Disinformation campaign spurred student attack on Rohingya shelter, Indonesian activists say

Some groups may be fanning fear for political reasons ahead of February polls, they add.
By Uzair Thamrin and Pizaro Gozali Idrus for BenarNews
2023.12.28
Banda Aceh and Jakarta
Disinformation campaign spurred student attack on Rohingya shelter, Indonesian activists say University students hold a banner that reads “Reject the Rohingya,” as they demonstrate in front of the People’s Representative Council (DPR) against the Myanmar refugees sheltering in the country, Banda Aceh, Aceh province, Indonesia, Dec. 27, 2023.
[Chaideer Mahyuddin/AFP]

Human rights activists and some observers on Thursday alleged that university students who stormed a Rohingya shelter in Aceh province the day before had been influenced by an “organized” disinformation campaign, which some even linked to the upcoming general election. 

Their comments came amid a flood of condemnation of the “inhumane” incident, which resulted in the students forcing the 137 terrified refugees in Banda Aceh, mostly women and children, into trucks to another location.

The Rohingya will now be guarded by security forces, a top minister said Thursday.

Observers noted that the mob action on Wednesday – which was captured on video and widely circulated – was not typical of student protests in Aceh. 

Hendra Saputra, the project coordinator of Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Indonesia, an NGO in Aceh, said he suspected that Wednesday’s incident was not spontaneous, but “organized and systematic.”

He told BenarNews that the students were influenced by social media posts that spread hate and misinformation about the Rohingya.

“[The posts] also accused the refugees of taking their food and land, and of sexual harassment and other bad behavior. But these are all false accusations,” he said, adding that no evidence was presented to substantiate the claims. 

Besides, the refugees couldn’t be a burden because the government is not spending money on them, Hendra said.

“There’s no government budget allocated for refugee management,” he said.

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A Rohingya woman reacts as she is relocated from her temporary shelter following a protest demanding the deportation of the refugees, Banda Aceh, Aceh province, Indonesia, Dec. 27, 2023. [Riska Munawarah/Reuters]

Aceh, a predominantly Muslim province that has special autonomy status in Indonesia, has a history of welcoming the Rohingya refugees, who are also Muslim. 

However, as more than 1,500 Rohingya have arrived since mid-November, the province’s villagers have been demanding they be sent back, claiming there weren’t enough resources for the refugees as well.

Those demands grew to small protests, which on Wednesday escalated to the student mob charging into the Rohingya shelter, kicking their belongings and creating mayhem, as many of the refugees sobbed uncontrollably or looked on, frightened and shocked.

The government will move the 137 Rohingya refugees to the local Indonesian Red Cross headquarters and the Aceh Foundation building, said Mohammad Mahfud MD, the coordinating minister for political, legal, and security affairs.

“I have instructed security forces to protect the refugees because this is a humanitarian issue,” Mahfud told journalists in Sidoarjo, East Java.

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Newly arrived Rohingya refugees return to a boat after the local community decided to temporarily allow them to land for water and food, having earlier rejected them, Ulee Madon, Aceh province, Indonesia, Nov. 16, 2023. [Amanda Jufrian/AFP]

Some analysts have attributed the hostility towards the Rohingya to deliberate misinformation.

Chairul Fahmi, a Rohingya researcher and law lecturer at Ar-Raniry State Islamic University in Banda Aceh, said some of this disinformation could be linked to political actors who have an interest in exploiting the refugee issue for their own agenda.

“The authorities might have had a hand in the Rohingya disinformation campaign. The protest yesterday did not reflect the typical student movement,” he told BenarNews. “There is a possibility that the students were instructed.”

Political parties or groups could try to stir up anti-Rohingya sentiment ahead of the general election in February, suggested Ahmad Humam Hamid, a sociologist at Syiah Kuala University in Banda Aceh.

“Aceh should not be used as a battleground for the presidential election over the Rohingya matter. It would be very dangerous,” Ahmad told BenarNews.

Meanwhile, Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto, the frontrunner in the Feb. 14 presidential election, was in Aceh on Thursday, and spoke about the Rohingya.

He said that while Indonesia should be humanitarian towards the stateless Rohingya, it should also prioritize the welfare of its own people.

“Many of our people are struggling, and it is unfair to take in all the refugees as our responsibility, even if we feel humanitarian and sympathetic,” Prabowo said, according to local media.

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Newly arrived Rohingya refugees wait to board trucks to transfer to a temporary shelter after villagers rejected their relocated camp, in Banda Aceh, Aceh province, Indonesia, Dec. 27, 2023. [Chaideer Mahyuddin/AFP]

Della Masnida, 20, a student at Abulyatama University who took part in Wednesday’s incident at the shelter, accused Rohingya refugees of making “unreasonable demands.”

“They came here uninvited, but they act like this is their country. We don’t think that’s fair,” she told reporters on Wednesday.

The student mob collectively issued a statement saying they rejected the Rohingya “because they have disrupted society.” 

“We all know that President Joko Widodo has stated that there is a strong suspicion of criminal acts of trafficking among them. Even the Aceh police have said that this is an international crime,” they said in the statement issued Wednesday.

The Rohingya are a persecuted Muslim minority from Myanmar, who have been fleeing violence and oppression in their homeland for years. Close to one million live in crowded camps in Bangladesh.

With few options after years of a stateless existence, many Rohingya are desperate to leave and that makes them susceptible to exploitation by human traffickers, analysts have said.

Gateway to Malaysia

Most of the Rohingya who arrived in Aceh recently had left violent and crowded refugee camps in Myanmar’s neighbor, Bangladesh, where 740,000 of them took shelter after a brutal crackdown by the Burmese military in 2017.

For the Rohingya, Indonesia is a gateway to Malaysia, which is a top destination for migrant workers from many South Asian and Southeast Asian nations.

The Indonesian government, which has not ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention, has said that it does not have the obligation or the capacity to accommodate the Rohingya refugees permanently, and that its priority is to resettle them in a third country.

Earlier this month, government officials complained they were overwhelmed and Indonesia was alone in bearing the burden of the Rohingya.

Mitra Salima Suryono, spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR in Indonesia, believes nothing could be further from the truth, and cited some numbers to illustrate her point.

“There are about 2,000 Rohingya refugees in Indonesia, compared to 105,000 in Malaysia, 22,000 in India, and nearly 1 million in Bangladesh,” she said.

Arie Firdaus in Jakarta contributed to this report.

BenarNews is an online news outlet affiliated with Radio Free Asia.

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