From protest to action: the Indonesian government seeks to broker peace in Myanmar

Photo: Joko Widodo official Facebook page

President Joko Widodo’s critics have left him with little choice but to take action to bring peace to Myanmar. Will other ASEAN states follow suit, or will Indonesia stand alone?

By Oliver Ward 

The Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals Association (ICMI) urged the Indonesian government to take the lead and initiate conflict resolution talks in Myanmar. The Rohingya have suffered for long enough at the hands of the Burmese army, and the ICMI secretary-general believes Indonesian President, Joko Widodo, cannot ignore the situation any longer.

“ASEAN countries should not close their eyes to the rights violations against Rohingya Muslims,” he said at the beginning of September 2017.

Why should Indonesia broker peace in Myanmar?

Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population and enjoys strong bilateral trade ties with Myanmar, making it a good contender to lead the way in applying pressure to the Burmese government to end their ethnic cleansing campaign.

As the Myanmar military begins “clearance operations”, whereby they raze and burn buildings in Rohingya occupied villages, the Rohingya issue is becoming a point of political contention in Indonesia. Satellite imagery showed the destruction of as many as 700 buildings in Chien Khar Li, just one of 17 villages hit by the clearance operations of the Burmese military. The public clamour in Indonesia for government action has left Widodo with little choice but to take action or give his critics fresh ammunition to use against his secular government.

Islamic groups within the country have put significant pressure on Widodo’s government to take action against the ethnic cleansing situation in Myanmar. In early September, 10,000 protestors gathered outside the Myanmar embassy to voice their discontent.

 

It is in both Myanmar and Indonesia’s interest to begin conflict resolution talks

Following the persecution of the Rohingya Muslims, the Myanmar government has become a target for extremist attacks. In December 2016, Malaysian authorities arrested an Indonesian man planning to travel to Myanmar to carry out terror attacks against the government there.

More terror attempts will likely come in the future. A spokesman for the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), an extremist group in Indonesia, issued an ominous warning, “we want to help in any way we can. We are even prepared to wage Jihad there if need be. That is why one of the main requirements for our recruits is the willingness to die as a martyr.”

The large number of Rohingya refugees fleeing their homes are ripe for radicalisation. There have already been reports of Malaysian militants recruiting Rohingya for extremist groups and sending them to the Poso region of Indonesia for training. Once radicalised, these Rohingya will enter the network of ISIS supporters currently operating within Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines and add to the growing problem of Islamic extremism across Southeast Asia.

With such far-reaching consequences, an ASEAN-wide response is necessary

Widodo’s government has already reached out to Aung San Suu Kyi’s government. On September 4th, Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi met with Suu Kyi to stress the importance of ending the violence and restoring security in Rakhine State. She also raised the issue with UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, the previous week.

The Dutch, British and Iranian foreign ministers expressed their support for Indonesia’s diplomatic efforts to bring an end to the crisis. The Indonesian approach is the first of its kind in ASEAN to promote peace talks to bring an end to the crisis.

Other ASEAN nations like Malaysia and the Philippines should follow Indonesia’s lead and be more active in their calls for peace in Myanmar. Other approaches from other ASEAN states have proven ineffective. Malaysian Prime Minister, Najib Razak, for example, condemned Suu Kyi’s government and questioned her credibility in defending human rights. But his confrontational comments did not translate into direct action aimed at stopping the slaughter of the Rohingya. Filipino President Duterte has also questioned the conduct of the government in Myanmar but is yet to take any serious action to seek a solution to the issue.

The Indonesian response bred from a grassroots protest movement which has snowballed into influencing government policy to take a stand. While protests have occurred in Malaysia and the Philippines, they have not generated sufficient numbers to pressure their leaders into taking strong action.

The issue does not exist in isolation; accordingly, the whole region should be involved in coordinating a resolution to the conflict. The time for harsh words is over. Now it is time for diplomatic actions.