By Bawono Kumoro
Last April, Myanmar witnessed a grand democratic event, which was the holding of elections – a historical moment for a country that was ruled by military junta for decades.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the Myanmar democratic figure, who is also the leader for National League Party for Democracy (NLD), was elected as Member of Parliament for the first time after being in a house arrest for more than 20 years. The democratic elections aided in forming a new international perception of the rise of democracy in South East Asia.
Democracy, as it is emphasized in the ASEAN Charter, has become a common goal to create an ASEAN community in 2015. That said, as it stands now, de facto democracy cannot be fully implemented in most countries in South East Asia.
In fact, most of the countries in Sout East Asia are haunted by political turmoil and anti-democratic attitudes. The military coup against the democratic government of Thailand’s Prime Minister Thaksi Sinawatra in 2006 is just one examples.
Nevertheless, in the last few years democracy is indeed making progress in South East Asia. Many aspirations to have better forms of democracy have been voiced loudly in the South East Asian communities.
Over the last two years, the “Bersih 2.0” group has shown their existence as a powerful force in demanding clean and fair elections in Malaysia. Freedom of expression also exists in Singapore, yet it is slow. The democratic election in Myanmar last April has become the pinnacle of aspiration of the South East Asian community towards a better democracy.
If we create a mapping of ten countries in the South Asian Countries, Indonesia is practically the only country that has reached democratic standards. It is no wonder that the international community has place Indonesia as one of the largest democratic nations after India and United States. Indonesia has undergone a transition from authoritarian regime to democratic regime, although it has not been consolidated.
As with other South East Asian countries, Indonesia has experienced authoritarian rule. However, Indonesia was lucky because it was able to free itself from the authoritarian regime earlier compared to other South East Asian countries.
In that regard, it is safe to say that there are many people who rely on Indonesia to be able to play a concrete role in promoting democracy in the regional level in South East Asian. As the largest democratic country in the South East Asian Nations and the third in the world, Indonesia has a moral responsibility. As such, Indonesia can become the ideal type for other South East Asian countries. Therefore, democracy should serve as the basis for Indonesia in conducting diplomacy.
In recent years, the steps towards that direction have been carried out by the Indonesian Government. In many state visits, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) has shared his experiences with other head of states of neighboring countries in South East Asia on the implementation of democracy in Indonesia.
Through that contribution, in 2007, International Association of Political Consultant (IAPC) rewarded the Indonesian government with the prestigious Democracy Award. This award is given to those who significantly contributed towards the development of democratic practices.
The success of Myanmar’s democratic election in April would not have been achieved without the role of President SBY as Indonesian representation in sharing experience on democratic issues. Soon after the new leader took office in March 2011, President U Thein Sein had a bilateral meeting with President SBY to learn about Indonesia’s experience in facing the political transition from authoritarian regime towards democratic regime.
In addition, President U Thein Sein admitted that he wanted to learn from Indonesia’s experience in building a sustainable democracy. Indonesia’s achievement as the first Asian country in the South East Asian region that has successfully freed itself from the authoritarian regime as well as implementing democracy has encouraged President U Thein Sein to make Indonesia as the first country that he should visit after he has taken the office.
President SBY is using this as an opportunity to perform soft power diplomacy in order to push the process of democratization in Myanmar. Indeed, President SBY is known as one of the leaders that is keen to use soft power diplomacy. The failure of some countries in coping with conflict and political turmoil could be caused by the use of hard power, such as military power.
The meeting of the two heads of state was apparently not futile. In exactly one year after the meeting, Myanmar had its first successful democratic election in 20 years. Through election, Myanmar democratic figure, Aung San Suu Kyi was able to become a parliamentary member after she was held a junta military regime house prisoner for more than 20 years.
Finally, the success of Myanmar to have a democratic election sends an important message to all of us that soft power diplomacy is not only possible, but can be relied on to deal with conflicts and political turmoil in countries without violence. Various problems that were caused by conflict and political turmoil can be resolved through dialogue, without political and military intervention.
Bawono Kumoro is political researcher at The Habibie Center. He graduated from State Islamic University, Jakarta, with Political Sciences major. Currently, he is pursuing his post-graduate degree in Political Communications in Paramadina Graduate School of Communication.