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Simultaneous regional head elections in Indonesia 2015

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Indonesia is one of the largest democratic countries in the world. Legislative elections and presidential election 2014 have passed quite well, although there are still many problems in terms of implementation.

Mass media is also one of the freest in the world. The General Election Commission (KPU) is now preparing the implementation of the Regional Head Election simultaneously in the first wave on December 9, 2015, for the regional head and regional deputy head towards the end of the term of service in 2015 and the first half of 2016. Registration of candidates for regional head election in the first wave simultaneously had started on July 26-28, 2015, provided that the candidate promoted by political parties with seat acquisition of 20 percent or 25 percent of valid votes, got a decree from the central leadership of the party, got the management Decree of political parties in Regency, City and the Provincial Level.

This simultaneous election modelis the first time in Indonesia, even in the world. Indonesia should be recorded in the history of world democracy because there will be 269 regions consisting of 9 provinces, 36 cities and 224 regencies simultaneously elect regional heads. That is, about 53 percent of the total 537 number of provinces and regencies / cities in Indonesia that will carry out elections simultaneously at the end of the first wave of 2015 into the ideal design, ie the simultaneous nationwide to choose the House of Representatives, Regional Representatives, the President and Vice President, as well as simultaneously to choose the regional heads and the DPRD at the provincial, regency and city level. After the elections simultaneously in 2015 in 269 regions, there will be followed by a second wave of simultaneous elections in February 2017 in 99 regions, the third wave in June 2018 in the 171 regions. Then another one wave will be implemented simultaneously again until towards the national elections in 2027.

Of course this is not an easy thing to do, because there are a lot of challenges to be faced. Some have suggested that the implementation of simultaneous elections should be postponed for various reasons, including budget issues, human resources, and handling disputes. Financial Supervisory Agency (BPK), for example, has issued a number of recommendations related to audit issues and the preparation of elections simultaneously in 2015 concerning, among others, about the unpreparedness of the budget, the signing of the regional grant agreement, plan budgets, grants account and security costs.

Nevertheless, the president Jokowi ensure the implementation of the first wave of simultaneous elections later remains on schedule, considering the preparations have been riped and in accordance with the stages. The Government and the Commission determined to rectify the deficiencies discovered by the CPC. Therefore, perhaps it is only natural disasters, social conflict, or war which could make simultaneous elections in Indonesia withdrew from the schedule. This paper saw eight crucial problems in the implementation of the first wave of simultaneous elections that will start on December 9, 2015.

1.   High Intensity of Conflicts

The elections simultaneously are heavier than the legislative and presidential elections. Competition of elections at lower levels is prone to security problems. The political dynamics in these areas are more difficult to predict. Because the strength of the local politicians have started immeasurable, both in terms of number of supporters, the distribution of influence, as well as the patronage of the party elite in central power. Approximately 827 pairs of regional leader’s candidates will compete in the first wave of simultaneous elections.

Based on data from the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the losses on recapitulation of the post-election in 2013-2014 at the provincial and regency and city level tend to increasingly high, the number of victims died are 59 people, injured are 230 people, damage to residential houses are 279 units, the damage to local government offices are 30 units, six police office units, and Election Commission (KPU) offices are 10 units, 159 public facilities in disrepair, also 11 offices of political parties, 3 offices of mass media, 25 vehicles, and also 1 shopping stores. Potential conflicts especially in areas that have a conflict-prone maps, such as in Sumatra, Madura, Central Sulawesi, Maluku, East Nusa Tenggara and Papua. Assault incidents of Eid prayer congregation and the burning of mosques in Karubaga, Tolikara, Papua, on July 17, 2015 can be a leasson to anticipate ahead of elections later. So effective coordination between the Central Government, Local Government, Election Commission, the Election Supervisory Body (Bawaslu), police, military, and also the State Intelligence Agency (BIN) is needed.

The main challenge for the holding of simultaneous elections later is to minimize conflicts in its implementation. Conflict pattern occurs mostly among election participants and supporters accompanied by anarchy and destruction of public facilities. Source of conflict is generally from unelected elite or who can not accept the victory of another candidates. Potential conflicts in 2015 elections is very high because it is done in areas involving various parties and only lasted one lap. No elections are devoid of conflict. Not neutrality of the electoral administration in the area is also a source of conflict.

2.   Neutrality of Regional Election Organizers

The regional head office in autonomy era is so attractive in the eyes of search powers for extraordinary authority to manage the full regional head of each region. That position could make a regional head like a little king with great power. Organizing simultaneous elections is the biggest celebration in the reign of President Jokowi, which can create an aura of competition and passion of the candidates to contest.

