Indonesia has performed a delicate balancing act with respect to Myanmar and the Rohingya refugee crisis. Led by the Foreign Ministry, the government of President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) has tried to demonstrate concern for the Rohingya without alienating a fellow member of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). It has tried to pre-empt domestic calls for harsher measures against Myanmar by embracing some Islamist groups within a moderate government-sanctioned humanitarian coalition. It has tried to engage Myanmar on other issues, including counter-terrorism, to ensure that channels to the government were kept open even as relations with State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi deteriorated in late 2017. By mid-2018, Indonesia’s Rohingya policy was focused primarily on getting aid to the camps around Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh. But its newly secured position on the United Nations Security Council opened the possibility that it could work for a resolution of Rohingya refugee crisis and conflict in Rakhine State more generally. If it is to have any chance of success, however, all ministries and government agencies will have to take the same line.
Indonesia’s relations with Myanmar are driven by its commitment to (ASEAN); its belief – especially during the government of Thein Sein – that its own democratic transition offered models for Myanmar; its desire to be a peace broker; its efforts to ensure access for humanitarian aid; and its need to respond to domestic pressure to defend fellow Muslims under attack.
The Jokowi government’s response to the 2017 violence against ethnic Rohingya and resulting refugee outflow began with highly visible diplomacy on the part of Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi. As it became clear that Myanmar (and Aung San Suu Kyi in particular) did not welcome an activist Indonesian role, the Foreign Ministry focused on the provision of humanitarian assistance in partnership with a civil society coalition. The partnership, led by Indonesia’s two largest Muslim organisations, Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, serves two main purposes. It keeps the government engaged on the Rohingya issue when it has little leverage to affect Myanmar’s policies in Rakhine state, and it provides an outlet for Indonesian NGOs to put their anger at the violence against fellow Muslims to constructive use. It also appears to be a reasonably effective response to Islamist critics of President Jokowi, who at the height of the crisis in September 2017 were calling on his administration to do more.
Indonesian sympathy for the Rohingya does not thus far extend to a willingness to accept large numbers of those in Bangladesh for resettlement, despite the fact that public support could probably have been mobilised had the government been committed to such a gesture. While it has been reasonably hospitable to those who have landed accidentally in Aceh, usually en route to Malaysia, it is not a signatory to the U.N. Refugee Convention and has one of the lowest refugee populations in the region. This is largely because asylum-seekers, refugees and economic migrants who reach its shores are generally seeking to go to either Malaysia or Australia; Indonesia is not a destination of choice. With the Rohingya, some Indonesian officials are also wary of possible contact between Indonesian extremist groups and militants of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), though there has been no evidence thus far that ARSA has any interest. That said, some Islamist groups operating outside the government-sanctioned coalition are going on their own to the refugee camps in Bangladesh, and if there are routes and contacts set up, it may be a matter of time before more systematic communication between Indonesian extremists and ARSA – or more radical Rohingya networks in the camps – is established.