Indonesia positions itself as diplomatic actor in Rohingya crisis, but to what effect?
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Indonesia positions itself as diplomatic actor in Rohingya crisis, but to what effect?

AS THE WORLD’s largest Muslim-majority state, Indonesia has long been vocal on issues affecting Muslim communities across the globe. For example, it has never established diplomatic ties with Israel so as to express solidarity with the Palestinian people.

In recent weeks, Indonesia along with Turkey has led diplomatic efforts to end renewed violence in the northern Rakhine State of Burma (Myanmar) which according to the United Nations has seen more than 164,000 Rohingya Muslims flee into Bangladesh since Aug 25.

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo released a statement calling for violence to be “stopped immediately” and for Burma’s government to provide “protection to all citizens including Muslims in Myanmar.”

SEE ALSO: From Chechnya to Jakarta, calls for end to Rohingya persecution

Anger over Burma’s persecution of Rohingya Muslims is steadily building in Indonesia.

Last November, an Indonesian man was arrested with a large quantity of bomb-making material over an alleged plot to attack the Burmese embassy in Jakarta.

Several thousand people stopped traffic at the main thoroughfare in Central Jakarta on Wednesday to protest violence against Rohingya in the Rakhine. They called for Burmese embassy officials to be expelled from Indonesia and burnt effigies of Burma’s ultranationalist monk U Wirathu.


Protesters set fire to a Myanmar flag during a protest led by Islamist groups near the Myanmar embassy protesting against the treatment of Rohingya Muslims, in Jakarta, Indonesia, Sept 6, 2017. Source: Reuters/Darren Whiteside

The previous weekend, hundreds had protested on both Saturday and Sunday in Jakarta, as well as in other major cities such as Surabaya. Jakarta police reported that a Molotov cocktail was thrown at the Burmese embassy early on Sunday morning, causing a fire on the second floor of the building.

The numbers at demonstrations on Wednesday are indicative of support for the Rohingya cause, said A. Ibrahim Almuttaqi, Head of the Asean Studies Program at Jakarta-based think tank the Habibie Centre.

SEE ALSO: What has happened to Malaysia’s support for the Rohingya?

Many of those present were of Muslim groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), who whilst still politically marginal, were highly instrumental in bringing down Jakarta’s former governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama who is now serving two years in prison for blasphemy.

Jokowi was once a close political ally of Ahok.

“With Jokowi seeking re-election in 2019 he will be very mindful of not losing the Muslim vote,” Almuttaqi told Asian Correspondent, adding that Jokowi had made special mention of Indonesia’s advocacy for the Rohingya and Palestinian causes in his 2017 State Address.

Natalie Sambhi, a Research Fellow at the Perth USAsia Centre said that the Palestinian and Rohingya issues could “almost be considered ‘domestic foreign policy’ issues”, given their importance for Indonesia’s Muslim-majority population.

Indonesia as role model

As the largest and most successful democracy in Asean, Indonesia has in fact long taken an interest in Burma’s transition to democracy.

In December 2012 – the year Aung San Suu Kyi first achieved a major electoral win for the National League for Democracy – Burmese parliamentarians visited Jakarta for high-level capacity building with their Indonesian counterparts, facilitated by the British Council and European Union.

Since the NLD formed the government in March 2016, Indonesia has positioned itself as a model for Burma’s democratisation – both being large, politically decentralised states with ethnically, linguistically and religiously diverse populations.

SEE ALSO: Rohingya crisis: How social media adds fuel to the flame


Smoke is seen on the Myanmar side of the border from Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, September 4, 2017. Source: Reuters/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

In January, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi hosted senior Burmese parliamentarians for another bilateral forum on democracy.

“Myanmar could use Indonesia as a laboratory to learn the process of democratisation, reconciliation and peaceful co-existence in a plural society,” said Retno at the time, as quoted by state news agency Antara. “Inclusive development” was key to successful democracy, she said.

Many have noted, however, Indonesia’s own history of persecution and conflict between its many ethnic and religious minorities. Separatists in Aceh fought the central government for generations, while in Papua human rights abuses against the indigenous population continue unabated.

After the beginning of Indonesia’s democratic transition in 1998, more than 10,000 people were killed in inter-ethnic violence in Indonesia between 1999 and 2003 alone.

Stopping a genocide

Indonesia has been consistent in its support for Rohingya Muslims and employing diplomatic means in its engagement with Burma to ensure a peaceful outcome to the conflict in Rakhine – one that many experts have warned appears to be deliberate ethnic cleansing and even attempted genocide.

Foreign Minister Retno this week visited Burma and met with not only the country’s leader, the now-embattled State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, but also its powerful military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.

“The involvement of [Retno] Marsudi is representative of the seriousness with which Indonesia is treating this issue and could prompt other Asean states to quietly ramp up diplomatic involvement,” said Sambhi.

Retno later flew to Bangladesh to meet officials in Dhaka regarding the Rohingya crisis.

While this should “be applauded” said Almuttaqi, “it is difficult to see what the visit really achieved beyond a few photo opportunities for the media and the Indonesian public back home.”

Indonesian civil society organisations have assisted Rohingya since at least last year, and the government has provided aid in the form of food, medicine and educational assistance. Jakarta says it is building a school for Rohingya people in the Rakhine.

The timing of the announcement of “Indonesia Aid” this week – with a dedicated IDR1 trillion (US$75 million) for scholarships for those from low-income countries – appears to be another, indirect form of aid for Rohingya, especially given Indonesia has never before had a formalised aid programme.

SEE ALSO: Asean at 50: Region marches towards peace and development, away from human rights


Rohingya refugees jostle for food distributed by local organizations after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border by boat through the Bay of Bengal in Teknaf, Bangladesh, on Sept 7, 2017. Source: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

But a barrier to greater Indonesian efforts to stop violence is Asean’s defining principle of non-interference, which has ensured relatively peaceful relations in the region for 50 years.

Sambhi said despite being “deeply concerned” about the mass killings of Muslims, Indonesia’s history of having “perpetual paranoia” regarding violations of its own sovereignty would “rule out” intervening in Burma.

Towing a line that was too critical of Burma might also jeopardise Indonesian civil society efforts to operate in the Rakhine.

The Rohingya issue is “putting Asean under enormous strain,” said Almuttaqi. “[It is] embarrassing Asean at a time when it is supposed to be showcasing its maturity to the world as it celebrates 50 years.”

“It is interesting that the Philippines, as Asean Chair, has not shown much leadership.”