By WAI MOE
The Irrawaddy News
Indonesia recently hosted informal meetings on Burma with the United Nations’ special envoy to Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, the Burmese ambassador to the UN, Kyaw Tint Swe, and representatives of the country’s two giant neighbors, India and China.
The meetings, described as “informal luncheons,” were held twice, and were hosted by Indonesia both times.
“It is not a group. It is not institutionalized. It’s a luncheon meeting,” said the Indian ambassador to the UN, Nirupam Sen.
The US ambassador to the UN, Zalmay Khalilzad, said the meetings were being held to push Burma in the right direction, and that the participants had taken a special responsibility upon themselves in this regard.
Indonesia’s interest in playing a more active role in Burmese affairs was first signaled in early June, when the country’s foreign minister said in an interview with The Australian that his government wanted to act as a mediator to help resolve Burma’s longstanding political deadlock.
The Indonesian government has since hinted that it has a plan which could move the Burmese junta towards democracy, using its own experience as a basis for mapping out a political transition.
The detailed plan, put together by a team of experts, involves Indonesia’s experience of forming a transitional government which gave both military officers and civilians a role as the country moved from dictatorship to democracy. Indonesia is recognized today as having one of the strongest democracies in Asia.
Indonesia implemented a policy of Dwifungsi under former dictator Suharto’s military-dominated “New Order” government, which was installed following the removal of President Sukarno. The Indonesian military received a political and security role for several decades under the doctrine.
Highlighting Indonesia’s potential importance as an agent for change in Burma, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and his special envoy, Gambari, met with the ambassadors of India, China and Indonesia on June 26 to discuss the political and humanitarian situation in Burma.
Observers say that the newly democratized Indonesia should use its influence within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to help resolve regional problems.
“It has always, quietly, dominated Asean,” The Economist wrote on May 22, adding that the country had the power to turn the regional grouping “into a club that enforces some minimum standards of decency on its members.”
“Unlike [the leaders of] other Asean countries, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is quite actively involved in Burma’s affairs. As a former general, he has good relations with Burmese generals,” said Win Min, a Burmese researcher on civil-military relations.
The international community has been pressing Indonesia for years to take a more proactive role in Burma’s affairs. The former foreign minister, Ali Alatas, was sent as Indonesia’s special envoy to Burma in 2003 and visited the country again in 2005 as an envoy for the UN.
But critics doubt whether Indonesia’s behind-the-scenes efforts will have any more effect than previous attempts by other regional countries.
Debbie Stothard of the Alternative Asean Network (Altsean) said that Indonesia must do more than hold informal meetings if it wants to make any headway, because quiet diplomacy won’t work for Burma.
Indonesia is currently a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. During its two-year membership, which will expire in December, it has witnessed two major crises in Burma—the bloody crackdown on monk-led protests in September 2007 and the standoff over international aid in the wake of Cyclone Nargis in May of this year. Critics say that on both occasions, Indonesia failed to use its membership to push the Security Council to act decisively.
“No Asean country can influence Burma,” said Roshan Jason, executive director of the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus. “If they could, monks would not have been killed, the junta’s response to Cyclone Nargis would have been better and Aung San Suu Kyi would have been released.”
Correspondent Lalit K Jha contributed to this story from New York.