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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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Southeast Asia

ASEAN Peace Initiative and the Myanmar Crisis: A Failed Attempt?

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Historically, ASEAN is closely linked with Myanmar. As part of the Southeast Asian region and an ASEAN member, Myanmar enjoys a huge significance. ASEAN has often been criticized outside the region for its role in Myanmar since the Cold War days. The rejection of the electoral verdict in 1990 in Myanmar by the military regime and subsequent brutal crackdown against the National League for Democracy (NLD) activists and protesters put the ASEAN regional group in a dilemma. Nevertheless, ASEAN did not abandon Myanmar and continued its membership. ASEAN has done very little about the brutality and atrocities of the Myanmar military regime against the Rohingyas, who are the largest group of stateless people in the world. The displacement of more than 2 million Rohingyas outside Myanmar, including 1.1 million in Bangladesh, could not draw the considerable attention of its members to take effective actions against the military.

Nevertheless, ASEAN is a key multilateral platform for regional dialogue as well as for promoting peace and stability in the region and specifically in Myanmar against the backdrop of the post-military coup in the country. On February 1, Myanmar’s military seized power. The country’s political leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi were detained. Protests have been going on in the country since then. More than 832 civilians, including children have been killed in two and half month protests by the army and police in Myanmar, according to the right group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP). More than 3,000 protesters, including journalists and artists have been detained.

ASEAN seeks talks between Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the government of military Junta Min Aung Hlai to restore peace in the country. It sees no alternatives to peace talks in Myanmar. For this, the group has offered to mediate to bring all the disputing parties into the discussion. At the same time, the leaders of the alliance have agreed in principle to provide humanitarian assistance to the people of Myanmar. Accordingly, the ASEAN convened a special and emergency Summit in Jakarta, Indonesia in April 2021 to discuss a pathway to overcome the domestic political crisis in Myanmar.

The supreme coup leader, Min Aung Hlaing arrived in Jakarta on his first foreign trip since the military coup in Myanmar and joined the special meeting of the regional alliance ASEAN of 10 countries. During the summit, the ASEAN leaders voiced the demands such as stopping the bloodshed in Myanmar in the name of suppressing the protests, keeping the door open for talks, restoring democracy and releasing the political prisoners. Joko Widodo, the President of Indonesia, the host country of the summit stressed that the junta government must promise to end violence in Myanmar. Democracy, stability, and peace must be restored. Malaysian Prime Minister Muhiuddin Yassin called for an end to the ongoing killings and atrocities in Myanmar as he reiterated, “I hope Myanmar will unconditionally consider Malaysia’s offer to release political prisoners immediately.”  The Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Hsien Long expressed hope that the military would comply with the call and initiatives of ASEAN countries to restore peace in Myanmar.

Following the summit, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi delivered a press conference on behalf of the group. He expressed his deep concern about the ongoing violence in Myanmar. The number of killings and injured is constantly increasing. There are no signs of restoration of democracy in the country. ASEAN issued a statement expressing a “five-point consensus” on Myanmar’s crisis. It called for the immediate cessation of violence, a dialogue among all concerned parties, and mediation of the dialogue process by an ASEAN special envoy, provision of humanitarian aid through ASEAN channels, and a visit to Myanmar by the special ASEAN envoy to meet all concerned parties. ASEAN hopes to initiate a longer-term framework process, starting with ending the violence that will help facilitate dialogue among all the stakeholders in Myanmar, not just with the military regime.

On the ground, the ASEAN peace initiative has raised more questions about its implementation. The Myanmar Junta government has hardly listened to the ASEAN peace initiative and subsequent ASEAN diplomatic strides. It has even blatantly failed to keep their own words promised in the special summit. Demonstrations have continued in many parts of the country since meeting, as many have been killed, arrested and attacked by security forces. More ominously, the military regime, in an utter violation of the spirit of the summit, launched an initiative to dissolve the National League for Democracy (NLD), a party that swept in the 2020 elections by a landslide victory of winning 399 seats exceeding the number of seats of 322 grabbed in 2015. It won more than 80% of the votes proving its epochal popularity among the masses in Myanmar. The military-appointed Chief of Myanmar’s election commission, Thein Soe, declared the possibility of disbanding NLD over allegations of fraud. It has literally killed the prospect of any positive changes by the ASEAN peace initiative. Besides, the opposition political parties and Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) leaders also expressed their doubts about the success of the peace initiative due to ASEAN’s ineffective and mild approach to the Junta government.

