Democratic government institutions often derive power from the people they serve but enforced militant authoritarian regimes by must draw legitimacy via alternative methods.
Although a deteriorating quality of life permeates all people in an authoritarian society, minority populations face the most urgent impact of this fierce control. An example of this, both the governments of Indonesia and Burma marginalize vulnerable populations that fail to assimilate in order to legitimize themselves in the domestic sphere. I argue that Indonesia’s internal imperialism on regional indigenous populations manipulated the dominant populous into a national unification that curtailed a pluralist democracy while the government's systematic exclusion of minority ethnicities from Burmese society and politics subdued Burmese resistance. For the purposes of this paper, I delineate my scope to the native populations of West Papua (Irian Jaya) in Indonesia, and the ethnic populations of the Karen State and Muslim (Rohingya) minorities of the Rakhine State in Burma.
Before the conception of a unified Indonesia, diverse communities originating from the 6,000 inhabited regional islands already held pre-existing notions of their shared identity. The 1949 movement for independence from the Dutch colonial power consolidated each of the regional islands into a unified state of Indonesia but the new government failed to incorporate the interests of each region.1 Inhabitants of the island of Java received the most representation as regional islands expressed their dissonance against a unified Indonesia.2 Glorifying a “One
State Indonesia,”3 inadvertently monopolized by Javanese culture, the new regime rendered all other regional cultures as inferior. The regime cultivated support from the 61% Javanese population4 by institutionalizing policies that masked the failure of the regime to stabilize Indonesia’s sociopolitical sphere. The first president, Sukarno, masked the failure of his “Guided Democracy5” tactic to generate economic development in Java by promoting a systemic transmigration policy. Indonesian transmigration, as defined by the World Bank Report refers to the “government sponsored movement of poor, landless, or near landless households from Java to land-rich areas in the Outer Islands.”6 By sponsoring a program that facially served the poorest of the Javanese population, Sukarno effectively legitimized his reign as a benevolent leader of the new Indonesia. Sukarno’s initially proposed plan aimed to move 48 million people from rural places of Java to the regional islands over a period of 35 years, clear cutting 2000 areas of land per day.7 Migrant Javanese were provided with state sponsored transportation, housing, and living allowance, while native populations were neither consulted nor provided with any resources to mitigate this new influx.8 Called the “matter of life and death9” by Sukarno, the transmigration program cultivated a politics of life for the dominant Javanese population and death for the regional ones.
After the violent 1965 military transition replaced Sukarno with Suharto, policies of transmigration became central to not only economic development but also to a national identity. During Suharto’s “New Order10,” state initiated pancasila11 or five principles permeated every facet of Indonesian society but uniquely affected regional indigenous populations. Principles of “monotheism and unity of Indonesia” were literally translated into policies enforced by the new regime.12 Agma Pembanunan13 or development religion became a central component of the “New Order” where an elimination of diverse cultural practices was propagated as necessary for the for the socioeconomic development of a “One State Indonesia.” Extending this policy of consolidation to the political sphere, Suharto consolidated all political parties into a one government run party of Golkar.14 Without true political competition, the militant government of Suharto was voted in every election, legitimizing it in the domestic and international arena.
In order to upkeep the cultural and political amalgamation, the regime instilled policies of Dwi Fungsi, or dual function15 for the military. Instilling a military transmigration program, the Department of Transmigration under Suharto stated, “the frontier regions of Kalimantan…[West Papua] Irian Jaya…have the priority for migrating military people for the purpose of Defense and Security.”16 Focusing on West Papua was a strategic tactic utilized to enforce Indonesian rule over a region that considers itself to be more similar to the country of
Papua New Guinea.17A Christian majority region in a Muslim majority country, West Papua is a cultural and political opposition to the propaganda of a “One State Indonesia.” Framing infiltration of the military throughout the regional island of West Papua as a security issue allowed the regime to slowly render the native inhabitants of West Papua confined in their own home.18 Native West Papuans had an “increasing loss of tribal lands, depletion of natural food sources, rapid change of lifestyle” as well as economic disadvantages to transmigrant Javanese populations.”19 Programs such as the Perkebunan Inti Rakayt (PIR) allowed private and state owned Estate companies to monopolize on native land by buying out private harvests.20 Native villagers who refuse to participate in the program were coerced to do so via security forces as well as by accusations of sympathizing with the resistance movements such as Organisasi Papua Merdeka (Free Papua Organization).21 Land clearance and deforestation also caused massive nutritional deficiency leading to starvation for the native population as well the transmigrants flowing in. The government also failed to provide adequate services to train the migrants who often unfamiliar with the terrain of their new home. This resulted in a lack of substantive economic development as well as mass inadequacies in health for the Javanese migrants. 22 The only real benefactors of native land clearance remain the private and state sponsored estate companies who were able to extract resources from resource rich islands for little compensation. In addition, native Papuan populations are relocated to state sponsored “Community Development Centers” where villagers are given an extended course of “guidance and religious [Islamic] instruction.”2324 Militant cultural and religious assimilation of the native populations provided evidence for the Suharto regime to publicize their success in implementing principles of One Indonesia. However, this assimilation failed to reduce ingrained conflicts between the migrant and native populations. Migrant Javanese were still seen as intruders by regional villages that mainly identified with their regional communities, leading to violence and conflict between both populations. Policies of transmigration simply cultivated a façade of unification and economic development. This façade perpetuated the legitimacy of the militant, authoritarian regime and subdued movements towards a multicultural, pluralist democracy.