The organization of elections in the regions are mostly technical work, such as the nomination of candidates, ballot paper making and ballot boxes, sending results of the voting on the national committee, counting, distribution of seats and so on. The existence of the impartial or independent election organizing committee greatly determines the quality of democratic elections. The General Election Commission (KPU) and the Election Supervisory Body (Bawaslu) is the institutions established by the government and given the freedom to organize the stages of the election. From the data of Election Honorary Council (DKPP) until now there are 207 electoral organizers who had been fired. DKPP has received 740 complaints related to codes of conduct of legislative elections and the presidential election in 2014, which contains 3,960 names of election organizers, both of the KPU and Bawaslu at the level of the central, provincial, and district and city.

Election organizers simultaneously in the regions later should be neutral in carrying out each stage of the election, instead of ‘collusion’ with the local bureaucracy or into a successful team of competing candidates of regional heads. Neutrality of the election organizers will make the elections simultaneously be qualified, credible, and avoid conflict. The responsibility of organizing regional elections should be able to increase voter participation and minimize potential fraud that might occur, such as inflation and the reduction of noise, phantom voters, multiple voting, or voters who eliminated their right to vote.

3.   List of Permanent Voters

List of Permanent Voters (DPT) will remain a crucial issue and the object of the dispute. Moreover, polling stations (TPS) are very vulnerable in the intervention, especially in remote areas. The most crucial is the population data that until now have not been able to cover the entire population, especially those living outside the area. Ministry of Internal Affairs has submitted a list of Potential Voters in Elections (DP4) to the Commission which are used as data in arranging voter registration of simultaneous election. The number of voters have been recorded in the Ministry of Internal Affairs until now has reached 102 068 million people. The amount represents the total number of potential voters in the list that will follow the election of 269 Regional Head and Deputy Regional Head on December 9, 2015. Total registered voters exceeded 50 percent of the voters that gives right to vote on the 2014 Presidential Election. Total 269 regions that hold elections have exceeded 50 percent of the total of 514 regions in Indonesia.

Unfortunately, the election system in Indonesia do not consider the mobility of the population that is already very high. Residences are still statically defined. In fact, many people are outside the official address, including overseas, because of jobs and education. Governments need to create the population administration system and Pilkada system that can accommodate the mobility of people who are very varied. There is injustice to the voters in the regional election system. Article 56, paragraph 3 Perppu No. 1/2014 on the election of Governors, Regents, and Mayors, said if voters have more than one residence, the voter must select one residence listed in the voter list based on E-ID Card or certificate of domicile from the village chief. But there is a different treatment if a person wants to run for governor, regent or mayor. The candidates can run in an area that is not domicile. For example, when the election for Governor of Jakarta in 2012, Joko Widodo (Jokowi) was still served as mayor of Solo. Someone is possible to be a candidate for regional head in areas that is not domicile. It means, residential status can be more than one place. However, this flexibility does not apply to voters. Another problem is that not all people have e-ID Card because it is outside the eligible categories such as bums, beggars, migrant workers, domestic workers, and the like. They do not have an e-ID card so they can not involve in the election. It means, not all people have the right to vote because of their poverty. Not to mention also a matter of voters who have died but are still registered as voters, or voters who are registered at two different locations.

4.   Dualism of Management of Political Parties

The General Election Commission (KPU) had to revise Commission Regulation (PKPU) Number 9 of 2015 on the nomination by adding a ‘reconciliation limited’ for the sake of allowing the party who has’ double management, such as the Golkar Party and the United Development Party (PPP) to nominate candidates for regional heads together. In addition the candidate must submit the same pair, the two camps double management of political parties must also file the candidate pairs at the same time. Before the revision, regional head candidates must come from the political parties whose staff are recognized by government or have the Decree of the Minister of Justice and Human Rights (Menkumham). Dualism of leadership in the Golkar and PPP can also cause serious problems for vulnerable civil suit and of interests of each camp. Actually, the laws on political parties does not recognize dual management. While the stages of the elections are still running, the conflict in the body of Golkar and PPP whose legitimacy will be decided later in the court that had the legally enforceable decision (inkracht).

Why did the Commission need to accommodate the participation of Golkar and PPP in the simultaneous elections of 2015? The votes of both parties (Golkar and PPP) reached more than 26.5 million votes in the 2014 election. That is, the two parties accounted for more than 21 percent of valid votes in the election. Achievement of seats from the two parties reach 130 seats. This means exceed the number of seats of the Struggle Indonesian Democratic Party (PDIP) as the winner of the election that is only about 118 seats. At the local level, PPP as a whole has 1,400 seats, while Golkar has about 3,000-seats. Judging from these data, Golkar and PPP are quite significant in political and legal decision-making, at the local level and the central level.

