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Myanmar's Rohingya strife roils Indonesian politics

President Widodo raises Jakarta's diplomatic profile to fend off Islamists

Demonstrators protest the persecution of Myanmar's Rohingya Muslims in Central Java, Indonesia, on Sept. 8. (Photo by Bobby Nugroho)

JAKARTA/YOGYAKARTA, Indonesia -- The brutal crackdown by the military on Myanmar's minority Rohingya Muslims in the country's western Rakhine State is stoking anger in nearby Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country.

Radical Muslim groups in Indonesia, where Muslims account for over 80% of the population, are trying to translate public sympathy for the Rohingya's plight into political ammunition against President Joko Widodo. To insulate itself against its Islamist critics, the secularist Widodo government is waging an unusually aggressive diplomatic campaign on behalf of the Myanmar minority group.

The Rohingya crisis has become a major point of political contention in Indonesia. On Friday afternoon, the tension was palpable near the famous Borobudur Buddhist temple in central Java. It was the scene of a massive protest called by the Islamic Defenders Front, which goes by the Indonesian initials FPI, and other Islamist groups.

Some 1,000 people took part in the rally, according to police. Many Muslims marched near the temple, a United Nations World Heritage site, following Friday prayers at nearby mosques.

Thousands more who planned to participate in the rally were barred from entering the area. About 3,000 security personnel were mobilized to maintain order, and set up multiple checkpoints Thursday night. National Police Chief Tito Karnavian vowed to block Islamist groups from staging their rally inside the temple grounds -- a national park -- pledging an all-out effort to protect Borobudur.

Indonesian police stand by to bar protesters from an anti-Myanmar rally in Central Java on Sept. 8. (Photo by Bobby Nugroho)

Support for the protests is not universal among Muslims. "We see that this action could be harmful to Islam itself," Dahnil Anzar Simanjuntak, chairman of the influential Muhammadiyah Youth Movement, told local media company Kompas. "We see parties with other interests and taking advantage of the demonstrations."

Nonetheless, the huge gathering nearby underscored the sectarian rift between the Muslim majority and minority Buddhists in Indonesia. The tensions are being fed by the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar.

A useful conflict

There have been reports that Islamic groups in Indonesia are recruiting volunteers to go to Myanmar to protect the Rohingya. Indonesian security forces are on alert, keeping a close eye on the activities of radical Muslim groups.

President Joko Widodo (Getty Images)

The FPI, which helped organize the Friday protest, is one such group. Its goal is to turn Indonesia into a state governed by Sharia, or Islamic law.

The group has long been at loggerheads with the country's secular authorities. It was a driving force in American pop singer Lady Gaga's decision to cancel a concert in Indonesia in 2012, denouncing what it called her bad influence on young people. It has also vandalized stores that sell liquor. Acting as self-appointed religious police, the FPI has shown a willingness to resort to force to get its way.

On Dec. 2 last year, the FPI spearheaded a rally of 300,000 people in central Jakarta, demonstrating its growing influence with the country's Muslims. Habib Rizieq Syihab, the group's leader, is living outside the country to escape prosecution.

The FPI is seeking to play an active role in the burgeoning protests against Myanmar's persecution of the Rohingya, hoping to capitalize on Indonesians' feelings of solidarity with the Muslim minority group. It hopes to expand its clout at home by showing its support for the Rohingya. Around 6,000 members joined a protest on Wednesday in front of the Myanmar Embassy in Jakarta. The rally was organized by the FPI and other like-minded groups.

Indonesians protest against the violence inflicted on Rohingya at the Myanmar embassy in Jakarta on Sept. 4. (Photo by Bobby Nugroho)

Balancing act

Widodo's government is concerned about the FPI's activities with respect to the Rohingya, which it fears could turn the conflict in Myanmar into a bigger political issue in Indonesia.

In April, the FPI was instrumental in thwarting the re-election bid of Jakarta's then-governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known as Ahok. The ethnic Chinese and Christian politician was an ally of President Widodo. The group launched a successful campaign to incite religious antagonism toward Ahok, using a doctored video to accuse him of showing disrespect for the Quran.

The government is also keeping a vigilant watch for transnational militant groups, such as Islamic State, which may try to take advantage of the religious rifts in Indonesia to commit acts of terrorism. Three men belonging to an organization that claims allegiance to IS tried to bomb the Myanmar Embassy in Jakarta last November. The Anti-terrorism unit of Indonesia's national police arrested the men, thwarting the attack. The police found explosive devices in their hideout.

Indonesia is scheduled to hold its next presidential election in 2019. The intensifying religious conflict and rising influence of Islamist groups in the country could endanger Widodo's bid for a second term. His biggest concern is being labeled anti-Islamic, a charge that would alienate many of his supporters if it stuck.

With the persecution of the Rohingya attracting growing international attention, Widodo is trying to head off that criticism. The violence against the Rohingya and the "humanitarian crisis" in Myanmar should be halted immediately, he said in a radio address on Sept. 3. Widodo told Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi to work closely with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to help resolve the crisis.

These high-profile moves are unusual for Widodo, to whom diplomacy does not come naturally. They are all the more notable because Indonesia has no economic interests at stake in Myanmar's sectarian strife.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, left, meets with Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi in Naypyitaw on Sept. 4. (Courtesy of Indonesia's Foreign Ministry)

During a visit to Myanmar that started on Monday, Marsudi got the OK from Myanmar's government to set up a hospital and provide relief to the Rohingya. The Indonesian government has published many videos and photos of Marsudi's visit, in an effort to demonstrate Jakarta's commitment to protecting Muslims.

During a meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers in August, Indonesia took the lead in drafting a statement expressing deep concern about clashes in Jerusalem between Palestinians and Israeli security forces over measures introduced at the Al-Haram Al-Sharif compound, known to Jews as the Temple Mount. The new security measures, such as installing metal detectors and surveillance cameras, infuriated many Indonesian Muslims.

Indonesia has also offered to serve as a mediator between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which have severed diplomatic ties.

These are all signs that Jakarta is trying hard to establish its diplomatic credentials over issues related to Islam.

Behind the scenes, moves to select candidates for the 2019 presidential election are already underway. Islamist political groups are looking for a champion to challenge Widodo, who is likely to run again. The Rohingya crisis, which for a long time simmered within the borders of Myanmar, now threatens to cause Indonesia's politics to boil over.

Nikkei staff writer Wataru Suzuki in Jakarta contributed to this story.

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