Friday, September 28, 2007

UN needs to give Myanmar an ultimatum

The Jakarta Post
October 4, 2007

By Thang D. Nguyen

JAKARTA—As the crisis in Myanmar worsens, protesters in neighboring Malaysia and elsewhere in Asia are increasing their calls for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to play a more proactive role in overcoming the situation.

But really, what else can ASEAN do about Myanmar?

ASEAN - whose members are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam - has tried to work with Myanmar in a constructive way to bring democracy into the country.

In 2003, foreign ministers from ASEAN issued a statement urging Myanmar's military rulers to free Nobel Laureate and democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy secured a landslide, but unrecognized, victory in a 1990 election.

Last year, an ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus was established, with the primary aims of pushing democracy in Myanmar and helping free Ms. Suu Kyi.

Let's not forget that ASEAN has only recently moved away from its founding principle of non-interference - i.e. members will not get involved in issues considered to be the internal affairs of other members.

To ASEAN's credit, the pressure it exerted in the past led to Myanmar giving up its scheduled turn as the chair of the association last year (the Philippines took the position, as it was next in line).

After consulting other members, Singapore, which assumed the chairmanship of ASEAN in July, called on the organization to make a statement on the crisis in Myanmar.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said ASEAN cannot "credibly remain silent or uninvolved in this matter".

But, let's face it, a statement from ASEAN may be helpful, but it won't be a critical force. In other words, the Myanmarese junta is really beyond the reach of ASEAN at this point.

Do not forget, this is the same government that defied calls from the U.S., the European Union, ASEAN itself and the entire international community to free Aung San Suu Kyi and allow democracy to take place.

The proof is that despite U.S. sanctions that President George W. Bush announced in New York during the United Nations (UN) General Assembly last week, the Myanmarese junta went ahead with its crackdown on Buddhist monks and civilian protesters, arresting more than 100 and killing at least 17.

India and China - two neighboring countries outside ASEAN that have influence on Myanmar - have reacted disappointingly to the situation. While they both expressed concern about the crisis, they clearly said it falls into the category of Myanmar's internal affairs.

As a close trading partner and corridor to the Indian Ocean, Myanmar must be stable in China's eyes.

However, a Beijing-backed crackdown on the monks over their protests would hurt China's image, especially as it prepares to host the Olympics next year.

As for India, Myanmar is its source of oil, so it will remain diplomatic.

With news from Myanmar overwhelming the mood at the General Assembly, the UN Security Council held an urgent meeting and agreed to send the UN Secretary-General's special envoy, Ibraham Gambari, to Myanmar to deal with the junta.

However, Gambari's presence is not strong enough for the junta.

He handed over a message from the UN urging the junta to stop its crackdown on the monks and civilian protesters.

But this regime has shown, and continues to show, defiance of instructions, no matter how strong they are or who they are from.

After all, the junta has been living with warnings, sanctions and other forms of pressure from the international community for the past 19 years.

So as sad as it may be, another visit from another envoy with another message from the UN is nothing new for the junta.

Therefore, if the crisis in Myanmar is to be resolved, the UN needs to gather its will, consensus and resources to send an ultimatum to the junta.

The ultimatum is simply this: If the junta does not stop its crackdown, the UN will move its troops into Myanmar!

The junta is smart enough to know that its military resources do not outnumber those of the UN, should it decide to take this path.

And if this scenario materializes, the people of Myanmar will side with - you guessed it - the UN troops, adding more force to this democratic revolution.

This is an opportunity for the international community to bring peace and democracy to Myanmar once and for all. And if the world misses this opportunity, Burma - as Myanmar it is affectionately known - will never be free.

The writer is a Jakarta-based columnist. More of his articles can be found at

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Martyring for freedom in Burma

By Thang D. Nguyen

JAKARTA—Politics and religion should not be mixed. And for good reasons, that is. For one thing, secularism prevents a nation from becoming a theocracy—the antithesis of democracy.

And in the case of radical Islamic groups, their battle for God, or jihad, is carried out as massive, deadly terrorist attacks.

But in Burma, a Buddhist-majority country, religion is now a powerful force for democracy.

It has been over a week since a few hundred Buddhist monks started a protest against the ruling junta in the former capital of Rangoon and other major cities in Burma.

Walking in the rain in Buddhist robes and with their hand clasped, the monks demand for an apology from the Burmese junta for the violent break-up of a civilian rally that was triggered by protests over price rises last month.

Civilians have joined the monks, even though they have asked not to do so for fear of provoking reprisals by the security forces.

To be sure, many activists have been jailed and some have allegedly been tortured for participating in earlier protests.

As a matter of fact, the monks’ march sends a chilled reminder of a mass protest in 1988 when the junta cracked down on activists, killing hundreds, if not thousands, of them.

In the beginning, the junta was reluctant and cautious. The main reason is that, in a country where Buddhist monks are the highest moral authority, a crackdown on them will certainly cause a massive national outcry.

But, after a week of mysterious silence, the junta broke its silence and warned the monks of military action if they did not stop protesting.

