The Platform

One of the boats used by Rohingya refugees sits empty at Kulee Beach, Pidie, Aceh. (Reza Saifullah)

Despite taking up the cause of Gazans thousands of miles away, Indonesians have largely turned their back on Rohingya Muslims who have sought safety in Indonesia.

Since the onset of Israeli military operations in the Gaza Strip in reaction to the brutal attack by Hamas militants on October 7, 2023, Indonesia has positioned itself prominently among the nations condemning the violence engulfing Gaza. Rooted deeply in its anti-colonial constitutional principles, and further intensified by Islamic solidarity, Indonesia has been at the vanguard of advocating for the Palestinian cause. Concurrently, the province of Aceh, known for its Muslim majority, has witnessed a marked increase in the arrival of Rohingya refugees.

In the digital landscape, Indonesian citizens have rallied in support of Palestine, engaging in widespread cyber strategies to debilitate the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) through coordinated campaigns of cyber-bullying and doxing. Conversely, the sentiment towards the Rohingya is starkly disparate. Online movements have arisen to characterize the Rohingya as immoral and criminal elements. This has translated into tangible consequences, including the eviction of this ethnic group from their temporary settlements in Aceh.

The Indonesian perspective on self-determination interprets Hamas’s offensive against Israel as a facet of a larger struggle for liberation from settler colonialism. Palestinians are depicted as the perennial victims of a relentless dispossession of their land, executed through various tactics, including genocide, for the establishment of a Jewish nation-state. Together with Malaysia, Indonesia has underscored the inconsistent application of international law when it comes to Palestine, as evidenced by the actions of Israel’s Western allies. Beyond extending humanitarian aid, Indonesian netizens have embraced digital activism as a novel form of solidarity, disseminating evidence of the IDF’s reprehensible acts against women and children and countering Israel’s antagonistic narratives about Palestinians. This anger reached a zenith within the cyber community when certain Israeli TikTok accounts were found to be ridiculing mothers grieving the loss of their children in Gaza.

Provoked by these and other posts by IDF personnel celebrating their actions in Gaza, Erlangga Greschinov commenced a campaign of spam against these IDF accounts, broadcasting his activities on Twitter. This initiative rapidly gained traction, with a swath of Indonesian netizens emulating Greschinov’s tactics, leading to a loosely coordinated effort under his de facto leadership. This escalated into a widespread movement of cyberbullying, doxing, and spamming directed at various Israeli proponents of the military campaign in Gaza. The movement, wryly named #JulidFiSabilillah, cleverly plays on words with the term Jihad Fi Sabilillah (struggle in the path of Allah), embodying a form of digital resistance that has frustrated many of its Israeli targets, leading to the suspension of their online accounts.

As the digital engagement with Palestinian issues reached its apogee, a new challenge emerged. In November, a fleet of five boats bearing more than a thousand Rohingya refugees made landfall at various points in Aceh, Indonesia. In stark contrast to previous receptions, these refugees were met not with welcome but rejection. Video footage disseminated on social media captured local villagers denying refuge and urging the boats to turn back, citing constraints in resources and the refugees’ perceived disregard for local customs as reasons. This situation rapidly devolved into a complex socio-political quandary.

Though the humanitarian crises faced by both Palestinians and Rohingya are commensurate in their severity and magnitude, the response of Indonesian citizens has been markedly discriminatory. The Rohingya refugees have been cast as an economic encumbrance amid challenging fiscal circumstances. Instead of directing their dissatisfaction towards governmental policies, some locals have chosen to scapegoat the refugees, alleging brazenness and this sentiment has been echoed across social media platforms. In essence, it seems almost beyond belief that citizens safeguarded by their government would harbor envy toward stateless individuals who have barely escaped ethnic cleansing.

Social and economic envy sprouted an online narrative that mutated into accusations labeling the Rohingya as perpetrators of sexual assault, vandalism, and other crimes. The most virulent aspect of this hostility is the notion that continued acceptance of Rohingya could lead to their eventual domination over the local populace, much as Israelis have imposed upon Palestinians. In this unfounded scenario, the Rohingya are posited as potential colonizers of Indonesia, a patently unfounded notion. Rather than aligning the Rohingya with the Palestinians, online logic has been contorted to vilify the refugees.

The digital sphere buzzes with an unsettling dissonance—a chorus of 47,672 mentions of the Rohingya crisis on Twitter, artificially inflated by a legion of automated accounts. This report by the analytics firm Drone Emprit reveals a stark contrast to the 4,421 mentions in online news, exposing the undercurrents of systematic misinformation. Indonesian society, typically warm and hospitable, found itself swayed, as some influencers descended into mockery through videos lampooning refugees, echoing the broader demonization of this vulnerable population.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), tasked with the mantle of protection, faced a backlash as its impersonated accounts flooded social media, sparking outrage with demands for better provisions or even citizenship. This orchestration of deceit met with retorts devoid of logic, reducing the complex refugee issue to a flippant “just bring the Rohingyas to your house.”

On a chilly December morning, the consequences of such orchestrated anger were laid bare. Indonesian students in Aceh, inflamed by viral content, stormed Rohingya camps, their actions a conflagration of intimidation and demands for deportation—a stark departure from the nation’s reputed tolerance. The UN agency and local researchers lament the sway of social media manipulation over grounded realities, a tragic testimonial to the spread of online hatred.

Such behaviors, especially from the educated youth, raise questions about their analytical capabilities, their empathy, or the disturbing possibility of external manipulation. The Rohingya plight, regrettably, appears to have become a pawn in the political chessboard—exploited for electoral gains, with candidates oscillating between rejectionist populism and humanitarian advocacy.

Against this backdrop, President Joko Widodo’s response was curiously angled towards human trafficking rather than a reaffirmation of the Rohingya’s rights. More perplexing was the statement from Mahfud MD, a revered law professor and minister, who highlighted Indonesia’s non-obligation to the 1951 Refugee Convention, seemingly neglecting the non-refoulement principle—a cornerstone of international law.

This stance reflects a troubling disconnect with the country’s commitments to international human rights treaties and exposes the government’s reticence in addressing the inflammatory online campaigns against the Rohingya. Such inaction suggests a tacit endorsement of the misinformation campaigns and raises uncomfortable questions about the country’s adherence to its stated values.

Hebh Jamal, a Palestinian journalist, offers a poignant external perspective, equating the economic scapegoating of refugees to the seeds of fascism. Her call for universal support for the oppressed, regardless of their identity, was met with a bitter twist of irony as she faced the same online vitriol from Indonesian netizens that she decried—a narrative-driven frenzy that portrays the Rohingya as potential colonizers.

In her predicament, we see the reflection of Indonesia’s challenge: the battle between professed ideals and the realities of societal attitudes. As some Indonesians extend apologies, others persist in sowing discord, and we are left pondering the true extent of humanity’s foothold in a nation caught between its principles and practice.

Nivia is an undergraduate law student at Universitas Gadjah Mada, Indonesia, majoring in international law with a focus on humanitarian, environmental, and human rights law. She currently works as a research assistant for Gadjah Mada Center for Energy Study. She is writing her thesis on TWAIL approach to ecocide.