PKPU revision is done not only to facilitate the dualism of leadership in the party of Golkar and PPP alone to participate in the elections, but also to comply with the decision of the Constitutional Court (MK). Thus, the revision also includes rules to permit family of incumbent to advance in the election, and requires that members of the parliament (DPR / DPD / DPRD) resigned their positions when they have been determined as candidates by the Commission. Previously, members of parliament (DPR / DPD / DPRD) are only required to report to the leadership of each institution. Of course this affects the political map of the nomination from all the political parties participating in the elections simultaneously in 2015. Many parliament members who subsequently withdraw as candidates for regional heada, otherwise a lot of the family members from the incumbents, even former inmates come forward to compete in the simultaneous elections next December 9, 2015.

5.   Doll Candidates

Another problem is the possibility if there is only one single candidate in an region. Commission Regulation No. 12 of 2015 set the whole stage of regional elections are stopped and postponed on next simultaneous election in 2017, if there is only a single candidate for the regional head after the extension of registration for 3 days. Steps must be done because the elections are held simultaneously in December 2015. Automatically, if there is one region that stage is only delayed, it will affect the overall implementation. However, the goal of the simultaneous election of regional heads is simultaneously inauguration, so that the end of their services are also simultaneous. There should be no regions that followed, except participate again in 2017. The Commission does not want to wait until the region has additional candidates for regional heads for a limited time. If the elections in an region later have to be ‘put on hold, then the position will be filled by the regional head of the temporary officials, or officers while being taken from staff transfer. There are 15 regions that potentially have only a single candidate in the simultaneous elections in the first wave.

Incumbent candidates are too strong making the whole political parties carry the same pair to run for regional heads. But it could happen in regions with strong incumbent do stratagem in order registering candidates not just one pair, namely by generating candidate pairs for regional head doll (false) as a challenger, could be independent pathway or request some political party that carried them. Legally regulation doll candidate is not problematic in the Commission if it meets the requirements. However, from a political education, it is a setback to democracy.

Single candidate is likely to occur in simultaneous elections later. This is evident from the higher minimum support candidates from political parties to 20 percent of parliament seats, or 25 percent of valid votes of the election results last year. Conditions that make the coalition become more stringent. In addition, individual candidates from independent pathway will also a difficulty become competitor, because of time constraints and the severity of a support condition. Especially against the strong incumbent supported by political parties it is tantamount to wasting the cost.

Until recently, most political parties chose to support a strong candidate to win. In this simultaneous regional election, coalition parties of supporting the government, namely the Superb Indonesian Coalition (KIH) is very liquid with balancing coalition parties of government, or the Red and White Coalition (KMP) in proposing candidates for regional head. However, ‘political dowry’ that is raised each political party is also still looks like the tip of the iceberg that is difficult to remove. Many unscrupulous parties will utilize the elections to gain political dowry from the prospective regional heads. Instead, many pairs as regional head candidates that offer dowry can be able to qualify the support of 20 percent. The issue is initially exists in poor political party cadres and the weak party funding. People can only vote for candidates who submitted it. If the incumbent is qualified and well developed, it deserves to be reelected. The problem is that no quality incumbent but also prepare candidates for a doll that can be defeated in the next election. Prospective doll could be the choice of strategy for winning in the simultaneous elections. It is also the solution to anticipate a strong candidate for the regional head to remain chosen without delaying the implementation of the next elections in 2017. Candidates ‘dolls’ can also appear with the only aim to break down opponents who are considered the dominant voice in an region, especially in the region of three pairs of prospective candidates. But if the elections take place with only one candidate it could be a bad precedent for election implementation in other regions, because there are local leaders who have the power to monopolize the political parties in the regions. There is no choice of candidates, certainly not democratic.

6.   Political Dynasty

The Constitutional Court (MK) removes the restriction clause on prohibition of incumbent family or political dynasty in the election law. According to the Court, the 1945 Constitution gives equal rights to all citizens to use their constitutional rights, namely the right to vote and be elected, including former inmates. The Constitutional Court’s decision could open up a gap of one family control of certain regions, because the political rights of the incumbent relatives in the election is not removed. In 2013 there were as many as 61 regional heads, or 11 percent of all regional heads in Indonesia having kinship political networks or political dynasty. Ironically, from experiences that occur in almost every contestation of the elections that followed by the incumbent, often found the game of local budgets to the needs of the campaign. PNS subordinates that are supposed to apply neutral are often the incumbent winning team. Mobilization and politicization of civil servants are inevitable. The potential for corruption and violations or abuse of power by local bureaucracy increases.

Because the Constitutional Court’s decision is final and binding, then today society need to be given the political aspects of socialization and education in order to more critically assess the regional head candidates who will compete in the simultaneous elections later. However society that has the rights to vote determine how the future of the regional head candidate who comes from a political dynasty. Moreover, the people of Indonesia are still many irrational voters. Gaetano Mosca once wrote in his book “The rulling Class”, that almost in every class or nation will always be a tendency to build a tradition handed down in reality, if not in law. Oligarchy is an inevitable Iron law. And political dynasty in Indonesia is a necessity in a democracy now because it comes from the old oligarchy and patrimonial culture. The emergence of dynastic politics is directly proportional to the unhealthy political competition. Increasingly unfair rules of the game in political contestation, promotes wider political dynasty.

