Democracy Challenged: Donald Trump, Min Aung Hlaing, and Indonesia

Southeast Asia Program Director Donald K. Emmerson compares responses across Southeast Asia to the February coup in Myanmar and reflects on the parallels and differences between the state of democracy there and in the United States.
Protesters in Myanmar stand on a picture of General Min Aung Hlaing Protesters in Myanmar stand on a picture of General Min Aung Hlaing Chung Sung-Jun, Getty Images

This op-ed by Donald K. Emmerson first appeared in The Jakarta Post.

Above all, Trump wanted to be a winner. History granted his wish. He is the first president in the 245-year life of his country to have been impeached twice. By that standard, he won the title of America’s Worst President (AWP)—worse than any of the 44 presidents who preceded him.

AWP rhymes with 'gawp,' and that’s what he also wanted: to be stared at, talked about, catered to, the center of fawning attention, unforgettably present, dominating the news, astride the world in which the news is made. He wanted applause. His ravenous insecurity—narcissism—inflated his ego to continental size. In effect, in his authoritarian imagination, the “extremely stable genius” that he called himself deserved to be the indispensable “me” in “America,” without which the country’s name and the country itself would crumble.

The roars and chants of Trump’s crowds slaked his thirst for veneration. But they imprisoned him in his “base.” By satisfying his craving to be idolized, they gave him no reason to convince the unimpressed. How much more gratifying it must have been for him to bask in mass flattery at rallies than to engage in the difficult business of persuading the uncommitted. That would have taken assets he lacked: empathy, knowledge, intelligence, and a willingness not to lie.

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So how could Americans have elected such a demagogue? Trump was corrupt but charismatic. He broke the rules. He said whatever was on his mind. He appealed to the streak of individualism in American culture. He ran his campaign and his presidency as a mass entertainment featuring a lone patriot fighting a “deep state” controlled by globalist elites. Especially in rural areas between Silicon Valley and the Boston-to-Washington corridor, millions of white Americans felt threatened by the transfer of jobs from physical toward mental labor in a computerized society whose racial make-up was increasingly non-white. Globalization fed those anxieties. Trump stoked them. He promised to end them and “make America great again.”

Joe Biden defeated Trump in both the popular vote and the Electoral College—respectively by 4.4 and 13.7 percent. Biden’s margins were narrower than one might have wished, given the blatant flaws in Trump’s character, including the 30,573 false or misleading claims that he made during his presidency as tracked and noted by The Washington Post . The egregiousness of his behavior is, however, a double testament to America’s democratic system: to its failure to select a less despicable leader, yes, but also to its success in providing the lawful framework within which his desperate effort to stage what in Latin America would be called an autogolpe or “self-coup” could be and was overcome.

On 1 February 2021, watching television at his 126-room estate in Palm Beach, Florida, ex-president Trump would have learned of the coup in Myanmar and might have envied Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. Both men had been banned by Facebook for inciting violence in their respective countries—Trump in 2021, the general in 2018. Both had suffered defeats in elections held just five days apart in 2020—3 November in the US, 8 November in Myanmar. Both had rejected the voters’ verdict, claiming fraud. But whereas Trump’s frantic and deadly effort to subvert the US election and retain power failed, Min Aung Hlaing’s self-coup has succeeded, at least for now. The general quickly seized full power despite his party’s massive embarrassment at the polls in November, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party having won 83 percent of the available seats. In contrast, Trump could not reverse his exit from power despite a far slimmer margin of electoral defeat. To the extent that the ex-president was even aware of the difference, it could have fanned what angry envy of the general he may have felt.

Trump failed mainly due to the checks and balances that generally call government to account in America. Min Aung Hlaing succeeded in no small part thanks to the checks and balances in the bank accounts of the generals who have compromised Myanmar’s transition to democracy and helped make it the second most corrupted country in Southeast Asia (after Cambodia) as measured by the Corruption Perceptions Index.

Among the many reactions to the Burmese coup, several stand out for their courage and creativity. UN Secretary General António Guterres was unequivocal. "It's absolutely unacceptable,” he said, “to reverse the result of the elections and the will of the people.” Presumably speaking on behalf of the UN, its secretariat, or himself, or all three, he went further: "We'll do everything we can to mobilize all the key actors of the international community to put enough pressure on Myanmar to make sure that this coup fails." 

This notable response came from Indonesia’s former foreign minister Marty Natalegawa: “Deafening silence in the face of assaults against democratic principles [has] increasingly become the norm,” he said. He urged ASEAN to “demonstrate its relevance: It must speak urgently for the respect of constitutional process and rule of law in Myanmar, and call for the immediate release of those unlawfully detained.”

In the days immediately following the coup, ASEAN’s Bruneian secretary general said nothing about it, preferring to remain, in the Indonesian expression, “silent in a thousand tongues.” Speaking for ASEAN as its current chair, however, Brunei’s government did at least encourage a “return to normalcy in accordance with the will and interests of the people of Myanmar,” noting that the group charter’s called for adherence to “democracy, the rule of law” and “human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

As for ASEAN’s next chair, Cambodia, its strongman Hun Sen did speak, but only to say that "Cambodia does not comment on the internal affairs of any country at all.” Hun Sen’s restraint made historical sense. Had Cambodia’s old despot chosen to criticize Myanmar’s new despot, observers could have noted that Min Aung Hlaing had only done what Hun Sen himself had bloodily accomplished in 1997 by seizing full control over Cambodia in a self-coup of his own that had enabled him to become the longest-serving prime minister in the world.

Critical Southeast Asian voices, unconstrained by look-the-other-way diplomacy, have been heard. The chairman of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, Charles Santiago, has urged ASEAN to send a high-level delegation to Myanmar to tell Min Aung Hlaing that his coup “violates ASEAN principles and the ASEAN charter” and is “not acceptable.” “If Myanmar does not turn around,” he added, “there should be proceedings to expel Myanmar out of ASEAN.”

Who is better positioned to deal with this crisis than ASEAN’s largest and debatably least authoritarian member country? It was Indonesia’s Natalegawa who patched up ASEAN’s consensus after Hun Sen damaged it on China’s behalf in 2012. And it is Natalagewa who believes, with the Myanmar coup in mind, that “at this critical juncture for the region, Indonesia must demonstrate its leadership within ASEAN.”

Indonesia’s president Jokowi, rather than trying to rally the region against the coup, will likely continue to focus on domestic economic growth. Not to mention the existential priority that COVID-19 also warrants on his agenda.

So why not task Natalegawa with a damage-control trip around the region comparable the one he took with some success in 2012? He could start with fact-finding in Myanmar. He could then explore an intra-ASEAN understanding that would reassert the core democratic values in the ASEAN Charter while lessening, if possible, the chance that Myanmar will revert to entrenched and fully authoritarian rule. That may be a lost cause. But nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Although Donald Trump is no longer in office, America is still not safe from Trumpism. But America’s system—democracy—is working as it should. Is ASEAN really a dictators’ club? Or does it, too, when threatened from within, have a system that can at least manage and minimize the damage that is, in Myanmar as I write this, being done?

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