A. Ibrahim Almuttaqi, The Jakarta Post
One country that is no stranger to such transitions is Indonesia, which itself emerged from decades of authoritarian rule in 1998. While 4,000 km separates the two Southeast Asian countries, it is remarkable that they have charted an almost identical path. Each emerged from the ashes of bitter independence struggles against their respective colonizers. Both became vanguards for the decolonized world under the leadership of Sukarno and U Nu, respectively.
Each faced a daunting challenge to maintain national unity amid complex diversity along racial, ethnic, religious, linguistic and cultural lines. And both had failed experiments with parliamentary democracy that paved the way for the military to assume power.
These shared experiences have fostered a sense of understanding between the two states, which is perhaps stronger than those that exist with their more immediate neighbors. While Indonesia-Malaysia relations are fraught with regular diplomatic spats and Myanmar-Thailand relations seen as ambivalent, contrastingly, Indonesia-Myanmar ties were described as a ‘special relationship’ by The Irrawaddy (a leading, independent Burmese news publication).
One visible demonstration of this can be seen in Jakarta’s efforts to assist Myanmar’s democratization process, which were acknowledged by Suu Kyi who expressed her appreciation and admiration of Indonesia’s role. Giving substance to the special relationship rhetoric was the fact that Indonesia was one of the few countries granted high-level access to sites of communal conflicts that broke out in Rakhine state in 2013.
Nevertheless, the special relationship at the government-to-government level appears to have dipped in recent months. The Indonesian Foreign Ministry was criticized for taking two weeks to congratulate Myanmar’s historic elections that saw Suu Kyi’s NLD Party sweep to victory in November 2015. Beyond this level, however, it is questionable if a special relationship exists at the business-to-business or people-to-people level.
Bilateral trade between Indonesia and Myanmar stood at US$689 million in 2014, far short of the targeted bilateral trade of $1 billion set for 2016. In 2014, Indonesia was listed as only the ninth largest trading partner for Myanmar, while Myanmar did not even feature in the top 10 largest-trading partners for Indonesia.
Concerns have been raised at how Indonesians have not reaped any significant economic benefits from Myanmar’s recent opening to the outside world. This is despite Jakarta having devoted much political and diplomatic effort to integrate Naypyitaw with the international community. It should not be forgotten that it was the then Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa’s positive endorsement of Myanmar’s ‘Roadmap to Discipline-flourishing Democracy’ that paved the way for Naypyitaw to take up the ASEAN chairmanship of 2014.
Ever since international pressure had forced Myanmar to forego its turn to chair the regional organization in 2006, Naypyitaw was determined to avoid a repeat and miss out on the coveted international recognition that went with holding the ASEAN chairmanship. At the same time, there were doubts about the genuineness of Myanmar’s reforms with some in the international community calling for a boycott if the country was allowed to take up the ASEAN chair.
Marty’s assessment mission was thus crucial in finding a win-win solution that appeased the desire of Naypyitaw and the concerns of the international community. Yet despite this, it is companies from Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand that have since benefited from Myanmar opening up, not Indonesia.
At the people-to-people level, no direct flights between the two countries currently exist. This is despite the fact that the first commercial flight of Indonesia’s national airline, Garuda Indonesia, actually flew from Calcutta to Yangon in 1949.
According to Myanmar’s Ministry of Hotels and Tourism, Indonesians do not even feature in the 2015 list of top 10 visitors from Asia to Myanmar (instead categorized under ‘others’). Similarly, Indonesia’s Central Bureau of Statistics show that Myanmar nationals do not feature in the list of top six visitors from ASEAN states to Indonesia for 2014 (instead categorized as ‘other ASEAN countries’). Indeed, the ‘other ASEAN countries’ made up of Myanmar along with Cambodia and Lao PDR registered no more than 67,248 visitors (or 1.8 percent of total ASEAN visitors), where a 2008 report indicated only 2,500 Burmese visited Indonesia.
Clearly there are still significant gaps in Indonesia-Myanmar relations. Given the historic ties between the two countries, such a state of affairs is unfortunate and needs to be addressed.
However, restoring the special relationship goes beyond simply nostalgic reasons. Seen as the last frontier in Southeast Asia, Myanmar promises to become the next economic ‘tiger’ with above-8 percent annual growth predicted for the years to come. This boom will be driven by rapid expansion in the oil and gas sector, tourism, textiles and telecommunications; areas where Indonesia could do business.
While concerns over President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo’s interest in foreign policy remain, the economic argument should be apparent to him and the government. Indonesia should not and must not miss out on this. In other words, it should seize the opportunity of Myanmar’s first civilian President to lift Jakarta-Naypyitaw relations to new heights and to ensure that Indonesia benefits from Myanmar opening up.
The writer is head of the ASEAN Studies Program, The Habibie Center in Jakarta. The views expressed are his own.