7.   Money Politics

The democratic process in Indonesia raises many opportunities for corruption. Because the democratic process in this country requires a huge cost. Regional election always had negative tendencies, ie transactional politics. In fact as many as 346 regional heads and deputy regional heads tangled legal cases. A total of 11.45 percent of the approximately 500 regencies thick with dynasty politics. In addition, many of the elections results in the past were broken joint between the head and deputy head of the regions. Currently there is no criminal chapter on money politics and the criminal chapter on the political dowry thus causing dirty political practices in the elections.

Simultaneous Regional Election 2015 budget swell to Rp 7 trillion compared to the implementation of the previous elections. There are three factors that influence. First, the inflation factor that can affect the value of the goods in the regions. Secondly, amounting to 65 percent of the total budget for the elections will be used to pay salaries of Voting Committee (PPS), District Election Committee (PPK) and Voting Organizer Group (KPPS). Third, based on Law No. 8 of 2015 on Regional Elections, the local government is obliged to bear almost all participants of the election campaign costs in 2015. Only two types of election campaigns are borne by participants themselves, ie limited campaign and dialogue campaign.

Implementation of the simultaneous election is originally meant to reduce the high cost of politics and money politics turn out to be an illusion. Financing campaign charged to revenue and expenditure budget can actually increase money politics. Regional head candidates would have more funds in view of campaign financing that become the responsibility of Regional Election Commission. By doing so, the candidates will have more funds to carry out the practice of vote-buying. Money politics also can occur when optimizing campaigns at the limited meeting. They can take advantage of unlimited meetings, where money politics is packaged in such a way in the meeting. Simultaneous regional elections in 2015 will be rife of money politics, in addition to political dowry, voters buying, that are also used to bribe electoral administration in the regions.

In addition, the use of campaign funds would also be a vulnerable point for the implementation of simultaneous elections, and misused to improve electability of candidates. Election campaign is more widely used as imaging media, not apply for a work program. Also the ‘game’ between the candidates by state officials still leaves a problem in any election in Indonesia until now. Education and political socialization to voters take lack of decent places. Misappropriation of budgetary funds and state facilities can also occur, such as social grants (Bansos), school operational funds (BOS), and funds from the budget, as well as vehicle or building facilities into a campaign tool.

8.   Violations and Dispute of Election

Elections Supervisory Board (Bawaslu) is not given the authority to execute the offense. Therefore, Bawaslu action is limited to giving recommendations. If the violations are administrative, submitted to the Commission and forwarded to the police. Simultaneous handling of cases of electoral violations this year will refer to the two laws. In addition to using the Law of the Elections, a number of violations will be processed by using the Criminal Code, such as inflate the voices and the problem of money politics. Money politics will be charged under Article 149 of the Criminal Code concerning bribery in elections, under penalty of nine months in prison. Perpetrators of votes are subject to Article 263 of the Criminal Code on forgery penalties of six years in prison. If there is a criminal offense, the police soon take over. For administrative violations, the Provincial Election Supervisory Committee (Panwaslu) directly provide recommendations to the Local Commission. Statements relating to the code of conduct is directly forwarded to DKPP. For disputes between participants and the Commission, the case will be solved alone by the Supervisory Committee.

Another important aspect is the matter of time limits of 45 days (including holidays) for the Constitutional Court (MK) in handling disputes of the election results. The Court will not be able to handle the dispute lawsuit of election results if more than 50 percent of the simultaneous election resulted in the Court, moreover there are 269 elections in the first wave later on December 9, 2015. The assumption, the Court had only 37 minutes to finish the one case. Therefore, it is quite natural that the Court then asks the number of days increased to 60 working days from receipt of the request. It also became one of the driving so that the revision of Law No. 8 of 2011 regarding the Constitutional Court is limited, because the Court has not set the authority in dealing with election disputes. To date the Court only handles election disputes. The Supreme Court (MA) – mandated to adjudicate election disputes in the regional election law – considered not ready to settle the dispute in 2015 simultaneous regional elections, because of its human resources.

Closing

The successful indicators of the simultaneous and massive regional elections in Indonesia later can take place peaceful and relatively free of the various modes of cheating. Credibility of regional election organizers is at stake in the regions, let alone a first test of the simultaneous elections held. Likewise with the Constitutional Court which was given the role of resolving disputes of regional election results, the future should be promoted for a special agency to resolve election disputes outside of the Constitutional Court or the Supreme Court. The government also needs to regulate population administration system that can accommodate a very varied population mobility to be put into list of legitimate voters. Therefore, updating the voters’ data is an absolute necessity.

