Jakarta is facing considerable public pressure to do more to assist the Rohingya. Photo by Puspa Perwitasari for Antara.


The humanitarian crisis in Myanmar’s Rakhine state is becoming increasingly dire and complex. About half a million Rohingya have fled across the border to Bangladesh since the Myanmar military began its violent crackdown in the region, following an attack by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on 25 August. The crisis has prompted large protests in Jakarta in support of the Rohingya, dwarfing similar protests in 2012 and 2015. As the largest country in the region and home to the largest Muslim population in the world, what role should Indonesia play in responding to the crisis?


In early September, Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi submitted a proposal to Myanmar, dubbed the Formula 4 + 1, to restore peace and allow humanitarian access to Rakhine state. The formula consists of four aspects – restoring stability and security, maximum restraint and non-violence, protection of all persons in the Rakhine State regardless of race and religion, and immediate access to humanitarian assistance – as well as the plus-1 element, which is the implementation of recommendations of Kofi Annan’s Advisory Commission on Rakhine State.


Besides meeting with Myanmar military chief General Min Aung Hlaing and Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi in Naypyitaw, the government has also helped to channel support from the Indonesian public under the Indonesian Humanitarian Alliance for Myanmar (AKIM) and has now dispatched two shipments of aid to Rohingya refugees.


ASEAN, however, has not lived up to expectations. It has been sluggish and timid, only expressing watered-down concerns over the humanitarian crisis. This has created growing unease in some member states and a hope that Indonesia can do more in ASEAN.


But if Indonesia is to be viewed as a legitimate actor in brokering peace in Myanmar, it must also be prepared to show leadership in the management of refugees at the domestic and regional levels. Although Bangladesh is the main immediate destination of Rohingya refugees, other Southeast Asian countries, including Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, may also see spill-over effects from the crisis. Matching capability in refugee management with existing diplomatic engagement with Myanmar will enhance Indonesia’s position as a reliable problem-solver in the region.

Past experiences with Rohingya refugees

Indonesia has always struggled to deal with refugees, despite housing more than 14,000 refugees and asylum seekers since the 2000s. In 2015, when boat loads of Rohingya and Bangladeshi refugees were rescued off the coast of Aceh, Jakarta seemed unsure of how to handle the problem. The military initially responded by sending back any boat with Rohingya migrants entering its waters, but local Acehnese ignored this, brought them to shore and offered them spontaneous hospitality.


Following international pressure, the Indonesian government – despite not being a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention or the 1967 Protocol – pledged to accept the refugees and allow them to remain temporarily while their resettlement claims were processed. But even then, there remained major doubts about the Indonesian government’s commitment to the Rohingya refugees. The process was only managed under a provincial emergency response scheme, with no precise directions from the central government. Jakarta’s main instruction was just to accommodate the Rohingya in temporary shelters for one year.


It was clear that this timeframe was unrealistic. By May 2016, only 46 Rohingya had been resettled in a third country, well below Jakarta’s expectations. Rather than sitting idle in a temporary shelter with little hope of resettlement, hundreds of Rohingya fled to Malaysia, where they hoped to find illegal work and join a larger community of almost 61,000 Rohingya refugees there.

What could Indonesia be doing better this time?

Nearly 500,000 Rohingya refugees have arrived in Bangladesh, a number the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) believes could reach 700,000. There are growing concerns about the UN’s capacity to respond and domestic opposition has started mounting in Bangladesh. With no signs from Myanmar that it will ensure the safety of the Rohingya if they return home, there is a high chance that some will again risk their lives at sea in the hands of people smugglers.


Indonesia has had several encounters with Rohingya refugees, in 2009, 2012 and, most recently, in Aceh in 2015. None have been well managed and there is clearly plenty of room for improvement.


The bonds of solidarity shared between Muslim Indonesians and Rohingya remain strong, so Jakarta can be sure it will face similar (or even stronger) pressure to help the Rohingya than it did in 2015. This should be a reminder that the government still has a lot of homework to do if it is to formulate better practices for refugee management.


In late 2016, the government passed Presidential Regulation No. 125 on the Treatment of Foreign Refugees. This was a good start, as it provides a legal definition of refugees consistent with that in the 1951 Refugee Convention, and outlines procedures to assist with refugee management at the national level. But it tends to focus on emergency response measures, as occurred in Aceh, which do not meet the bigger challenges of resettlement. Given the tightening of immigration policies in countries like Australia and the United States, resettlement is only going to get harder and refugees may have to face prolonged periods in transit.


While this decree is undoubtedly a good first step, there is still much to be done in collaborating with broader stakeholders to establish robust mechanisms for the welfare of refugees. These would include options for local integration, access to formal education, and provision of adequate health facilities and rights to work.


Second, efforts should also be made at the regional level. While ASEAN has pledged to distribute aid supplies through the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA Centre), further action is needed.


Related regional platforms, such as the ASEAN Convention against Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (ACTIP), can be used as a medium to collaborate and to share best practice in dealing with Rohingya refugees. Global trends show developing states are becoming the biggest stakeholders in dealing with world’s refugees. Other ASEAN countries outside the traditional transit countries, such as Cambodia and the Philippines – both signatories to the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol, should also be urged to coordinate and apply pressure for a regional solution.


Moreover, Jakarta can also complement the progress in ASEAN with its active leadership in the Bali Process. As the Bali Process has a wider membership, Indonesia can use it as a venue to debate better management of and support for Rohingya refugees, especially with developed countries like Australia and the US.


Ultimately, if Indonesia can exercise leadership by improving the refugee management system at the domestic and regional levels, it can be seen as a role model in the region, answering UNHCR’s call “to go beyond statements and take action to save Rohingya”. If it does not, the already serious refugee problem will likely only become worse.


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