Indonesia President Visits Burma, Fails to Meet Muslim Leaders

By Daniel Pye 23 April 2013

RANGOON—Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono arrived in Burma for a two-day official state visit on Tuesday, during which he was expected to raise the issue of anti-Muslim violence with Burmese President Thein Sein.

But despite telling journalists in Jakarta before his departure that he would “continue helping to reach a positive outcome” on the issue of the persecution of Muslim Rohingyas in Burma, the Indonesian president apparently made no attempt to meet with Burmese Muslim or Rohingya representatives on his visit.

Yudhoyono flew to Naypyidaw on Tuesday to meet Thein Sein to strengthen bilateral ties and witness the signing of agreements on trade and investment. He is due to leave on Wednesday to attend the 22nd Asean summit in Brunei.

Yudhoyono also planned to discuss the plight of the Rohingya minority as there is strong sympathy for the persecuted group among the Indonesian public, which is mostly Muslim.

The Rohingyas, who are not officially recognized as Burmese citizens, were attacked by Buddhist mobs in Arakan State last year. Burmese government security forces were allegedly complicit in the violence, which displaced about 125,000 people.

Several Burmese Muslim and Rohingya groups said they contacted the Indonesian government in order to raise the issue with Yudhoyono during his visit, but they were turned down.

“I already contacted the first secretary of the Indonesian Embassy,” said Rohingya leader Abu Tahay, who chairs the Union National Development Party. “But he told me this is a state visit, not a working visit.”

“He said he will pass on the message to the president’s secretary. But for me, just to see the president for five minutes in person is very important for the Rohingya issue,” said Abu Tahay, who has met with US President Barack Obama, UK Prime Minister David Cameron and many other foreign officials during their visits to Burma.

Kyaw Khin, the chief secretary of the All Burma Muslim Federation, said the Indonesian Embassy also failed to follow up on the group’s request for a meeting with Yudhoyono.

“We want to meet with them, but so far we haven’t been contacted by the Indonesians,” he said. “We wish to share information about the recent violence in Pegu and Mandalay,” he said, referring to a string of attacks on Muslim communities in central Burma in March, which left at least 43 people—mostly Muslims—dead.

The Indonesian Embassy could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.

Analysts with knowledge of Indonesian politics said Yudhoyono would have an interest in raising the anti-Muslim unrest with Thein Sein, but they doubted that Yudhoyono would make much progress during his current visit.

“The Rohingya is of course a problem for Indonesia… [but] my gut feeling is that there’s no way [Yudhoyono] would raise the issue unless it was just lip service for the domestic Indonesian audience,” said Yohannes Sulaiman, a lecturer at the Indonesian National Defense University.

Simon Long, associate fellow for Asia at Chatham House and Asia columnist for The Economist, said Yudhoyono would want to seek solutions to the Rohingya situation.

“I actually think both Indonesia’s government as a whole and [Yudhoyono] personally would want to help,” he said. “Diplomatically, it is reasserting a role as a regional leader and would like to see Asean free of the sort of opprobrium the treatment of the Rohingyas brings on Burma.

“As to whether he can be effective,” Long said, “I am very skeptical, since it seems to me there is virtually no constituency in Burma for recognizing the Rohingyas as an ethnic group or granting them citizenship.”

Andreas Harsono, Indonesia researcher for the US-based Human Rights Watch, said that Indonesia’s experience with inter-communal violence, which erupted across the country after the fall of General Suharto in 1998, served as a warning to Burma as it emerges from decades of military rule.

In Indonesia tens of thousands of people were killed—mostly ethnic minorities Aceh, Borneo, the Moluccas and Sulawesi provinces—but few perpetrators were ever prosecuted. This situation has led to culture of impunity in Indonesia and bolstered hardline Islamic groups, which have since been able to openly influence government officials and politicians.

Harsono warned that if the Burmese government failed to act against those responsible for the recent waves of anti-Muslim violence, it could further entrench a culture of impunity and lack of accountability in Burma.

“It’s a matter of rule of law. In Indonesia, most government officials have responded weakly to growing intolerance and acts of violence,” he wrote in an email. “The absence of leadership has emboldened groups willing to use violence against religious minorities and the local and national officials who cater to them.”

“If the [Burmese] government does not act against the perpetrators [of the anti-Muslim violence] it will create and enhance the culture of impunity in Burma,” he said. “Burma will never be a civilized and democratic country if it cannot deal with perpetrators of violence.”