Conflict, money politics and political dynasty, will still color the implementation of simultaneous regional elections on December 9, 2015 in Indonesia. Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) has an important task to verify the entire State Officials Wealth Report (LHKPN) registered by the regional head candidates, to be opened and made known to the wider community at large. Public participation is essential to oversee and monitor the regional head candidates, misappropriation of funds related to social assistance and grants for the campaign and capture votes. Neutrality of Civil Servants (PNS) also must be enforced, by prohibiting engage in campaign activities, whether a member or involved in it. Ministry of Administrative and Bureaucratic Reform can open a complaint service about the involvement of civil society in influencing voters and give strict punishment for civil servants who become involved in the election. KPU through an independent auditor should audit all finance of political parties, especially concerning the funding of cadres and outsiders. Bawaslu from central and local levels should optimize their role to take action against the perpetrators of money politics.

In prediction, candidates of independent pathway has also difficulties in this simultaneous election. Due to increasing electability, there are more advantageous for the candidate promoted by political parties. Independent candidates must have a minimum requirement of 80 percent popularity. Moreover, if you look at previous experience, very few candidates were elected as regional heads coming from independent paths. Even if elected, they will also have difficulties when running the government program, because they have to deal with Parliament who comes from political parties. Problems can also arise if there is a candidate who is a cadre of a particular political party, but it was carried forward as a candidate by the other political parties because his own political party to support another candidate. Looking ahead to reform political parties should continue to be done in a comprehensive manner, especially concerning rules, campaigns and financial budget. Law also needs to be changed, do not need a quota of 20 percent of seats, but every political party that has seats in parliament could propose regional head candidates. Or political parties and coalitions of political parties can still register the candidate with the minimum quota of 20 percent of parliament seats, but with a maximum of 50 percent of the seats. Terms of candidates from independent pathway also needs to be alleviated. In addition, the recruitment process of political parties also need to be open and democratic. In the future, the General Election Commission (KPU) should continue to conduct a study for the implementation of electronic elections (e-voting, e-recap, e-counting) and build public confidence (trust) for these technologies. Of course, all have to start first with the integrity and independence of the electoral administration which is currently implementing in the first wave of simultaneous elections on December 9, 2015 later.

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

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Visit of Chinese Foreign Minister to Southeast Asia

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Following the visit of Kamala Harris, the vice president of the USA to Vietnam and Singapore, the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi visited the two countries as well as Cambodia to engage the regional players. Vietnam has become the cynosure of major powers such as the US, Japan, and China. The visit of Japanese Defence minister and the US defence secretary happening within a period of three months. US defence secretary visited Vietnam in July 2021 while the Japanese defence minister visited Vietnam in September 2021.

Given the hyper activism which was shown by the two members of the Quad, the Chinese foreign minister sensing these strategic dynamics choose to visit Vietnam to comfort the ideological partner that China would be acting constructively. The Chinese foreign minister during the visit to the country clearly stated that Vietnam should stop entertaining extra regional powers in South China Sea and resist from complicating the situation while magnifying the maritime territorial disputes. This clearly shows that China was rattled by the very fact that US has been undertaking extra efforts in engaging Vietnam through vaccine and health diplomacy as well as creating favourable conditions for Vietnam to enhance trade relations with the US. As part of a reassurance strategy, China has committed to donating 3 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine and is willing to support Vietnam in their fight against COVID-19 pandemic.

In the last two years the Vietnam foreign ministry has been criticising Chinese manoeuvres in South China Sea and threatening legitimate activities of Vietnam in its Exclusive Economic Zone. The illegal activities undertaken by Chinese survey ships and fishermen militia in Vanguard bank, Reed Bank and Whitsun Reef were a manifestation of Chinese hyper activism. This has been criticised by the US state department as well as members of international community.

In the second leg of the visit, the Chinese foreign minister visited Singapore and had fruitful interactions with his counterpart Vivian Balakrishnan. Given the fact that Singapore is slowly emerging as a critical lynchpin in the larger Quad objectives in the region. Therefore, for China, engaging the city state is critical for securing its strategic periphery and engaging Singapore for its trade and economic interests. The proposal of development cooperation proposal by the Chinese foreign minister is to get assurance from the Southeast Asian neighbours regarding good neighbourliness and commitment to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) undertaken by the China in the maritime domain.