In this context, a successful regional organization like the ASEAN cannot sit idle to such acts of the military regime in Myanmar. As part of short-term role, ASEAN should, at least, tackle the situation in a way that would allow open discussion on any urgent action that its member states can take to de-escalate political tensions, prevent bloodshed and to put a stop to hostilities perpetrated by the military junta. This could help prevent the loss of life and the further deterioration of the economic and political situation in the country. The ASEAN should treat the Myanmar issue as a matter of utmost urgency precisely because of two important considerations.  First, it is a critical matter that ASEAN has the prime responsibility to respond to the current political crisis in Myanmar that has a colossal impact on basic tenets of democratization, human rights, human security and livelihoods of people. The second vital factor is to avoid the recurrence of spill-over effects that the on-going political turmoil in Myanmar may produce cross-border and regional repercussions. Particularly, it would negatively impact neighbouring countries. For instance, if the crisis escalates to an unprecedented level and is not resolved peacefully, it will more or less produce similar cross-border repercussions exemplified by the aftermath of the 1988 student uprising and the May 1990 elections. 

The massive exodus of the Rohingyas in Bangladesh is the biggest tragedy of the contemporary world linked with the actions of the military leaders in Myanmar over the decades. If these cross-border issues and consequences are to be prevented from happening again, ASEAN member states must deal with the Myanmar debacle squarely and resolutely. ASEAN can, at least, put effective pressure on the military Junta to first and foremost respect the results of the November 8, 2020 elections, release Suu Kyi and all political detainees, then go back to the negotiating table and discuss with the legally constituted and democratically elected members of the NLD on how they can work together to resolve their differences. ASEAN and the rest of the international community must not allow the political situation in Myanmar to further deteriorate as it would lead to the worsening of an already dire situation for its people and the region. ASEAN member states must heed to the call of the people of Myanmar for help and assistance. Their safety and security heavily rely on the continued support of the international community in general, ASEAN in particular. Experts argue that whether ASEAN succeeds or fails in providing a solution to the Myanmar crisis would determine its final score in the larger geopolitical strategic game. It is more so when the global and regional powers are engaged in geopolitical rivalry sacrificing the interests of people, including the marginalized communities such as the Rohingyas in Myanmar. The failure of ASEAN will turn into a disaster in regional diplomacy to deal with the Myanmar crisis.

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China – Myanmar relations

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While addressing a meeting of the foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister, Wang Yi expressed China’s grave concerns over the Myanmar issue. Wang reaffirmed China’s commitment to continue playing a constructive role, saying that China is all ready to work with ASEAN on Myanmar-related problems. Wang Yi was addressing the special ASEAN-China Foreign Ministers’ meeting to commemorate the 30th anniversary of dialogue relations held on June 7, 2021, at Chongqing Municipality, South West of China.

Wang further emphasized that all parties in Myanmar should prioritize the interests of the people, exercise moderation, and eradicate all forms of violence. China can assist in economic recovery, enhance its people’s livelihoods, and protect their rights and interests. He stated that China welcomes all parties to conduct political discourse under the constitution and legal framework to resume the path of democratic change, adding that China remains ready to cooperate with ASEAN to give help to Myanmar in the face of COVID-19.

China has always remained a proponent of peace and stability in Myanmar. The relations between two, have been characterized as “kinsfolk” (pauk-phaw in Burmese), a phrase coined in the 1950s. The relations between China and Myanmar have gone through various ups and downs. Formal relations between the two dates back to late 1940 when both countries mutually recognized each other. Until the 1960’s two nations have enjoyed warm bilateral relations. Things got complicated in 1967 when anti-Chinese riots erupted in Yangon. Bilateral relations between them again touched a high point in 1988 when they signed a ‘cross-border trade agreement’ that finally put an end to Myanmar’s lengthy isolation from the rest of the world. China was thus vigorously seeking a strategic channel to the Indian Ocean, mainly for its landlocked provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan. Later, the Chinese presence in Myanmar enlarged significantly in terms of financial and domestic affairs. In 2018, China was the biggest foreign investor in Myanmar with a direct investment of more than $15 billion on 126 business projects. In the 1990s and early 2000s, China was Myanmar’s principal source of arms and ammunition. In more recent times, the Tatmadaw attempted to shift its arms supply dependence on China, though China is still the leading supplier, accounting for almost 50% of Myanmar armaments. Moreover, Myanmar is amongst the largest receivers of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) funds. It has continuously having China’s massive financial support for a set of infrastructural projects along the China Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) including projects related to transportation, industry, finance and communication. The construction of a deep-sea port and the development of a Special Economic Zone at Kyaukphyu, in Rakhine State that connects Yunnan province via railway, are among the utmost significant developmental projects.

