Protesters hold a rally near the Myanmar Embassy in Jakarta to protest against government treatment of Rohingya Muslims, on September 6, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Darren Whiteside
Protesters hold a rally near the Myanmar Embassy in Jakarta to protest against government treatment of Rohingya Muslims, on September 6, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Darren Whiteside

Myanmar’s brutal ethnic cleansing of its Rohingya Muslim minority has fast become a political hot potato in Indonesia where, despite the lone efforts of his foreign minister, President Joko Widodo is under pressure to do more than what may be realistically possible.

Stirred up by the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and other hardline groups who have always had an eye for issues that attract mainstream Muslim support, the controversy is something that can’t be ignored by a populist president looking to win a second term in 2019.

But with Malaysia — already home to 60,000 Rohingya — reluctant to join in, and the rest of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) grouping sitting on their hands, Widodo has found it difficult to confront a problem that threatens to create an enclave of Palestine-like outcasts and spark wider Muslim-Buddhist tensions in the region.

His government has already barred Islamic groups from protesting against Rohingya crisis at Borobudur, an Indonesia-based 9th century Buddhist temple complex popular with foreign tourists.

Although Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies’ (CSIS) latest poll has Widodo riding high on a 68% approval rating, impressive for a president now more than halfway through his five-year term, he knows that any Muslim-related issue requires careful handling.

University students rally near the Myanmar embassy during a protest against the treatment of Rohingya Muslims by the Myanmar government, in Jakarta September 8, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Darren Whiteside

Opposition leader Prabowo Subianto, whose alliance with Islamic forces brought down ethnic Chinese Jakarta governor Barsuki Purnama earlier this year, has been vocal in urging the government to do more to help the estimated 1.2 million Rohingya, about a third of whom have been forced to flee across the border into Bangladesh.

A surprise choice for the Cabinet in 2014, Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi can’t be faulted for the effort she has put into trying to head off the current crisis, shuttling quietly between Myanmar and Bangladesh in an effort to fill the gap in communications between the two neighbors.

Marsudi first went to Naypyidaw, the Myanmar capital, last December to persuade embattled State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi to sit down with Asean foreign ministers and find a way to head off the looming crisis. But nothing came of the subsequent December 18 meeting, or of other appeals from Jakarta for the Myanmar government to look for a peaceful solution to the spiraling crisis.

More recently, following the outbreak of violence in Rakhine state on August 26, Marsudi returned alone to Naypidaw, this time sitting down with both Suu Kyi and Myanmar military commander Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. Those meetings produced only a vague promise that Asean could play a role in humanitarian relief efforts.

Last year, Indonesia launched a US$3 million program to build a hospital and other facilities in Rakhine, administered by Muslim and Buddhist nongovernmental organizations. It has also flown relief supplies including rice, tents and sugar to the Bangladesh coastal town of Cox’s Bazar, the center of the current relief operation.

Indonesia President Joko Widodo (C) and Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi (L) stand beside aid for Rohingya Muslims at Halim Perdanakusuma military airbase in Jakarta, September 13, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta

But the most recent bout of what the United Nations has said amounts to ethnic cleansing, Suu Kyi’s recent speech seeking to play down the severity of the crisis and the wall of silence from the rest of Asean has left Widodo with limited options on what to do next.

In the meantime, Prabowo describes his government’s response as nothing more than image-building and rails against the fact that Indonesia lacks the political muscle to influence events in Myanmar. “Let us strengthen the Indonesian nation so that people fear Indonesia,” he said in a recent speech.

But Jakarta’s offer to send peacekeeping troops has fallen on deaf ears and even a newly-formed United Nations fact-finding team, led by former Indonesian attorney-general Marzuki Darusman, has so far been denied entry into Myanmar.

Darusman, who has taken part in UN investigations into the assassination of former Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto, alleged genocide in Sri Lanka’s civil war and human rights atrocities in North Korea, is reluctant to condemn Suu Kyi just yet.

“It shouldn’t be treated in a courtroom context,” he says. “She is positioning herself. I thought her speech was clever. By asking why people are leaving ‘in numbers’, she clearly knows what is currently happening and is pointing a finger at the military.”

Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi delivers a speech to the nation on the Rakhine and Rohingya situation, in Naypyitaw September 19, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

That’s not how most observers saw her remarks, but Darusman clearly wants to recognize the difficult position Suu Kyi finds herself in when the military still holds the balance of power and has never been reluctant to use it.

Lagging badly in the polls, even though he has yet to officially declare his candidacy, the tough-talking Prabowo must be careful in how he aligns himself with hardliners, given the different dynamics a national election brings.

Most analysts do not believe what happened in the Jakarta gubernatorial election this year can be transplanted on to a country-wide stage – unless, of course, Widodo makes a similar mistake to Purnama, which seems unlikely given his more cautious nature.

When Prabowo spoke at an FPI rally in support of the Rohingya earlier this month, he wisely poured cold water on their calls to send armed followers to Rakhine. “You must be cool,” he counselled them. “Use your head and your brain.”

With the Sharia-based Justice and Prosperity Party (PKS) already his sole partner in the opposition, overplaying the Islamic card could bring him into conflict with his siblings, all of whom are Christians and not altogether comfortable with his alliances.

Presidential hopeful Prabowo Subianto (C) on the campaign trail. Photo: AFP/Stringer

Now that media tycoon Hari Tanoesoedibjo has shifted his support to Widodo, Prabowo will also have to rely on the generosity of the business community if he and his Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra), are to mount an effective challenge in 2019.

Ethnic Chinese businessmen usually spread the largesse around come election time, anxious not to put all their political eggs in one basket in a country where their domination of the economy is a sore point among Muslim conservatives.

After the events of the past year, including Purnama’s jailing on blasphemy charges, they would be expected to favor Widodo. But many are unhappy with the president’s poor management of the economy, his failure to unravel confusing regulations and trade policies that have stalled imports.

After 16 so-called deregulation packages little appears to have changed on the ground, with Widodo continuing to pursue a strategy that allows for more state and bureaucratic control and, inadvertently or not, blunts his drive for badly needed foreign investment.

Unless Indonesia can break out of stagnation and grow beyond the current 5% in the next one and a half years, Indonesia’s impotence over the current Rohingya crisis will be the least of the president’s worries.

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