The Chinese foreign minister had visited almost nine countries in the last one year when Vietnam was the Chair of ASEAN. This was primarily to counter the efforts which have been made by the high-level delegations of the United States government which included the visit by the United States vice president Kamala Harris, US defence secretary, the US deputy Secretary of State and the visit of armed forces officials to the Southeast Asian countries. China’s neighbourhood diplomacy clearly shows the anxieties from the point of view of China after US has intensified surveillance and intelligence activities as the latest Malabar defence exercises(25th edition) which concluded recently near Guam. Chinese assertive activities have been operationalised by the Chinese naval ships, Chinese Coast Guard, Chinese hydrographic survey ships, and the Chinese maritime boat militia which has been threatening navies and fishermen of littoral countries in South China Sea. The military exercises undertaken by China closer to the contested waters in South China Sea, particularly in the Paracel islands, which belongs to Vietnam, and strengthening the illegal structures built on those islands is primarily aimed to counter the group sails undertaken by the US and its alliance partners as well as any concerted activity undertaken by the Quad countries.

The visit to Cambodia was expected given the fact that the politics in Cambodia is heating up because of the Hun Sen political ambitions of placing his son at the helm of power and helping Chinese to set up a full-fledged Chinese naval base at Ream naval base.  The US projects in that region has been stopped and relocated to other areas which was not liked by the US agencies.

The vaccine diplomacy which has been adopted by the Chinese foreign minister to address the deficit of vaccines in countries such as Cambodia and Vietnam is symbolic.

In this context it is also important to investigate the Japanese overtures in this regard. The Japanese have signed a defence partnership agreement with the Vietnamese which assures the exports of Japanese defence equipment to the socialist country. Under the partnership it is expected that not only arms and equipment, but also technological support and training of the technicians will be undertaken by the Japanese forces. This is the first of its kind defence partnership agreement between Japan and Vietnam showcasing the growing trust between the two countries. There have been certain writings which allude to the fact that a trilateral between India, Vietnam and Japan might be in the offing. Scholars such as Gitanjali Sinha Roy feel that Japan with its technological supremacy, and India with its large armed forces along with Vietnam’s strategic location will act as a common platform to address regional security concerns in the Indo -Pacific region. India being a regional player in the Indian Ocean region and Japan being a formidable power in the Pacific would add heft to the larger maritime security objectives.

The involvement of the European powers in the security of indo Pacific region with reference to the UK, France and Germany showcases that many players would be involved in ensuring maritime security in the region for trade and commercial aspects.

This visit of Chinese foreign minister should be seen from the point of view of reassuring Chinese commitment to the regional peace while at the same time giving a veiled warning to the neighbours that China is still a very potent power in South China Sea, and it would not allow any intervention by the extra territorial powers which tries to intervene in the South China Sea dispute. This visit clearly highlights that China has been startled by the active diplomacy undertaken by countries such as Japan and US and why keeping countries such as Singapore and Vietnam in good humour is critical for Chinese interests.

Vietnam’s ingenuity in handling diplomatic relations with the US, China and Japan and maximizing national strategic interests is appreciated. Through skilful handling of relations with these three countries, Vietnam has become a partner contributing to the peace and security of the region and affirming its central role in Southeast Asia.

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The new AUKUS partnership comes at the cost of sidelining France, a key Indo-Pacific player

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Image credit: ussc.edu.au

Here is my quick take on the new AUKUS security partnership announced on Wednesday (September 15), by the leaders of three key English-speaking countries – Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. But, the move has invited displeasure from France, a key player and partner in the Indo-Pacific with permanent presence in the region.

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US President Joe Biden, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison – leaders of three key English-speaking countries – have announced a new trilateral security partnership in the Indo-Pacific on Wednesday, abbreviated as AUKUS. This came a week before the in-person Quad summit, aimed at deepening cooperation in a range of defence arenas such as artificial intelligence, cyber and quantum technologies and undersea capabilities. It is the latest in a series of moves taken by the Biden administration to engage proactively in the Indo-Pacific, keeping China in mind.

A key initiative of the new AUKUS partnership is to support Australia in acquiring nuclear-powered submarines within the next 18 months. But, this comes at the cost of Canberra putting a halt on the ocean-class submarine development programme agreed with France known as the “Future Submarine Programme”. As Australia strengthens its age-old alliance with the United States and welcomes a deeper British presence in the region, the stakes are at an all-time high for Canberra.

The French Response

When China denounced the new trilateral partnership by referring to “Cold-War mentality and ideological prejudice”, it was expected. However, what stood out was the French response. A joint statement by the French Defence and Foreign Ministers following the announcement of AUKUS stated that it was ‘contrary to the letter and the spirit of the cooperation which prevailed between France and Australia’, and that the American choice reflects ‘an absence of coherence that France can only observe and regret’.

Australia is also a member of the Quad and the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence-sharing alliance that includes Canada and Australia as well. With AUKUS, Australian military will be closely linked with that of the United States. However, the UK has not had a permanent presence in the Indo-Pacific for decades now. On the other hand, France is the only European power currently present in the region with nearly two million of its citizens and more than 7,000 military personnel, spread across a vast maritime stretch from the Réunion Island in the Western Indian Ocean to French Polynesia and New Caledonia in the South Pacific.

