Dear Minister Natalegawa,

In anticipation of your trip to Burma on March 30, we write to you about the human rights and political situation there. We believe that Indonesia, as a leading member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and an important regional partner, has significant influence to propose and press for national and regional policies that can improve respect for human rights and promote political reform in Burma. Burma has rebuffed and rejected such efforts for years, including numerous United Nations mediation missions, and diligent, yet ultimately frustrated efforts by ASEAN.

Burma remains one of the most repressive countries in the world, ruled by the military-controlled State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). There are strict limits on the rights to basic freedoms of expression, association, and assembly. The intelligence and security services are omnipresent. Censorship is draconian. More than 2,100 political prisoners suffer in Burma's squalid prisons. All have been sentenced after unfair trials, which often take the form of summary hearings often held in the prisons themselves.

At the same time, military abuses connected to armed conflicts continue in ethnic minority areas. For many years, Human Rights Watch has documented the recruitment and deployment of child soldiers, the use of forced labor, and summary killings, rape, and other abuses against minority populations, including the Rohingya, Chin, Shan, Karen, and Karenni. Burma has also driven out thousands of ethnic Rohingya Muslims from western Burma into Bangladesh, and many thousands flee every year in boats to Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

In addition to rampant violations of civil and political rights, corruption and mismanagement under military rule has made Burma one of the poorest countries in Asia. The government seems to care little for the basic welfare of its people; to give but one example, while the Burmese government received an estimated US$150 million per month in gas export revenue in 2008, its last announced annual budget to address its AIDS crisis in 2007 was a mere US$172,000.

While much of the world sees Burma's rulers as isolated, ruthless, and despised, the SPDC continues to have influential friends in the region who provide resources through the purchase of energy and other commodities, and shield Burma from concerted action at the UN, ASEAN, and other international fora on subjects like implementing effective arms embargoes or targeted sanctions.

Indonesia has important experiences it could impart to Burma on the transition to democracy from authoritarian rule, staging democratic elections, and implementing economic reforms. We recommend that Indonesia's policy should, therefore, aim at addressing three important avenues of engaging with Burma: the 2010 elections, diplomacy, and sanctions.

The 2010 Elections

Despite the frequent and longstanding calls from concerned governments and the United Nations for credible inclusive elections, the polls planned for Burma in 2010 are likely to do nothing more than establish a parliamentary facade for continued military rule. The 2008 constitution contains provisions designed to ensure military dominance in any civilian administration, with a number of seats set aside for serving military officers, and reservation of key ministerial portfolios for the military.

Starting on March 12, the SPDC released the first in a series of five laws setting the ground rules for the elections. The electoral laws limit the participation of longstanding opponents of military rule by forcing political parties, on pain of de-registration, to expel any members currently serving prison sentences. The opposition National League for Democracy would have to expel party leader Aung San Suu Kyi and an estimated 429 other officials and members in order to participate in the elections. Yet these activists and political party members are precisely the persons who have long expressed aspirations to be a part of the political process, including engaging in negotiations with the military.

 Many of the provisions of these laws fall far short of international standards for a free and fair election. The 17-member Electoral Commission is not independent or impartial, being handpicked by the SPDC and consisting largely of former officials from the military and judiciary. It is this body that will rule on political party registration and candidates.

Much of the SPDC's legal framework for the elections is cloaked in ambiguity, which the SPDC can manipulate in its favor to ensure its predetermined result. We welcome the opportunity you have to clarify the electoral laws. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has already concluded that the electoral laws fall short of "international expectations of what is required for an inclusive political process."

The SPDC doubtlessly hopes the elections will mollify ASEAN member states, the United States, European governments, and other countries that oppose military rule and have long called for genuine progress on democratization. No doubt the SPDC also hopes to encourage large-scale international aid flows and the repeal of sanctions. But government repression continues throughout Burma, and this is not conducive to a credible and inclusive electoral process. While it may be premature to judge the elections themselves, it is essential that if the electoral process is conducted under conditions of repression it is not endorsed in any way by Indonesia or ASEAN.

In March 2009, according to his spokesman, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, in a meeting with Burmese Prime Minister Thein Sein in Jakarta, noted that while Burma's decision to hold elections is an important step, the "quality" of the process by which those elections are conducted is also important. President Yudhoyono reportedly emphasized that the Burmese elections should be conducted according to a process with "credibility, transparency, and justice."

We welcome and support your statements of March 19 in which you said: "We would like to know about the practical implications of the recently issued electoral law to determine whether its substance meets the Myanmar [Burma] government's commitment to hold a democratic, free and multi-party election. We hope Aung San Suu Kyi can participate in the election. She will contribute to the democratization process in Myanmar."

Regional Engagement and Diplomacy

On diplomacy, as a starting point there should be no wishful thinking or illusions that more conciliatory talk from Indonesia and ASEAN will somehow cause Burma's senior leadership to alter its plans. The SPDC leadership is committed to remaining in control, whether through managed elections or the current system. Nevertheless, Human Rights Watch supports Indonesian government efforts to speak to the Burmese government at the highest levels. Clearly, Indonesia has a prominent role to play in conveying strong and principled messages of reform to the senior leadership in Burma.

