violent acts. The junta prepared indictments against protesters and 64 persons received death sentences as reported in media in early June.

Some 211,000 persons were internally displaced, according to recent UNHCR figures and the death toll neared 900 persons in late June, according to NGO observer groups. Since the beginning of 2021, the civilian casualty rate in Myanmar is among the highest worldwide, second only to conflicts in Ethiopia and Nigeria. Businesses were severely affected, and several factories were closed; several large international firms divested from Myanmar or are pausing investments. After a general strike in February, anti-junta protests continued in northern Kachin State, southern Dawei, Sagaing region and in the commercial capital Yangon.

A Committee representing the disbanded parliament (CRPH) was formed and a “National Unity Government” (NUG) established in April. The shadow government issued a proclamation for the release of all political prisoners, return of the armed forces to the barracks, ending the violence and accountability for those responsible for atrocities after the coup. The NUG also pledged remedial action for Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority and their rights in Rakhine state of Myanmar where over 100,000 persons had fled to safety in Bangladesh in the 2017 military crackdown against suspected terrorists.

By the end of June, military repression continued unabated. Weapons of war were used against demonstrators and neighborhood vigilante groups loyal to the authorities targeted protesters. Internet services were frequently blocked since April as the military  rolled out a restrictive new cyber security law. The Facebook social media platform which was used by half of the country’s population as ubiquitous news source and messaging service was shut down. independent media outlets were shut down or fined, and over 90 journalists imprisoned. Relatively few defections from the armed forces have occurred, mostly from lower ranking navy and air force members as well as units constituted with former rebels in 2015. Some reports suggest that soldiers melted away to join the Civil Disobedience Movement in an estimated 800 total of cases, but it remains unclear how many of them ended up taking arms for the resistance.

In another more serious development, some of the ethnic minority militias in Myanmar’s border areas with long-running insurgencies against the central government have started to mobilize. There  were reports that  urban dissenters were joining their ranks and new ‘civilian armies’ were constituted as offshoots of the Civil Defense Movement while other protesters just sought temporary shelter among militias. Several of these groups -including the Kachin in the north and the Karen in the east- publicly denounced the coup and stated they would defend protesters in the territory they control. Other ethnic militias appeared to be sitting on the fence about fighting in urban areas. Experts believe that the territorial ethnic armies have widely diverging military capabilities and are unlikely to mount a serious challenge to the armed forces. However, ethnic militia are a possible factor in pan-ethnic solidarity supporting talks and might become ‘king makers’ in the event of a rift inside the Myanmar military forces.

On 22 June, armed demonstrators of the ‘Mandalay PDF’ group engaged armed forces in a sustained urban firefight at Myanmar’s second largest city. In areas bordering Thailand, Karen state saw intensified armed clashes in May when over 100,000 persons were displaced and some sought temporary safety in Thailand. Confrontations were also reported from Chin state bordering India and from northern Kachin and Shan states. Well-informed observers warned about a trend towards generalized revolt. unless regional or international initiatives can manage to stem the escalation. The country may have come close to becoming ungovernable and some analysts warn of impending state collapse and prolonged civil war as in the case of Syria. 

International Response Patterns- Sanctions and Regional Diplomacy

The UN Security Council discussed the situation in Myanmar three times since the coup and issued                  a presidential statement on 10 March. The Council repeatedly called for restraint and restoring democratic transition in Myanmar but its closed meeting on 18 June 2021 fell short of deciding on an arms embargo. The Council demanded that the constitutional order should be respected but did not condemn the military coup outright, due to the position of China and Russia that defended national sovereignty. China publicly rejected sanctions as “inappropriate intervention” on 3 July during the                 9th World Peace Forum held in Beijing. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated that the primary goal was to help Myanmar find a political solution as soon as possible through dialogue and consultation.

The UN Generally Assembly (GA) passed a first non-binding resolution on Myanmar on 18 June, which condemned the coup and called for a stop in the flow of arms to the country and the immediate release of Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint and other senior civilian officials. The UN Secretary-General reiterated his call for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi on 1 July following mass releases of detainees in Myanmar. He also expressed deep concern over continued intimidation and violence as well as arbitrary arrests. In early July, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights warned of political crisis in Myanmar evolving into a “multi-dimensional human rights catastrophe” with potential for massive insecurity and fallout in the region. The SG’s Special Envoy on Myanmar, Swiss diplomat Christine Schraner Burgener, visited neighboring states of Myanmar but was not permitted to enter the country.