In a catchy tweet, the Ambassador of France to the United States, Philippe Etienne noted,“Interestingly, exactly 240 years ago the French Navy defeated the British Navy in Chesapeake Bay, paving the way for the victory at Yorktown and the independence of the United States”.He was just reminding the Americans of their historical ties with the French that goes beyond the Statue of Liberty.

‘Global Britain’ to align with the Indo-Pacific vision

The AUKUS is specifically hurting French sentiments at multiple levels. Being a reliable partner in the region that proactively engages in a broad network of trilaterals and minilaterals involving Quad partners Japan, India, Australia and other regional players, France was much better suited than the UK to form a defence partnership, in my view, when the region needs timely action. The concept of ‘global Britain’ has made its entry into public discourse only recently. The way ahead for the re-emergence of the UK from its post-war decline seems a long one, vis-à-vis dealing with a rising China.

In contrast, the French and their military installations are already in the region. It could’ve been considered better for amplifying collective defence capability and interoperability in the region and to empower the Australian military, rather than partnering with a dormant and erstwhile regional power in Asia and the Pacific like the UK, at a time when the region faces ‘unprecedented challenges’, as noted in the French statement of response.

Washington has shared the technology of nuclear submarines only once before with the UK, almost seven decades ago. Australia’s geographic advantage and deteriorating ties with China makes it a rightful next choice. It seems the new Anglophone trilateral partnership is a systematic US-led attempt to involve the UK, particularly in a post-Brexit scenario, to play a bigger role in the Indo-Pacific.

A new addition to the regional architecture

In the context of the disruptive rise of an increasingly assertive China, it is understandable to have a variety of partnerships and minilaterals among maritime democracies that could complement the Quad and the ASEAN-led regional institutions in the Indo-Pacific. Instead of inviting the UK to the Quad itself, the Biden administration chose to form a new sister grouping in the region, perhaps with the intention of being more flexible. In the present geopolitical scenario, empowering Australia’s defence capabilities is understandably a timely move, but the choice of partners is the real issue here.

It is reasonable that not every ally or partner needs to be in every alliance or coalition, however, time-tested regional players should not be ignored in a way how the US and Australia did to France with the underlying intention of bringing the UK back into the region’s newly evolving geopolitical equation.

What Australia should be careful about?

No matter how the US chooses to hedge the situation with France, Australia should deepen its bilateral partnership with France, being a key Indo-Pacific player with permanent regional presence. The ‘2+2’ ministerial consultations between the two countries, which was inaugurated last month, needs to be built upon.

Nuclear-powered submarines could definitely boost Australia’s maritime deterrence capabilities. However, handling and operating them is a highly-complex and risky manoeuvre. So, it is important that the move should not be given the impression of being escalatory. Moreover, Australia, being a non-nuclear weapon state, should reinforce its commitment to the global non-proliferation regime and the rules-based order.

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Making sense of a rugged political terrain in the Land of Golden Pagodas

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Eight months have passed since Myanmar’s coup d’état. What are the domestic factors that contribute to the country’s grim political scenario? What are the odds that work against Burmese democracy? Here, I look back at the chequered political past of Myanmar to find answers.

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After a decade of relative calm, the Tatmadaw, as the Burmese armed forces are referred to, smuggled power from the civilian leadership by staging a repugnant coup in February this year, led by its 65-year old-leader, General Min Aung Hlaing. This was executed just a few days before the convening of Myanmar’s newly-elected Parliament and three months after the National League for Democracy’s (NLD) landslide victory in the election held in November 2020 in the country’s second freely-contested polls since 2015.

As the junta came back to haunt the newest democratic experiment in Myanmar again, history repeats itself. Even before the coup, the Tatmadaw’s dominant posture in the administration was strongly evident, as twenty-five per cent of seats in the Parliament and key portfolios in the Cabinet were reserved for the military, according to the Constitution promulgated by the military itself in 2008.

Déjà vu 1988

Apparently, the Tatmadaw and its aging leader were outraged by the continuing and overwhelming popularity that democratic icon Aung San Suu Kyi still enjoyed in the weeks following the 2020 elections, despite all the allegations of her playing second-fiddle to the Tatmadaw. The coup d’état and the subsequent crackdown on democracy set the clock back to 1988.

It was in that year, a large wave of protests erupted against the military that began as a student-led movement in the city of Rangoon (now, Yangon), which soon spread across the country. It came to be known as the ‘8-8-88 Uprising’ or the ‘People Power Movement’ because the protests peaked on 8 August 1988. Suu Kyi’s NLD party emerged from this movement.

Burma was separated from British India as a separately-administered colony eleven years before the country gained independence. The Buddhist-majority state was free of British rule in 1948 under the leadership of people like U Nu and Aung San with the hopes of ushering in a parliamentary democracy. Unfortunately, in the next fourteen years, the country would witness the very first military coup in its history since independence, in 1962, led by General U Ne Win, who would go on to rule the country with an iron fist for the next twenty-six years.