Next, military forces arrested over 100 monks and civilians for participating in the protest. But the protesters did not give up, and the military started to crack down on them with tear gas and gun-firing.

So far, three monks are dead and 20 other protestors injured during their clash with security forces. As part of the crackdown, security forces have also raided several Buddhist monasteries.

If anything, the clash shows how defiant the junta is—as always.

As he spoke before the UN general assembly in New York this week, President George W. Bush announced US sanctions against the Burmese military regime.

“Americans are outraged by the situation in Burma, where a military junta has imposed a 19-year reign of fear. The ruling junta remains unyielding, yet the people's desire for freedom is unmistakable,” he said.

The junta obviously did not care much about Mr. Bush's speech.

Lest we forget, this is the junta that has kept democracy leader and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest since 1990 when her National League for Democracy (NLD) won landslide elections but was never allowed to govern.

This is the same junta that has since defied pressure from the US, the European Union, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations—of which Burma is a member—and the entire international community to free Aung San Suu Kyi and allow democracy to take place.

Sadly, the one country that can influence the junta’s action, China, has only urged for stability but refused to get intervene, saying that the protest is a matter of Burma’s internal affairs.

As one of its trading partners and corridor to the Indian Ocean, China does not like an unstable Burma.

But, a Beijing-backed crackdown on the monks over their protest will hurt China’s image as it is hosting the Olympics next year.

It remains to be seen how the clash between the junta and Burmese protestors will turn out in the coming days.

Meanwhile, the protest is most significant in several ways.

First, it is a protest initiated and organized by a religious force, as opposed to a civilian one. To be sure, Burmese monks were involved in the 1998 bloody protest, but only from behind the scenes.

Second, because of their position in Burmese society, the monks present the most serious challenge the junta has faced thus far in the country’s modern history.

Third, if protest results in a crackdown similar to that in 1988, it will be remembered as a most significant event that has ever happened for democracy in Burma.

Fighting for democracy is never easy. Or, as Thomas Jefferson put it: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”

More monks and civilians will get hurt in this protest. More will die because of it.

But they will die martyrs, not for God, but for democracy.

The writer is an Asia-based columnist. His writing can be read at

TIME ruling a setback for democracy in Indonesia

By Thang D. Nguyen

JAKARTA—Sometimes when things appear to be better, they are actually worse. This is certainly the case with press freedom in Indonesia.

As the largest Muslim-majority nation, Indonesia’s democratic transformation since 1998—when strongman Suharto was toppled—has been an exemplary example for the world.

In addition to having free elections and a government they select, Indonesians today practice a variety of democratic rights, including demonstrating—something that would put them in jail or could cost them their lives under the old regime.

Indeed, Indonesia has thus far shown a steady democratic transition, despite resistance from some minor groups—mostly hard-line Muslim organizations.

For instance, in 2002, the Indonesian Parliament rejected a motion to institute sharia, or Islamic Laws, across Indonesia.

What is more, in July this year, the Constitutional Court scrapped Articles 154 and 155 from Indonesia’s Criminal Code and banned the government from imprisoning anyone whose expression of thoughts and ideas was considered hostile or subversive towards the state.

Media and civil society organizations, among others, gladly welcomed this decision and considered it another step forward for democracy in Indonesia.

But, alas, only a month later, Indonesia’s Supreme Court did something that, de facto, undoes what the Constitutional Court did. On 30 August, the Supreme Court ordered Time magazine to pay former president Suharto Rp. 1 trillion (US$ 106 million).

The ruling resulted from a suit filed by Suharto against the US magazine over an article in which it said that he had stashed a massive amount of his wealth abroad.

In an article titled “Suharto Inc.: The Family Firm”, published in May 1990, Time wrote that it “has learned that $9 billion of Suharto’s money was transferred from Switzerland to a nominee bank account in Austria”.

For someone who does not know much about Indonesia, this article might have brought some startling facts. But for those who do, it is hardly any news.

During the 32 years when he was in power, Suharto himself, his children, and cronies are said to have accumulated trillions dollars worth of personal wealth and kept it both here in Indonesia and overseas.

But where they have kept their monies is not the issue. Rather, it is that their monies have come from what Indonesians call KKN, or corruption, collusion, and nepotism.

As a matter of fact, there have been efforts to try Suharto for corruption, but so far, they have been unsuccessful.

Back in 2000, Suharto was indicted for alleged corruption, but judges dismissed a US$600m corruption case on the grounds of his ill health. Last August, the Office of Attorney General dropped Suharto’s corruption charges altogether on the ground that his poor health did not allow him to stand trial.

"Our conclusion, after hearing the statement from the doctors, is that Suharto's condition is getting worse [sic],” said former attorney general Rahman Saleh.

While it remains to be seen if Suharto will ever be tried for corruption, the Time ruling has several negative impacts.

For one thing, it paints a wrong picture of Indonesia abroad as a nation that indulges corruption.