Officially independent from British colonization since 1948, Burma’s sporadic moments of democratically elected leaders were eradicated with the military dictatorship of General Ne Win.25 This military intervention in 1962 was originally justified as a tactic to reduce inter-ethnic tensions and progress Burmese socioeconomic development.26 To force a national unification, Ne Win instituted a program title “Burmese Path to Socialism,” forming a Revolutionary Council (RC) to centralize political and socioeconomic power towards the military.27 Centralization and restrictions on activism caused immediate protests in academic institutions such as Rangoon University where students supporting the opposing Burmese Communist Party held mass demonstrations against the new regime.28 The Tatmadaw or the ethnically Burmese Army swiftly shut down these activist movements, killing over one hundred students in a demonstration on July 7th, 1962.29 The violence was publicized to the public as a way to maintain political stability for the betterment of a unified, more economically developed Burma. However, the crisis of a deteriorating economy pushed the Burmese people’s life to further degradation.30 Without public support, the military regime lost more legitimacy and announced a drafting of a new constitution to allow for more civilian participation.31 However, the new one-party system deemed the Burma Socialist Programme
Party (BSPP),32 proved to create an insidious façade of choice that strategically exploited various ethnic groups to maintain power.
In order to legitimize the new constitution calling for a one party state, the government ran a national referendum. To garner falsified support, the military regime forced the 40% ethnic minority groups from smaller villages in ethnic districts to vote for the referendum. 3334 One such incident is accounted in the Karen State where townspeople who voted “No” for the referendum were put under military watch.35 Deemed “ethnic fringes36” smaller states such as these lost the political power and autonomy they once enjoyed under democratic regimes. This exploitation resulted in a 90 % “Yes”37 vote towards the referendum, legitimizing Ne Win’s regime in the international sphere.
In addition, Ne Win monopolized on insurgent armies, such as the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA),38 to persuade the larger Burmese population to follow his regime. By characterizing the ethnic nationalist armies as “rapists and murderers”39 in the state controlled press, he succeeded in in convincing the population of a need for a strong unitary government. Ne Win’s success in demonizing the villagers of the Karen state may also have been a result of the religious anxiety faced by Buddhist majority country towards the minority Christian population of the Karen State.40 Furthermore, although the KNLA sought a defensive position to keep the tatmadaw out of their villages, the military regime implemented brutal tactics policies known as the “Four Cuts.”41 With objectives to eliminate all sources of support to the armies, the regime brutally tortured and killed Karen villagers with or without ties to opposition forces. The tatmadaw campaign also resulted in forced removal of thousands of villagers from their native land as tatmadaw military forces occupied Karen villages for this operation.42Legitimizing the expansion of the military as necessary for protection, Ne Win was able to subdue political resistance against his regime even after his evident failure to adequately provide economic development for the Burmese population.
Another religious minority population of the northern Rakhine State called the Rohingya would serve to provide greater validation to Ne Win’s military regime. A history of conflict between the Buddhist Arakans’ and the Muslim Rohingyas’ pre dates Burmese independence as the Muslim Rohingyas remained loyal to the British colonial rulers.43 .