Absence of a political consensus

Right from its independence in 1948, the Land of Golden Pagodas has been a deeply divided nation along the lines of ethnicity, religion, and political loyalty, with the majority Burmans dominating the upper echelons of power. Myanmar comprises of 135 ethnic groups in total. It includes the majority Burmans, who constitute two-thirds of the population, minority groups such as the Shan, the Karen, the Rohingya, the Kachin, the Mon and other smaller groups. A grave absence of political consensus among diverse ethno-religious groups and their respective parties had always been a bane for Myanmar’s overall stability.

Myanmar’s decades-long inter-ethnic tensions and sectarian violence have been a historical factor behind the rise of popularity of the Tatmadaw among the people, who consider themselves as the only force that could bring-in stability to the country, an idea that resonates with a substantial proportion of the majority Burmans even today. But, a pro-democracy resistance movement is underway on the other side, with the military’s recent excesses leading to many of its supporters switching sides.

When the Tatmadaw was seen a beacon of stability

The Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL) coalition dominated Myanmar’s political scene from 1948 to 1958. Contrary to popular beliefs today, the military was seen as a beacon of stability in the country’s immediate post-independence period as numerous sectarian groups battled each other. In the 1950s, the country had to deal with scattered left-wing insurgencies too, along with the widely prevalent ethnic conflicts.

Even as early as 1958, when the affairs of the state were slipping away, the Tatmadaw was asked by the civilian government to step in as a temporary caretaker government. The military remained loyal to the elected government for fourteen years since independence and had even facilitated the general elections of 1960.

At a moment when the military’s public support rose considerably among the people, catalysed by a corrupt civilian government led by the AFPFL, the Tatmadaw decided to take matters into their own hands by staging a coup in 1962. The junta adopted a new Constitution in 1974, suspending the one previously promulgated in 1947.

Soon, the military emerged as a repressive force and their socialist state policy known as the Burmese Way to Socialism isolated Myanmar from the rest of the world from 1962 to 1988 and devastated the economy. Around the same time, Buddhist ultra-nationalism perpetrated by fear-mongering monks also thrived under the regime at the cost of intimidation of the minority groups.

The dawn of a new epoch and the return to history

With the people realising their folly in trusting the Tatmadaw, the uprising of 1988 happened. Around the same time, young Suu Kyi returned to her home country after completing her studies abroad. Witnessing the scathing power abuse of the ruling junta hands-on, she rallied her fellow Burmese citizens for the cause of Myanmar’s democratic transition. The uprising can also be viewed as a direct consequence of the emergence of the NLD, which contested and won the elections of 1990. But, the military refused to accept the results and prevented a civilian government from exercising power.

Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest by the junta in the following year. She continued her struggle and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. She was detained for fifteen years in total between 1990 and 2010. Elections were held in 2010 and the junta was ‘supposedly’ dissolved the following year, only to re-emerge in 2021.

As per estimates by the United Nations, around 230,000 people were displaced as of June this year, because of the military action and retaliatory attacks either by civilian rebels or by one armed resistance group or the other. As of July this year, more than a thousand people were allegedly killed by the junta, with thousands of protesters arrested, detained, or charged, and many even just disappeared beyond trace. Recently, the shadow resistance movement that calls itself the ‘National Unity Government’ of Myanmar had gone underground since the February coup and has called for a nation-wide ‘people’s defensive war’ against the Tatmadaw.

Regional voices and the road to peace

Myanmar is a member of the ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) since 1997. But, the organisation, despite its diplomatic efforts, was unable to prevent the coup and the subsequent civilian unrest in the country. In fact, the ASEAN’s negotiations in its capital Jakarta, in April, and the Five-Point Consensus that emerged from it have been seemingly side-lined by the junta. ASEAN envoys met with the army leaders in June and the organisation’s latest proposal for a ceasefire until the end of 2021, put forward in August-end, has been reportedly denied by the military.

Due to geo-economic and border security considerations, neighbouring China and India happen to have good ties with the Tatmadaw. However, a broad-based civilian support is the only way to ensure the army’s sustained legitimacy. And, the best solution to bring back real stability in Myanmar is to agree on a mutually-accepted power-sharing agreement between the shadow civilian leadership and the military that would secure unequivocal internal peace within the country.

Social cohesion continues to be a distant dream for Myanmar and the Burmese people, the absence of which continues to be the root cause of all political wrongs in the country. The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic is making the crisis worse. In the end, the military cannot afford to antagonize the United Nations and the democracies of the world for long, especially of the West, with their economic sanctions in place, and the dire curbs placed on the Burmese people’s genuine democratic aspirations will go out of the reckoning again in just a matter of time.

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