Photo by Rahmad for Antara.

Indonesia has attracted global attention for growing public anti-Rohingya sentiment. In December, university students forcibly demanded the eviction of Rohingya refugees in the city of Banda Aceh. Videos have gone viral of demonstrators – including women and children – dancing and kicking the belongings of refugees.

As shocking as this event may seem, it is not an isolated incident. In November last year, residents in Bireuen regency stopped 265 Rohingya refugees disembarking from their recently arrived boat, while in early December anti-Rohingya demonstrations took place in Sabang regency.

Such hostility stands in stark contrast to the generally welcoming attitude of Acehnese towards Rohingya in previous years. Yet the emergence of anti-Rohingya activism is not necessarily spontaneous or confined to Aceh. Reinforcing events on the ground has been an ever more sophisticated public and online media campaign that deploys an anti-Rohingya narrative full of populist anti-immigration tropes and disinformation.

This concerted media campaign encourages on-the -ground anti-Rohingya activism. And upcoming elections mean it also has the potential to fundamentally alter Indonesia’s policy towards populations in need and heighten populist anti-immigration emotion.

What is behind anti-Rohingya sentiment?

The current uptick in anti-Rohingya sentiment is due, in part, to circumstances on the ground.

As Yogi Febriandi has explained, for years the government has lacked any clear policy towards resettling Rohingya, putting undue strain on local communities. Simultaneously, more Rohingya are arriving. According to the UNHCR more than 1,500 Rohingya have landed in Aceh since November, a number that exceeds the estimated 1,555 total that arrived between 2020 and 2022.

In isolation these factors point to significant challenges to Indonesia’s refugee policy. But they alone cannot explain the rise in national anti-Rohingya discourse. Since late November, several well-known media personalities have expressed their anti-Rohingya views through traditional TV and established news portals. Of these, legal scholar Hikmahanto Juwana is arguably the most outspoken, having raised concerns pertaining to the resettlement of Rohingya since 2015.

Hikmahanto’s comments have become more hostile in recent weeks. In a thought-piece for, he argued it was not Indonesia’s concern to deal with Rohingya refugees, deploying anti-immigration tropes similar to those deployed by populists in Europe, the US and Australia. The Rohingya are, in his view, unable to respect local culture in Indonesia, and threaten the economic and social welfare of the local population.

An online campaign

Personalities like Hikmahanto are offering a publicly acceptable face to anti-refugee sentiments. At the same time, he and other media pundits are part of a larger anti-refugee media environment, one that encompasses a sinister online movement. Unlike traditional media, content across X, Tik Tok and Instagram is largely unfiltered and often unsubstantiated.

In early December, a fake Tik Tok account claiming to be from the UNHCR posted messages that the agency hoped the government would provide Rohingya with Indonesian identity cards. This post was picked up by anti-Rohingya commentators, including the well-known comedian, Marshel Widianto, who responded this was proof the Rohingya had colonised ‘the path of pity.’ Widianto’s comment received over 30 thousand mentions on X, thus fuelling further commentary.

In addition to hoax accounts, social media content proliferates through hashtags and bots. For instance, the @convomfs and @CPTanyarl handles, bots that allow users to menfess (mention something that happened to them anonymously), were used to spread the hashtags #usirrohingyadariindonesia (remove Rohingya from Indonesia) and #tolakrohingyadiindonesia (refuse Rohingya in Indonesia) to millions of users.

These hashtags have subsequently crossed multiple social media platforms, allowing several prominent influencers to further spread and amplify their own anti-Rohingya messaging. These include X accounts like @sosmedkeras as well as Tik Tok stars like Gerald Vincent and the chef Bobon Santoso – who collectively have almost 2 million followers.

As with the traditional media campaign, these accounts have used populist rhetoric accusing Rohingya of disrespecting Indonesian or Acehnese culture. Likewise, they have enhanced public disinformation. For instance, a recent video by Gerald Vincent suggested that Rohingya arrivals in Aceh had refused food offered to them by locals – pointing to the apparent ‘ungratefulness’ of Rohingya.

There is also a religious element to this disinformation. Fake videos claiming that Rohingya are unable to recite the ‘shahada’, the Muslim statement of faith, and thus are not really Muslim, have also emerged. Atrocities in Gaza have also been signposted to draw parallels between the present arrival of Rohingya in Indonesia and the historic influx of Jewish refugees into Palestine after World War II.

Such rhetoric undermines previous pan-Islamic solidarity, instead painting the Rohingya as duplicitous and taking advantage of Indonesian hospitality.

Political opportunism

It is important not to exaggerate the popularity of anti-Rohingya rhetoric. Demonstrations only number several hundred individuals in total. The NGO Drone Empirit has reported that the majority (56%) of online attitudes towards Rohingya remains positive.

Nevertheless, the viciousness of this disinformation campaign is likely to have far-reaching political ramifications. It signals a growing strain between Indonesians and humanitarian organisations. It also points to the growing acceptability of populist nationalist anti-immigration discussion in some areas of the political sphere.

With national and presidential elections taking place next month, several politicians – both within Aceh and nationally – have already sought to boost their nationalist credentials by capitalising on the insidiousness of anti-Rohingya rhetoric.

Prabowo Subianto has been most outspoken against the Rohingya. His recent comments that Indonesian assistance towards Rohingya shouldn’t come at the expense of citizens’ welfare has gained significant social media traction and praise from anti-Rohingya influencers.

Historically, misinformation campaigns have been a common tool in Indonesian politics. As the electoral campaign reaches its final months, it is highly likely that candidates and their supporters will continue to use the Rohingya as an emotive populist platform to galvanise votes and question the national credentials of their opponents.

This raises the likelihood of even more disinformation, and potentially further violence. Of course, it is the Rohingya themselves who will stand to suffer the most. The current situation pushes humane solutions even farther to the margins of political discourse, while undermining public solidarity with the refugees’ plight.


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