The recent coup of February 2021 raised serious apprehensions for China due to the factors which are multifold. Firstly, given the past events, it poses severe security threats to the neighboring Yunnan province as a spillover effect, for instance, 2017 had seen the death of five persons on the China side and the migration of thousands of refugees into the Yunnan Province in combat between the Tatmadaw and Kachin Independence Army, one of the four (Ethnic Armed Organizations)EAOs of the Northern Alliance. Additionally, it can halt the economic development of Yunnan, an impoverished province, draws investment because of its strategic location as a doorway to Southeast Asia. Secondly, Instability in Myanmar can be ruinous for China’s flagship project, Belt and Road Initiative. For the success of BRI, stability in neighborhood is indispensable. Thirdly, China can’t afford to have turmoil in the neighborhood. The instability in Myanmar is causing disturbances in the neighboring states too, as hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims fled to Bangladesh when Myanmar’s army launched a brutal campaign on them in August 2017.

While China was enjoying stable and friendly relations with the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the recent coup is by no means in favor of China Yun Sun, a co-director of the East Asia Program and director of the China Program at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C stated that  “A coup in no way is in Beijing’s interests. Beijing was working very well with the NLD”, he further added, “If Beijing has a choice, I think they would prefer the NLD over the military. But they don’t have a choice… so they have to deal with whatever comes along.”

China has always remained a proponent of peace and stability in Myanmar. In the current scenario, China can play a constructive role in somehow settling the Myanmar issue and support the ill-fated country to embrace stability.

Firstly, since the outbreak of Covid19, things got worse domestically in Myanmar due to the lack of a proper health care system. It can be a blessing in disguise for China and provides a golden opportunity to score some diplomatic points by providing vaccinations and playing a significant role in solving the combined public health and economic crises that would be a win-win situation for both nations. Secondly, China can use its influence being the sole and long term partner, to bring conflicting parties to the table to find amicable resolution of the conflict. Thirdly, China should keep investing in Myanmar and help it building its economy through more investments especially in development sector. Finally, China can utilize ASEAN option as mentioned by Wang Yi in latest statement. ASEAN and China can collaborate to devise amicable and practical resolution of the Myanmar problem.

Stable and peaceful Myanmar is in the interest of the whole region and China in particular. Considering, chaos in a neighboring country can have grim implications for China and its developmental projects,  China along with other regional actors need to find realistic solutions for durable peace and stability in Myanmar.

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Southeast Asia

The National Unity Government and the Rohingya Issue in Myanmar: A New Twist?

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In a Twitter message on 3 June 2021, the National Unity Government (NUG) in Myanmar announced a new policy position about the Rohingya issue. Entitled as ‘Policy Position on the Rohingya in Rakhine State’ the NUG unequivocally spells out, “In honour of human rights and human dignity and also to eradicate the conflicts and root causes in the Union, the NUG aims to build up a prosperous and federal democratic union where all ethnic groups belonging to the Union can live together peacefully. This objective is clearly stated in the Federal Democracy Charter.’ The statement further says, ‘We invite Rohingyas to join hands with us and others to participate in the Spring Revolution against the military dictatorship in all possible ways.’

This marks a monumental policy change on the Rohingya issue by the NUG that did not include any Rohingya when it was formed on April 16, 2021. It may be mentioned that the NUG includes a president, state counsellor, vice president, prime minister and 11 ministers for 12 ministries. There are also 12 deputy ministers appointed by the CRPH.  Of the 26 total cabinet members, 13 belong to ethnic nationalities, and eight are women. International community particularly global civil society actors criticized the NUG for excluding the Rohingyas in the newly formed civilian government. It is, indeed, a question about the credibility of the government when it talks about federal democracy, but excludes a community who have been living in Myanmar for centuries.

The new statement from the NUG is a welcome development and an adjustment of their position with a genuine spirit of bringing all ethnic groups together and create a strong platform against the brutal and genocidal military regime in Myanmar. The February 2021 military coup in Myanmar is a watershed political development in the country that has dramatically changed the attitudes and perception oof the Myanmar people and the civilian political forces because of illegality, extreme form of brutality and betrayal to democratic change. The spontaneous social movements by the Myanmar people with a high risk of lives and livelihoods was perhaps unimaginable to the Junta government as well as global community. The civilian political forces possibly did not think such kind of sustained resistance in the form of Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) in Myanmar where people suffered direct military rule for more than five decades. Military rule was the order of the day in the country.

Against this backdrop, the statement of the NUG deserves a huge attention. Why has the NUG issue the statement? What is the significance of this statement for the status of the Rohingyas and the future of democracy in Myanmar? These questions are vital for establishing the rights of the Rohingyas who have been suffering as stateless people and living in different countries as the forcibly displaced people. Particularly, the presence of the 1.1 million Rohingyas in Bangladesh in the camps of Cox’s Bazar and Bhashan Char is a stark reality and a great casualty of humanity in the present world where a country called Myanmar can force more than a million of its residents overnight and continue to show the defiance not to accept them. The world is virtually silent!