Outside the UN, international responses featured moral appeals, public condemnation and the use of targeted sanctions. The G7 Foreign and Development Ministers Statement of 5 May roundly condemned the coup and called for immediate cessation of violence; the G7 pledged support to ASEAN efforts in conflict resolution. In mid-May, US, UK and Canada imposed a new round of coordinated sanctions which were expanded from a dozen military figures to state enterprises known as significant income earners (gems and timber industries). In early July, the US led additional sanctions measures against 22 members of the regime and close relatives, also targeting three Chinese companies for providing support to the Myanmar regime through business dealings with the sanctioned Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited.

EU sanctions were expanded to include public timber companies from Myanmar, aligning with earlier UK measures. The US and UK placed sanctions on the State Administration Council (SAC), the junta’s governing body while the EU placed sanctions on the Myanmar War Veterans Organization, due to its close connection with the Armed Forces. Japan warned in mid-May that assistance to Myanmar could be frozen beyond a halt of new aid programs decided in February, seeking to use its considerable leverage as a top donor for Myanmar. Canada said it imposed additional sanctions on individuals and entities tied to the Myanmar armed forces, indicating it was prepared to take further steps. New Zealand imposed a travel ban on the Myanmar junta and stopped all aid that could benefit them; effectively suspending all military and high-level political contacts with the country.

Commander-in-Chief of Myanmar’s armed forces Senior General Min Aung Hlaing remained the                        de-facto leader of the country. Apart from minor changes in the SAC, the junta government stayed in place. Experts assess that the army leader has no intention to curb Myanmar’s economic progress. Unlike during previous military rule in Myanmar in the 1980s, a semi-civilian composition of the new cabinet in the Supreme Administrative Council (SAC) shows that the military is prepared to ride out international pressure and pursue national development. However, analysts based in the region see          a risk of Myanmar backsliding several decades and reversing gains from the democratic transition.

ASEAN Regional Leverage vs. Geopolitical Interests

Early regional reactions to the coup in  Myanmar were muted, with the notable exception of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. Following the ASEAN consensus principle, current ASEAN Chair Brunei appealed for respect of ASEAN’s principles of rule of law, democracy and human rights. The regional block tried to engage the junta during the 24 April ASEAN Leaders Meeting which the Burmese coup leader, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing attended. Yet he subsequently backtracked stating that stability was an essential precondition for ASEAN peace talks and implementing the ASEAN Five-Point Consensus from the summit. ASEAN  followed up with a high-level mission to Yangon in early June to meet the junta leader again and seek his views on a list of nominees for an ASEAN special envoy for Myanmar agreed among ASEAN member states.   

The junta’s  foreign minister participated  in a special ASEAN-China Foreign Minister’s meeting in Chongqing in early June, amid speculations that China was warming up to the military leadership in Myanmar. Chinese officials had issued veiled criticism in the early phase of the coup while parallel Chinese linkages were forged with the civilian NUG. A tuning point occurred in mid-March when protesters injured Chinese workers at a Yangon factory complex which was damaged and looted. In a scenario of widespread instability and key infrastructure under threat, China might resort to pressure  NUG and the junta into a compromise, according to regional experts; some analysts point to a recent Chinese troop concentration at the important border town of Jiegao.

China’s southern Yunnan province borders Myanmar where Chin state became one of the recent flashpoints in violence. The area is important for China’s transcontinental Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), through a China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC). The plan features a high-speed train link from China to the Indian Ocean, alongside gas pipeline projects to Myanmar coastal areas, as well as the  Muse-Mandalay highway.  China has also pursued a mega-hydro project north of Myitkyina which was stalled in 2011 over environmental concerns and developed an industrial park for the town. In addition, Chinese investors have snapped estate and land in the Yangon area, despite restrictive rules.

China’s President Xi Yiping undertook a milestone visit to Myanmar in January 2020, where he signed 33 agreements. Myanmar’s strategic value in these schemes was recently underscored by the visit of China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi in mid-January 2021 as senior-most foreign official to arrive since November’s election. In military cooperation, China as a traditional ally has taken a relatively low-key approach with Myanmar. Russia appeared more eager to capitalize on arms cooperation with senior visits demonstrating that Moscow is not beholden to western sanctions policies.

Like the many economic and investment ties between Thailand and Myanmar, other regional partners have most likely  adopted a “wait and see” approach before gradually re-engaging with the junta-led government. However, Thailand voiced concerns of spillover from the violence in Myanmar, after refugees had crossed the long border; Thailand considers itself as a ‘front line state’ and has recalled its “quiet and discreet diplomacy” efforts underway.

India as Myanmar’s northwestern neighbor already hosts many refugees from the Christian Chin minority.  15,000 refugees have arrived in northeastern Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur since the coup, according to UNHCR figures. These arrivals remain displaced and are hosted by local communities. Larger waves of refugees from Myanmar would affect the delicate local political and security environment. Myanmar’s military has at times coordinated with Indian security forces to control extremists and “geopolitical intricacy” overrides India’s stand on the current crisis.