You summed this up in December 2009 when you said: "ASEAN has been less than successful on Myanmar, as have others. The international focus on Myanmar has not been ASEAN's alone. [But] we have until recently over-simplified approaches - sanctions versus engagement. This is potentially damaging as we are cancelling each other out - doubting and second guessing one another' s intention."

It is important that more intensive diplomacy does not lead into the trap of making improved relations the sole goal of Indonesian policy. The protection of the rights of Burmese and a genuine and credible political reform process needs to be a primary goal for Indonesia's diplomacy.

On key political matters, the engagement that has taken place thus far has not been very meaningful and in some cases has even been counterproductive. At times, diplomatic action merely allowed the SPDC to buy time and pretend that it was engaged in serious discussions. For example, the efforts of the former UN secretary-general's special envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, failed to achieve anything of substance. The situation degenerated to the point where steps in the normal diplomatic process, like getting a visa or a short meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi, were considered indicators of success rather than real changes in policy or progress on human rights.

Gambari's temporary replacement, the UN secretary-general's chief of staff, Vijay Nambiar, enters the stage at a crucial time when the UN should continue to push at the highest level of the SPDC for a credible election process. Since the UN has long been the focal point for diplomacy on Burma, we urge Indonesia to support the continuation of a special envoy of the secretary-general. But we add that it is crucial that the secretary-general and the special envoy not get sucked into the diplomatic game of considering access or high-level meetings as a sufficient sign of progress. The envoy must be an individual with the principles, skills, and backing of the international community to make an impact. Indonesia should be at the forefront of pushing for a replacement to Gambari that has the integrity and skills to exert pressure on the SPDC while also building consensus in Asia and the West about their approaches to Burma.

Human Rights Watch also strongly recommends that Indonesia appoint its own special envoy on Burma, as have the European Union and United States (though the US envoy has yet to be appointed). Indonesia's envoy should have a direct line to the foreign minister and specific instructions to engage in a principled way with the SPDC and other key bilateral and multilateral actors. Vigorous diplomacy is needed with China, India, Thailand, Japan, Malaysia, the United States, and other influential actors, to ensure that new revenue streams are not made available to the government. Indonesia conveyed the right message to the SPDC when it sent the respected reformist former army general Agus Widjojo to Rangoon in September 2007.

Indonesia's membership in the Group of Friends of Myanmar gives you access to these high-level discussions and the opportunity to push the UN Security Council to increase the pressure on the SPDC. We encourage you to consider supporting the establishment of a Burma Contact Group or some form of multilateral grouping to regularly discuss diplomatic engagement with the Burmese government on a range of issues. This could have the effect of converging the views and policies of China, India, Japan, the EU and US, and ASEAN states, and gradually minimize the ability of the SPDC to play states off against each other.

Your predecessor, Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda, expressed this frustration over divergent approaches to Burma more than two years ago in January 2008 when he said: "We wish to see a more credible process in the implementation of their roadmap to democracy...Some countries in the region choose to be indifferent but for Indonesia, we can't afford to ignore this problem. We have to be pro-active." We welcome Indonesia's efforts to unify countries' policies on Burma in a way that will best promote respect for human rights.

We also urge Indonesia to press ASEAN to play a stronger role. Indonesia should raise for formal discussion at the 16th ASEAN Summit in Hanoi on April 8-9, 2010, the issue of Burma's continued non-compliance with the human rights commitments contained in the ASEAN Charter. The Indonesian government should also request its commissioner to the ASEAN Inter-Governmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) and its new commissioners to the ASEAN Committee for the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Women and Children (ACWC) to prominently raise human rights issues in Burma for consideration by those bodies.


There is now a strong and even emotional debate on imposing sanctions on Burma. Some argue that sanctions have not had any discernible impact on the SPDC and should be lifted. Others argue that for political and technical reasons they have never been properly implemented and, therefore, more pressure should be applied by imposing sanctions on additional companies and individuals, and by encouraging countries and institutions that have not imposed sanctions to do so. Part of the problem is that this debate tends to treat all sanctions as the same, when in fact we think they should be differentiated.

In our work in various countries around the globe, Human Rights Watch has found that properly imposed targeted sanctions can be effective in bringing about improvements in human rights. Targeted sanctions do not impose hardship on ordinary people, but do provide leverage if effectively implemented. Targeted sanctions include arms embargoes and restrictions on military assistance, financial sanctions on individuals and entities, and investment and trade sanctions that are specifically focused on companies or economic sectors of greatest concern.

Perhaps the most effective are financial sanctions, which we urge Indonesia to support, if not implement itself. Indonesia, the ninth largest investor in Burma and with current bilateral trade at US$240 million, is increasing its economic links with Burma as the ASEAN region moves toward closer integration. Indonesia can be a sound voice in ASEAN for endorsing more targeted financial measures at pressuring the SPDC leadership.

More effective coordination by ASEAN can produce a far more effective sanctions regime that would exert real pressure on the Burmese military leadership and provide the kind of diplomatic leverage that Indonesia and ASEAN so far lack.

Helping the Burmese people is one of the most difficult and intractable problems the world has faced in recent decades. Indonesia has been at the forefront of trying to improve the human rights situation in Burma, and we think that with a renewed effort your country's influence can make a significant difference in the years ahead.

We wish you a productive trip and look forward to discussing these issues with you at your convenience.

Yours sincerely,

Brad Adams

Executive Director

Asia Division