In understanding the significance of the statement of the NUG we can identify several issues that deserve to be taken into consideration. First, the reason behind the change of position of the NUG on the question of Rohingyas is clearly spelled out at the bottom of the statement where they have urged the Rohingyas to join the movement to oust the military regime in Myanmar. It is not only addressed to the Rohingya people, but also to the forces and parties in the world who are supporting the cause of the Rohingyas. From this perspective it has a huge diplomatic purpose to bolster the movement of the NUG and CDM in their fight against the military regime. Particularly, the Western world, the United Nations and the Muslim countries who have expressed their solidarity and compassion for the Rohingyas and have devoted their resources for them. Second, the statement is not just a declaration of support of the NUG to the Rohingyas. It contains a roadmap about solving the Rohingya crisis for which some of the members of the NUG were liable. The leadership of the National League for Democracy (NLD) betrayed with the Rohingyas when their leader Aung San Suu Kyi joined hands with the Tatmadaw in 2011 and ruled the country jointly and ditched the cause of the Rohingyas.

The NLD leader also defended the crimes against humanity of the military leaders in the International Court of Justice (ICJ). It was a true infidelity to the Rohingyas and also to her own long credentials as a fighter for democracy. Therefore, to establish a credibility of their declaration, the NUG shows a way-out to resolve the Rohingya crisis. They have promised to repeal and amend laws such as the 1982 Citizenship laws by the new constitution. This new Citizenship Act must base citizenship on birth in Myanmar or birth anywhere as a child of Myanmar citizens. It is also mentioned that the NUG is in process of abolishing National Verification Cards to recognize Rohingyas as citizens. These two laws have discriminated for Rohingyas as the core ground. The NUG reaffirms to implement the aggrements signed with Rohingya repatriation and also agreed to Kofi Anan’s 88 points recommendations over Rohingya legal rights.

Third, the statement acknowledges the rights of Rohingya people and atrocity crimes they faced in Myanmar. The statement represents a shift from the persecution of the Rohingya by the military junta as well as previous governments, which routinely denied the existence of the Rohingya as well as evidence of mass atrocity crimes they suffered. The statement commits the NUG to ensuring justice and accountability for crimes against Rohingya in Myanmar. The NUG also affirmed its commitment to “voluntary, safe, and dignified repatriation” of Rohingya refugees to Rakhine State. The NUG makes a bold promise, “We will actively seek justice and accountability for all crimes committed by the military against the Rohingyas and all other people of Myanmar throughout our history.” They have gone to the extent of profound redressing of the past crimes and injustice as they say, “We intend if necessary to initiate processes to grant [the] International Criminal Court jurisdiction over crimes committed within Myanmar against the Rohingyas and other communities.”

Fourth, a critical issue is how would the supporters and sympathizers of the Tatmadaw at home and abroad respond to this major policy reversal of the NUG and its leadership who once viewed the Rohingyas in the same eyes as with the Tatmadaw? Understandably, China, Russia, ASEAN, India and several pro-military regime actors would not find it encouraging. They may rule it out at a tactic of the NUG to garner the global support particularly from the UN and West. Fifth, whatever the reactions of the global community, the Tatmadaw would find it a new avenue of diplomatic pressure on them. However, they will rule out this position as the military regime has already declared the NUG as a ‘terrorist’ outfit. Rather, the Tatmadaw would appeal to the Buddhist nationalists and Bamar people that the NUG has a sinister objective to legitimize the Rohingyas as citizens of the country.

Finally, the crux of the matter is that it is a great victory of the Rohingyas to show the world that the successive Myanmar regimes – military and pseudo military – have used false narratives, including branding them as terrorists, to undermine their rights and justice in the country where they have been living for centuries with their own identity. The NUG has made it loud and clear to the world that the military junta in the country is pursuing an apartheid policy and committed the crimes against humanity widely referred as ‘ethnic cleansing’ and ‘genocide’.

In conclusion, to mean the business and establish a credibility of their intention expressed in the new policy position, the NUG of Myanmar should appoint an ethnic-Rohingya member to the cabinet who would help it implement and expand upon its new policy on the rights of Rohingya people. The NUG must continue to highlight meaningful consultation with Rohingya people globally, including Rohingya women. This new twist in the position of the civilian leadership in Myanmar who once reigned power and supported the military regime is critical for the future of the Rohingya issue and if it sustains, then the prospect of democracy in the post-Tatmadaw Myanmar will energize pro-democracy forces and boost global support for the NUG.

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