Similarly, China does not want to see spillover from Myanmar tensions upset its southern industrialization schemes. It was India that delivered the first 1.5mln doses of COVID-19 vaccines to Myanmar in mid-January when China’s global vaccine diplomacy took shape. Yet both powerful neighbors of Myanmar are unlikely to come to an understanding how to prevent a worst-case scenario, given their geopolitical antagonisms in the wake of recent US and Quad countries cooperation.

Configuring Innovative Dialogue for 21st Century- Digital Engagement with Myanmar Conflict Parties

In view of the high stakes from ongoing violence and the risk of serious escalation, the time may have come for an alternative approach in Myanmar peace support. Assisted by new technology, digital dialogue at the grass-roots level could provide an opportunity for reflection and connect segments of the population and conflict parties. Such innovative dialogue can also tap into Myanmar’s human capital, especially youth who tend to be tech-savvy and eager to express their views. ASEAN’s supportive and caring posture expressed in its 24 April Leader’s Meeting Communique lays out  ASAEAN regional solidarity in a people-centered approach rather than prescriptive intervention. ASEAN is also well placed for assisting with required technology from its industrialized members and influential countries in Asia.

Newly boosted by the global switch to digital in the COVID-19 Pandemic, state-of -the-art communication technology and tools exist to connect hundreds of participants in online dialogue sessions. UN peace missions in Yemen, Syria and Libya have utilized such digital outreach to enrich ongoing negotiations and tapped into AI solutions for evaluating feedback. The work of senior negotiators might become more hybrid with online inputs and analysis, although scholars note                                a “missing sense of peace” in virtual interactions. On the other hand, benefits exist from greater inclusion, shorter iterative meetings, and equality in interaction. Significant peace constituencies including women, youth and minorities can be included online from the very start than in most traditional mediations.  

Myanmar has fertile ground for digital grass-roots dialogue. Younger citizens, including in conflict areas have shown great skill in networked cooperation, providing practical livelihoods advice and psychosocial support for years. In view of restrictions from the junta, protesters have resorted to virtual private network (VPN) solutions to ensure connectivity. Some younger officials and members of the security apparatus may also participate in a “sovereignty enhancing” dialogue aimed at better governance and reforms. The technological challenges including interference from authorities are not insurmountable.

Accompaniment could be provided via inter-regional cooperation between ASEAN and the EU, which remains under-utilized, despite strong shared business interests. The multi-sector dialogue  template (“Enhanced Regional EU-ASEAN Dialogue Instrument” -E-READI) has ample room for configuring the required scaling effects in technical assistance in sectoral policy dialogues concerning Myanmar’s specific situation. Notably, Facebook and Instagram banned Myanmar’s military and military-controlled state media in late February, citing “exceptionally severe human rights abuses and the clear risk of future military-initiated violence in Myanmar”.    

Pivot to a New Generation Compact in Myanmar- Tackling Global Challenges

Innovative digital dialogue as an early confidence building process can provide a platform for addressing center-periphery relations in Myanmar which lie at the core of many minority grievances. Myanmar could start developing its “new generational compact” including on regional autonomy and decentralization. The country never managed to forge a “Second Panglong Agreement” after independence and the death of General Aung San in 1948.    

Social cohesion and enabling social capital for addressing global challenges of climate change and Pandemic resilience are urgent for Myanmar. The devastating Cyclone Nargis in 2008 showed the country’s vulnerability to extreme weather events in low-lying coastal areas. Myanmar’s Pandemic response also requires joint mobilization, due to  rising infection levels nearing peaks of last October. Medical staff were instrumental in launching the Civil Disobedience Movement; work stoppages and insecurity have affected the health sector where recent new COVID-19 restrictions are hampering humanitarian access and response. The impact has been dramatic in interrupting remote outreach on public health prevention and counseling of victims of gender-based violence.

In the absence of consensus among superpowers to find a joint formula for lending ASEAN political efforts additional clout, or tactical convergence between the US and China for stabilizing Myanmar jointly as a middle ground, innovative civic dialogue should be seriously considered. More punitive approaches may end up driving the beleaguered country deeper into the arms of China and exacerbate violent conflict. Grass-roots engagement with critical peace constituencies in Myanmar could prevent transforming the current crisis into a proxy fight between global players and second tier regional powers, including India which has asserted itself in border tensions with China and as part of the US-led Quad group of states to hedge against China’s growing influence in ASEAN and APEC Regions.  

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