Photo by Antje Missbach

Photo by Antje Missbach


When the governments of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand turned their backs on thousands of Rohingya asylum seekers stranded in the Indian Ocean in May, it was Acehnese fishermen who intervened. Fearing an “exodus” of additional asylum seekers, the Indonesian military had urged the Acehnese not to help the Rohingya or bring them to shore. Given the history of violent conflict in Aceh, in which the Indonesian military waged a brutal campaign against the Aceh Independence Movement (GAM), it is not surprising that the Acehnese did not heed directives from the military. The Acehnese fishermen worked together to pull people from the water and transfer them to their boats, helping some 670 migrants to shore.


On 20 May, the Indonesian and Malaysian governments each agreed to take on 3,500 Rohingya asylum seekers for a maximum of one year, until they are either repatriated or resettled to a third country. A condition of this agreement is that the international community must shoulder all costs for the care of the asylum seekers. The Indonesian government has so far only donated AU$170,000. And while the Aceh provincial government has refrained from providing financially for the asylum seekers, Acehnese civilians have donated clothes, food, and money. Governor Zaini Abdullah, a former GAM-leader who lived, like many of his compatriots, as a refugee in Sweden for many years, said local organisations and individuals have contributed almost AU$100,000.


Besides donations, which keep coming in, a number of medical students are helping out as volunteers. Making sure that basic principles of hygiene are followed is necessary to prevent the transmission of disease among the more than 1,700 asylum seekers who are already in Aceh and spread over three makeshift camps. Rafli Kande, one of Aceh’s most popular musicians, organised a charity concert and even local soccer groups have shown their empathy with the Rohingya and donated a couple of balls.


Inspired by humanitarian and religious solidarity for their fellow Muslims, Acehnese citizens have advocated for greater attention to the rights of the Rohingya. Equipped with posters that read, for example, “Save the Rohingya” and “Boycott Myanmar”, protesters in Banda Aceh have urged the government to provide more support for the Rohingya in Indonesia, and to exert greater pressure on the government in Myanmar.


In previous years, the people of Aceh have also shown substantial sympathy for the Rohingya’s cause. There are cases in other parts of Indonesia, however, where Muslim solidarity has been expressed in more malignant terms. In August 2013, for example, a bomb exploded inside the Ekayana Buddhist Centre in Jakarta, injuring three people. Ever since Abu Bakar Bashir, regarded as the spiritual leader of radical Islamists in Indonesia, took up the cause of the Rohingya, observers have feared that the oppression of Muslims in Myanmar could become the new rallying point for militant Muslims in Indonesia and the region. Despite the Islamic piety of the Acehnese and their orthodox interpretation of the religion, Acehnese citizens have generally distanced themselves from this sort of behaviour.

Where to from now?

Despite friendly encounters in Aceh, the Rohingya cannot stay in these makeshift camps for long. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM), which handles accommodation for asylum seekers and refugees in Indonesia under the auspices of the Indonesian government, is now searching for alternative lodgings. Detaining asylum seekers in immigration detention centres is a bad idea, as a violent brawl in 2013 between Rohingya asylum seekers and Buddhist fishermen from Myanmar showed.


Good community housing options in Indonesia are in short supply. This is why the Indonesian government is now considering building new temporary shelters in Aceh. This might be financially feasible given that Qatar has just announced a US$50 million donation to help Indonesia host Rohingya asylum seekers. To do so legally, however, President Joko Widodo would have to sign a long overdue presidential decree on handling asylum seekers in Indonesia.


A further consideration in relation to housing is that there are significant numbers of women and children among the 1,700 Rohingya asylum seekers, whose fathers and husbands are suspected to be in Malaysia. Rather than providing for family reunion, the minister for social affairs, Khofifah Indar Parawansa, favours sending the more than 230 Rohingya children to Islamic boarding schools (pesantren). About 12 boarding schools, mostly on Java, have already expressed their readiness to host the children. In addition to concerns over separation of children from their mothers or guardians, the policy contradicts Indonesia’s often repeated desire of not wanting to integrate any Rohingya.


There is little point in creating temporary shelters. Even if the international community manages to resettle all the Rohingya stranded in Malaysia and Indonesia within one year – something that is highly unlikely given the slow pace of negotiations and low admission rates for Rohingya in safe third countries – Indonesia needs to adjust to the fact that this is not the last time that asylum seekers will arrive on its shores and ask for protection. It might not just be the Rohingya, but as a quick glance at a map of regional conflict will indicate, it could be other persecuted people from the region.


Antje is co-editor, with Jemma Purdey, of the recently released book, “Linking People: Connections and encounters between Australians and Indonesians,” published by Regiospectra. “Linking people” brings together specialists from a range of disciplines to examine the breadth and sophistication of people-to-people links between Indonesia and Australia. The contributors look behind the headlines and hot button issues to better understand the multitude of connections. “Linking people” asks in what ways are these people-to-people links significant and how have they changed over time. As Indonesia progresses further towards rapid modernisation, it can also be assumed that the previous dynamic within the relationship will give way to new interpretations. The book highlights those interactions between Indonesians and Australians that take place outside of the formal bilateral relationship and can potentially contribute to shaping a more stable, vigorous and balanced bilateral relationship.


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