Indonesia’s experience shows that time is of the essence for Aung San Su Kyi, if she is to capitalise on her popular mandate and move Myanmar onto a surer democratic footing, Sana Jaffrey writes.

This is an awkward time for teaching about democracy. The rise of economic nationalism and xenophobia in the US and Europe challenges much of what we expect from prosperous democracies. Turkey’s alarming descent into totalitarianism and a surge of authoritarian nostalgia in Peru and Poland expose the fragility of decades-long reform. Far from arriving at a glorious ‘end of history’, liberal democracy around the globe appears to be chewing its own tail.

Defying this tide of disillusionment, Myanmar remains optimistic about the promise of democracy. Civil society actors are fostering public dialogue on the challenges that lay ahead, after a 50-year ban on the study of politics. As part of this effort, I arrived in Yangon last month to teach a course on democratisation to a group of former political prisoners and activists. Students found no shortage of cautionary tales like Pakistan and Thailand when looking for comparative lessons. However, Indonesia was widely viewed as a compelling model for Myanmar.

Three concerns dominate the discourse on democratic consolidation in Myanmar. First, the military’s continued grip on political decision-making remains a major obstacle to meaningful change. Even today, 25 per cent of parliamentary seats are reserved for military appointees. This gives the Tatmadaw an effective veto over any proposed constitutional amendments as their passage requires more than 75 per cent of votes. The most visible consequence of this arrangement is that despite winning a super majority in the 2015 elections, the National League for Democracy (NLD) has been unable to amend the law that bars its leader, Aung San Su Kyi, from assuming the presidency.

Second, peaceful management of Myanmar’s ethnic diversity is a critical test for the newly elected government. While the military leads efforts to conclude ceasefire agreements with an assortment of armed groups, the parliament is deliberating longer-term measures to address deep-seated ethnic grievances. Debate on the devolution of fiscal and political autonomy is rife with disagreements between those who view this as an unpleasant necessity versus those who think decentralisation will embolden separatist demands.

Third, the NLD’s hawkish position on the plight of Myanmar’s Muslim minority casts serious doubts on its commitment to human rights. Even before the 2015 elections, the NLD barred Muslim candidates from running on its ticket to appease Buddhist nationalist groups. Now in power, the party continues to defend military atrocities against the stateless Rohingya community, despite mounting international and domestic pressure to intervene.

Indonesia’s experience bears an eerie similarity to Myanmar’s current predicament. On the eve of Reformasi in 1998, the military’s political role was formalised in the dwi fungsi doctrine, allowing active members of the armed forces to occupy 20 per cent of seats in the parliament, in addition to serving in civilian posts. While separatist demands intensified in in Aceh, Papua, and Timor, a wave of ethnoreligious violence swept across parts of the country. Sporadic violence against the country’s historically persecuted ethnic Chinese also broke out in several cities. For a time, this dire situation stoked fears of democratic derailment or worse, disintegration. Yet, Indonesia has largely overcome these initial challenges.

Donald Horowitz, a prominent scholar of ethnically divided democracies, attributes Indonesia’s surprising success to a protracted process of constitutional change that allowed different factions to identify common interests, build trust and reach consensus on divisive issues. Aung San Su Kyi appears to prefer a similarly lengthy path. So far, she has sought to avoid confrontation with the military on the crucial issues outlined above. However, one key lesson from the Indonesian experience is that despite the slow pace of reform, decisive measures to address some of the most critical issues were taken fairly early on.

It is true that military representation in the parliament was phased out gradually. But within a year of Suharto’s resignation, separation of an independent police force and restrictions on active officers’ involvement in electoral politics severely curtailed the scope of military activities. Even amid overwhelming security threats from communal wars and insurgencies, the civilian leadership did not retreat from this position. Instead, the interim government pushed through ambitious legislation granting unprecedented fiscal and political autonomy to Indonesia’s diverse regions.

The early annulment of discriminatory regulations against Indonesia’s beleaguered Chinese community is also notable. Similar to the Rohingya in Myanmar, Chinese-Indonesians were subject to widespread social stigma and an ambiguous citizenship status under the New Order. Within months of assuming power, President Habibie revoked regulations that required the ethnic Chinese to provide special documentation in order to vote, work or access state facilities. The following year President Wahid lifted all remaining restrictions on the display of Chinese cultural symbols.

None of these issues has been resolved definitively, even after two decades of Reformasi. Successive governments have tweaked the legislation on military functions and regional autonomy. Communal conflicts have also not entirely disappeared. Over the last month, vigilante groups have held massive demonstrations to demand the indictment of Jakarta’s first Christian-Chinese governor on blasphemy charges. Nevertheless, these critical early choices set Indonesia on a path to reform that has been difficult to derail despite residual discontent.

Myanmar’s newly elected government would do well to take this page from Indonesia’s playbook and move towards bold reform. Indonesian leaders were pushed in this direction by the political necessity of proving their democratic credentials to a highly mobilised public. The incredibly revered Aung San Su Kyi faces no such test. In fact, her unequivocal popular mandate provides her with a powerful propellant for change, should she choose to use it. However, time is of the essence as the public support she has garnered through decades of dignified resistance will eventually corrode under the burden of incumbency.

Sana Jaffrey is a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago’s Department of Political Science and a visiting fellow at the Center for Study of Religion and Democracy (PUSAD Paramadina). She previously led the design and implementation of the National Violence Monitoring System (NVMS) database at the World Bank during 2008-2013.