Already marginalized, the Muslim minority population’s lives further diminished with militant rule. Capitalizing on their vulnerable status, the tatmadaw military forces systemically drove out 200,000 Rohingya out of Burma in 1978.44 The state sponsored bloody rampage of “killings, rape, and arson” of the Rohingya created a sense of national identification towards the military state for the Buddhist Arakan population. The 1982 Citizenship Law enacted by the militant regime officially denied the Rohingya of a Burmese citizenship, rendering them stateless and illegal.45 Perpetuating the belief that the Rohingya are “illegal immigrants’” the government deprived them of education, marriage, employment and freedom of movement.46 By not recognizing the Rohingya as one of the eight state recognized races, the regime successfully defined the identity of a Burmese citizen.47 These restrictions allowed the Burmese population to define themselves in contrast to that of the stateless Rohingya and in accordance to Ne Win, further legitimizing the role of his government. By scapegoating minority ethnic groups, Ne Win’s militant government successfully manipulated the dominant population into greater reliance towards the militant state while also expanding stronger restrictions on active resistance.
Through practices of violence, deception, and human rights abuses on the most subaltern populations, militant regimes are able to retain their legitimacy in the larger sociopolitical sphere. The authoritarian military regime of Indonesia successfully averted responsibility for failed economic development through aggressive methods of resettlement and cultural genocide of regional indigenous populations. Likewise, the Burmese military regime systematically exploited ethnic minority populations to repress political resistance. In both cases, the majority populations of each country were deluded into subscribing to the authoritarian regimes. It is evident that to ensure sustainable socioeconomic progression, citizens of a country must act to alleviate sociopolitical repression of all populations.
Juli Adhikari is a junior at the University of California, Berkeley. She intends to graduate with a double major in Political Science and Gender & Women's Studies. She hopes to combine her interest in policy and law to find pragmatic solutions to close social inequities. She currently serves as an appointed commissioner for the Commission on the Status of Women for the City of Berkeley. Her work includes conducting research for a Boalt Law Professor and facilitating civic engagement workshops for the non-profit, IGNITE National.
1 Darren, Zook. “Becoming Indonesia.” Lecture at class on Southeast Asian Politics, Berkeley CA, October 5, 2016.
4 Fearnside, Philip M. "Transmigration in Indonesia: Lessons from its Environmental and Social Impacts." Environmental Management 21, no. 4 (1997): 553-70.
5 Zook, “Becoming Indonesia”
6 Briefing Book, Transmigration, The Environment and Indigenous Peoples, World Bank Report No. 5597-IND
7 Fearnside, Philip M. “Transmigration in Indonesia: Lessons from its Environmental and Social Impacts.”
10 Darren, Zook. “The New Order.” Lecture at class on Southeast Asian Politics, Berkeley CA, October 5, 2016
13 Hoey, Brian A. "Nationalism in Indonesia: Building Imagined and Intentional Communities through Transmigration." Ethnology 42, no. 2 (2003): 109.
14 Zook, “New Order”
16 Fearnside, Philip M. “Transmigration in Indonesia: Lessons from its Environmental and Social Impacts.”
17 Darren, Zook. “Identity Politics in Indonesia.” Lecture at class on Southeast Asian Politics,Berkeley CA, October 5, 2016.
19 The Impact of Transmigration on Tribal People in Irian Jaya, Briefing Book
22 Adverse Environmental and Socio-Cultural Impacts of World Bank Financed Transmigration under Repelita IV, Briefing Book.
23 Fearnside, Philip M. “Transmigration in Indonesia: Lessons from its Environmental and Social Impacts.”
24 The Impact of Transmigration on Tribal People in Irian Jaya, Briefing Book
25 Darren, Zook. “Democracy and Security.” Lecture at class on Southeast Asian Politics, Berkeley CA, November 2, 2016.
26 Zook, “Democracy and Security”
28 Fink, Christina. Living Silence in Burma: Surviving Under Military Rule. Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Books, 2009.
30 Darren, Zook. “Democracy’s Brief Moment.” Lecture at class on Southeast Asian Politics, Berkeley CA, November 2, 2016.
31 Fink, Living Silence in Burma: Surviving Under Military Rule
33 Burma or Myanmar: The struggle for a national identity
34 Fink, Living Silence in Burma: Surviving Under Military Rule
36 Darren, Zook. “Identities and Insurgencies.” Lecture at class on Southeast Asian Politics, Berkeley CA, November 14, 2016
37 Fink, Living Silence in Burma: Surviving Under Military Rule
38Zook, “Identities and Insurgencies”
39 Fink, Living Silence in Burma: Surviving Under Military Rule
40 Zook, “Identities and Insurgencies”
41 Fink, Living Silence in Burma: Surviving Under Military Rule
43 Smith, Matthew. "All You Can Do Is Pray": Crimes Against Humanity and Ethnic Cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Burma's Arakan State. New York, NY: Human Rights Watch, 2013.