Together with the decision last year to drop Suharto’s corruption charges, the Time ruling sends a message to the world that he is, indeed, above the law.

Interestingly enough, the Time ruling came out just two weeks before the United Nations and the World Bank issued a joint report on the so-called Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative. In the report, Suharto is mentioned as one of the leaders who have misappropriated national assets in developing countries.

What’s more, the Time ruling illustrates the self-contradiction in the Indonesian government. On the one hand, the Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono administration prides itself on fighting corruption. But on the other hand, Indonesian courts continue to make such counterproductive decisions as the Time ruling.

In other words, how can corrupters be brought to justice if the media, Indonesian and foreign alike, are scared of paying millions worth of defamation for filing stories about their corruption?

But most importantly, the Time ruling is a setback for democracy in Indonesia. In addition to freedom of speech, a free press is a sign of a healthy democracy.

To be sure, the media have found a lot more freedom in Indonesia now than they ever did under the old regime.

The Time ruling, however, undermines the very democratic progress that Indonesia has made so far.

The writer is a Jakarta-based columnist and editor of two books on Indonesia. His writing can be read at

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Jakarta turns off investors, big time!

The Business Times

Singapore, 31 August 2007

Dark clouds a-gathering: Business-unfriendly laws, corruption, lack of infrastructure and political and legal uncertainty raise the costs of doing business for investors in Indonesia and may drive them away

By Thang D. Nguyen

SOMETIMES, when things appear to be better, they are actually worse. Recent events in Indonesia show that this is the case with the country's business climate.

In late April, Newmont - the world's second largest gold miner - was acquitted after being accused three years ago of dumping unsafe levels of waste in a bay on Sulawesi island.
Not only was this a vindication for Newmont Indonesia and its chief executive, Richard Ness, but it was also a positive development that the business community in Indonesia gladly welcomed.

More importantly, the government of Indonesia initiated a number of economic reforms earlier this year in an effort to boost investment in Indonesia. Specifically, these reforms were designed to improve tax and investment laws and therefore create more incentives for investors in South-east Asia's largest economy.

The business community viewed these reforms as well as the Newmont verdict positively as they showed that Jakarta was serious about making Indonesia a more attractive place for investment.

But before it can show progress on these reforms, the government has already built another hurdle for businesses.

In late July, Indonesian lawmakers passed a bill that makes corporate social responsibility, or CSR, mandatory for businesses - particularly resource-based industries - in Indonesia.

The bill, of course, met resistance from the business community.

'CSR programmes should be (voluntary). They should not be made a corporate responsibility,' said Sofyan Wanandi, chairman of the Indonesian Employers Association (Apindo).

Despite opposition, the bill was passed, making Indonesia the only country in the world where CSR is a duty, not a choice.

For one thing, CSR is a form of social contribution, not a tax. Thus, it is unclear why the bill was drawn up in the first place and then passed in Indonesia's House of Representatives.

Furthermore, there is no point making CSR a duty for businesses in Indonesia when many companies are already doing it as a matter of corporate practice. But most importantly - now that the CSR bill has been passed - it will only be a burden for the business community and another barrier for investors in Indonesia.

Let's face it. Investors, both foreign and domestic, already have more than enough laws and regulations, among other issues, to deal with in Indonesia.

The last thing they need is another law that makes their business in Indonesia more difficult and costlier.

By passing the CSR bill, Indonesian lawmakers might have meant well and seen the good of CSR for society.

Making it a duty, however, is likely to discourage investors from Indonesia and thereby hurt the country's investment as they might find it better and cheaper for them to do business in another country where they don't have to deal with this law.

Thus, not only does the CSR remind us of how challenging Indonesia's business climate still is, but it also shows Indonesia's lack of competitiveness in today's global economy.

In addition to its business-unfriendly labour and investment laws, investors face a host of issues in Indonesia, including corruption, the lack of infrastructure, political instability and legal uncertainty.

Together, these issues raise the costs of doing business for investors in Indonesia and may drive them away.

To be fair, the Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono administration does recognise these problems. Since assuming power in October 2004, Dr Yudhoyono's administration has taken a number of initiatives to improve Indonesia's investment climate.

For example, it has held two major conferences to lure foreign investors to infrastructure projects in Indonesia. But, alas, little has resulted from these events.

Likewise, Dr Yudhoyono, who campaigned, among other things, on the platform of fighting corruption, set up the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK).

For about three years, the KPK did its job, tackling a number of high-level corruption cases. But earlier this year the KPK was dissolved, as though its job were completed.

Does that mean that corruption in Indonesia is eradicated? Far from it! If anything, now is the time when the government needs to do more, not less, to carry out its economic, legal and social reforms.

Just as importantly, the government has to ensure that investment laws, such as the CSR law, that the Indonesian parliament passes do not clash with its efforts to improve the business and investment climate in Indonesia.

If not, it will create distrust among investors and drive them away, and that will make FDI not 'Foreign Direct Investment', but as The Economist put it, 'Foreigners Ditching Indonesia'!

The writer is a Jakarta-based columnist. His articles are available at