The Platform

Rohingya refugees in Aceh, Indonesia.

An ugly protest by Indonesian students against Rohingya refugees highlights the challenges the country faces.

In late December 2023, a tumultuous student protest against Rohingya refugees in Aceh, Indonesia, captured international attention after videos of the event spread across the internet. The scenes of hostility directed toward a vulnerable group—predominantly composed of women and children—elicited statements of deep concern from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This outcry was echoed by a spectrum of voices, from the National Human Rights Commission to the Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal, and Security Affairs, and reverberated through the digital corridors of social media, filled with Indonesian netizens’ sharp rebukes.

This incident lays bare the intricate challenges Indonesia confronts in grappling with refugee crises: moral imperatives, national sovereignty, and regional diplomacy, all of which will be dissected herein.

Rohingya refugees from Myanmar’s Rakhine State bear the scars of egregious human rights abuses—systemic discrimination and violence are their constant shadows. International calls to action and aid reflect more than just sympathy; they signify a broader commitment to human rights and the ethical mandates of global citizenship. The Acehnese response, fraught with both empathy and tension, encapsulates the struggle between humane instincts and national apprehension, between the desire to alleviate suffering and the fear of sociopolitical upheaval.

At the heart of this struggle is the reaction of some Acehnese students. Their critique stems from perceived governmental neglect of the Rohingya plight, skepticism over the efficacy of aid, and the economic and societal toll on local communities. Their concerns underscore a wider debate about resource allocation and the prioritization of domestic issues over international crises.

Yet, the forcible expulsion by these students stands as a stark violation of the humanitarian principles embodied in Indonesia’s national philosophy, Pancasila. The irony is bitter: students, supposed torchbearers of democratic values and social justice, have been implicated in acts against those most in need of compassion and sanctuary.

Further complicating matters is the role of disinformation. KontraS Aceh, a humanitarian organization, suggests that the student protests were inflamed by misinformation and provocative rhetoric. A slew of hoaxes and false narratives has contributed to the vilification of the Rohingya, depicting them as ungrateful, demanding, or criminal. This disinformation campaign, facilitated by social media’s extensive reach, has had a tangible impact on public sentiment and policy debate.

Indonesia’s handling of the Rohingya issue is thus a delicate balancing act between ethical imperatives and diplomatic considerations. Despite not being a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, Indonesia is bound by the principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits the forced return of refugees to a country where they are liable to be subjected to persecution. This principle, alongside the incessant arrival

of refugee boats, raises questions of sovereignty and public sentiment, further muddied by the strong currents of social media influence.

Thus, Indonesia is positioned at the nexus of a complex geopolitical conundrum. It must navigate between its humanitarian inclinations and the pragmatic constraints of regional politics. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Indonesia and Myanmar are members, traditionally adheres to a policy of non-interference, which complicates direct action on the Rohingya crisis. Concerns linger that Indonesia’s intervention could prompt reciprocal scrutiny of its own domestic challenges, like those in Papua and Timor Leste.

From an international legal perspective, while Indonesia grapples with its non-party status to the Refugee Convention, it is simultaneously challenged by the continuous waves of refugees reaching its shores. The tension between upholding non-refoulement and managing sovereign borders underscores the need for a nuanced approach to refugee treatment—one that is not exacerbated by the pernicious effects of social media disinformation.

In light of these complexities, Indonesia is tasked with seeking a harmonious alignment of its humanitarian duties and its role in regional diplomacy. Such a reconciliation requires a delicate interplay of ethical consideration and political strategy. Indonesia must collaborate with its ASEAN counterparts to craft a sustainable resolution to the Rohingya quandary that does not forsake human rights for diplomatic expediency.

The immediate challenge lies in combatting the spread of misinformation. The proliferation of hoaxes on social media acts as a catalyst for antipathy towards the Rohingya, potentially precipitating violence. Addressing this requires concerted efforts not only from the government but from all societal actors—community groups, religious leaders, NGOs, and the citizenry at large. In confronting the twin challenges of refugee crisis management and information integrity, Indonesia stands at a crossroads, with its response holding the potential to set a precedent for humanitarianism in an interconnected world.

Muhammad Shalahuddin Al Ayyubi is a graduate student at the University of Indonesia where he is also an assistant lecturer. Muhammad is also a freelance writer, contributor at Modern Diplomacy, and author of 'Sang Watan'.

Sahara Ayu Putri is an alumni of the Department of Public Health, Udayana University.