Crocodile Tears for the Rohingya
Image Credit: REUTERS/Beawiharta

Crocodile Tears for the Rohingya


Just seven weeks before Bali Nine drug smugglers Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumara were executed, a senior Indonesian minister warned that more than 10,000 asylum seekers could be let loose if Australians continued to test his patience over their pending deaths.

“If Canberra keeps doing things that displease Indonesia, Jakarta will surely let the illegal immigrants go to Australia,” Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs, Tedjo Edhy Purdijatno said. “There are more than 10,000 in Indonesia today. If they are let go to Australia, it will be like a human tsunami.”

The threat was morally repugnant. It was, however, consistent with the political atmosphere that signed-off on the state-sanctioned killings of both men, alongside six other drug couriers, including a Brazilian who was diagnosed as mentally ill.

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Scant regard for the opinion of its neighbors has become a new constant in  Indonesian foreign policy. This was again on full display in recent weeks with Jakarta’s stand on thousands of Burmese and Bangladeshis, left starving and stranded at sea.

As the plight of the ethnic Rohingya grabbed the attention of headline writers, a spokesman at Indonesia’s foreign ministry, Arrmantha Nasir, again typecast refugees as a convenient political football by arguing Australia was obliged to take them.

Given their proximity to the safe harbors of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, and the overarching influence of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), with a combined GDP of US$2.4 trillion, the argument was nonsense from a logistical, economic, and political standpoint.

In Australia, debate on this issue has been reduced to ill-informed celebrities chasing television ratings in sound bites polarized by those who argue that Australia should be a shining example to the rest of the world on how to say “yes” to all-comers and those content with the current intake of about 20,000 refugees a year. Current policies bars entry to asylum seekers arriving by boat.

The Refugee Council of Australia has previously noted that Australia is not the world’s most generous country in its response to refugees – but is just inside the top 25.

Still, on the latest tragic, refugee mess to afflict ASEAN, Australia’s obligations were no greater than those of Canada or New Zealand. Predictably, Canberra said no to Indonesia’s insistence. The scale of  tragedy created by people smugglers and human traffickers operating for years with impunity inside ASEAN has been on display with the discovery of mass graves in Malaysia and Thailand.

All at Sea

Amid mounting international pressure, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand were forced to back down on policies that for years have turned boats back out to sea, often towards Australia. Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur also announced they would provide temporary shelter while Naypyidaw did an about face and declared it would attend a conference on the crisis in Thailand.

Behind the inward turn were the testimonies of those on board, which spilled out online, onto the pages of the international press, and into the living rooms of television viewers already mindful of Jakarta’s harsh stand on the death penalty and ASEAN’s inability to curb human trafficking.

A 16-year-old Rohingya girl told Human Rights Watch, which undertook extensive interviews with those on-board: “There was a group of six men, they were Rakhine Buddhists from Bangladesh, they had knives and guns. They forced me to get on a boat, they told me I was leaving Myanmar.

“They pushed me to the small boat, I fell into the water up to my shoulders. Fifteen other Rohingya were on that boat. All the people were forced onto the boat.”

Another girl said: “We spent two months on that boat, more people kept coming to the big boat, small boats all the time. We [the women] were under the boat, it was so small. I couldn’t see outside the boat, just feel it go up and down. People were throwing up, I felt dizzy and uncomfortable the whole time.”

And still from another young girl: “When I got to the big boat … I cannot explain my feeling I was so scared. We were about 16 people in one small room. The doors were always locked. The smugglers put the food and water through a small hole, we never saw them.”

Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said interviews with officials and others made it clear that trafficking networks were profiting from the complicity of government officials in Burma, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Malaysia.

“Survivors describe how they flee persecution in Burma only to fall into the hands of traffickers and extortionists, in many cases witnessing deaths and suffering abuse and hunger,” he added.

He said Thailand, Malaysia, and Burma must agree to never again engage in the pushback of people stuck at sea, find any remaining boats, bring those on board to safe ports, and ensure that their rights were respected.

Given the history of this issue, that’s unlikely. Persecution of the Rohingya was first brought to the world’s attention by the foreign desk at the South China Morning Post, led by journalists Ian Young and Greg Torode in Hong Kong more than six years ago.

Since then the legal abuses have been documented.

Catherine Morris of Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada said the root causes of the crisis include failure by several ASEAN states to abide by their international human rights obligations and a lack of integrity among law enforcement officials and legal systems.

Importantly, she added “a lack of consistent and firm insistence on implementation of human rights by states trading in Southeast Asia” had also contributed to the tragedy.

“For years, persecution and privation of Rohingya in Rakhine State has left families considering that they have no choice but to attempt to migrate to other countries including Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia,” she said.

“Human traffickers have been allowed to operate with impunity in Myanmar. Traffickers have even reportedly tricked or kidnapped Rohingya children as young as 13 years of age, later extorting ransoms from family members.”

Lip Service and a Ray of Hope

There are no shortages of left or right wing politicians within ASEAN, Australia, and elsewhere who have shown a readiness to use the plight of asylum seekers and illegal immigrants, which according to the United Nations are travelling in their largest numbers in 20 years, for their own advantage.

According to Gavin Greenwood, a security analyst with Hong Kong-based Allan & Associates, Indonesia’s decision to relent, accept refugees and meet it’s basic humanitarian obligations could have had more to do with Australia and the executions of Chan and Sukumara.

“[Jakarta] may have sought to embarrass Australia by extracting hardline comments from Prime Minster [Tony] Abbott regarding Canberra’s outright refusal to take any of the boat people,” he said.

“The Indonesians may also have calculated that their offer of temporary sanctuary to the Rohingya/Bangladeshis would also help dispel the negative public relations aspects of their recent execution of foreigners on drugs charges.”

Brazil remains rightly furious over the execution of Rodrigo Gularte, a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic. There are more on death row including an English grandmother who says she was forced into drug smuggling to protect her son whose life was at stake.

The Indonesian drug trade is notorious and like Islamic militancy and terrorism across the archipelago owes its existence largely to home-grown manufacturing, distribution, and consumption. Counter-terrorism, drugs, and the use of capital punishment are as much a political issue as stranded refugees, with politicians maneuvering on public perceptions.

Natalie Sambhi, an analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), said Islamic public support might have also helped with Indonesia’s shift in direction but importantly there was now an opportunity for it to take the lead in finding a regional solution for the plight of the Rohingya.

“Indonesian foreign policy has a number of competing priorities right now including policies geared towards encouraging foreign investment. Helping asylum seekers isn’t one of those priorities.”

“I think Indonesia’s change of heart – from turning back the boats to temporarily accepting refugees — shows they can assist in these circumstances, but the country’s willingness is highly contingent on overtures of international community support.”

Burmese Days

While international pressure played its part in bringing Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand into negotiations over the Rohingya crisis it has rarely succeeded where the problem starts, in Myanmar.

George Orwell could have been referring to the current leadership in Naypyidaw and its attitudes to the Muslim Rohingya when he wrote in Burmese Days: “Like the crocodile, he strikes always at the weakest spot.”

Reforms by President Thein Sein have not gone beyond opening his country up to outside investment – to the benefit of military controlled companies – and the release of political prisoners who should never have been locked up in the first place.

Unprecedented elections later this year will be a test of his authority, his ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party and the opposition National League for Democracy and its leader, the pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, who has had little to say on the Rohingya.

The Rohingya sit at the bottom of Myanma’s social and political heap, making-up just 735,000 to one million of Myanmar’s 53 million people. They are close to powerless inside the mainly Buddhist country, where long running civil conflicts with a myriad of ethnic groups like the Karen, Wa and Kachin continue.

Repeated calls for help have fallen on deaf ears. Even the Dalai Lama has urged Suu Kyi, a fellow Nobel Peace Laureate, to do more to help the Rohingya, but political ambitions on both sides of politics appear to outweigh their horrendous plight.

Morris said a report last year by the UN Special Rapporteur on systematic human rights violations in Rakhine state may constitute crimes against humanity as defined under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

Her sentiments were backed by Adams.

“There will be no long-term solution unless Burma ends its rights-abusing and discriminatory policies toward the Rohingya and joins other countries in taking action against smugglers and traffickers who abuse and prey on them,” he said.

For the rest of ASEAN much is at stake, and this is particularly true of Indonesia. Its recent ability to ostracize itself by ignoring the concerns of those living next door, whether Australians or Malaysians, does matter.

There are much bigger fights brewing in Southeast Asia and Jakarta’s stand against Beijing’s expansionist policies in the South China Sea will require as much diplomatic tact and military might as it can muster. Having neighbors on side would help.

Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt

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