Indonesia navy loses track of Rohingya boat after ‘shadowing’ it at sea

Pizaro Gozali Idrus
Indonesia navy loses track of Rohingya boat after ‘shadowing’ it at sea A man looks at a boat that was used by Rohingya refugees who came ashore at Lamnga beach in Aceh province, Indonesia, Jan. 12, 2023.
[Chaideer Mahyuddin/AFP]

The Indonesian military has no idea about the fate of a boat carrying Rohingya passengers that its navy followed this week, a spokesman said Friday, amid rising resentment in the Southeast Asian nation over an influx of the persecuted Myanmar refugees. 

Describing the wooden boat’s occupants as suspected “Rohingya victims of human trafficking,” the navy said one of its warships on Wednesday “shadowed” the vessel until it safely left Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone, although it had earlier said it drove away the boat.

“I have not monitored their position now,” Brig. Gen. Nugraha Gumilar, the head of the military’s information center, told BenarNews.

In a statement released late Thursday, the navy said its warship spotted the boat named Shwe Ya Danar 3 in waters between Indonesia and India.

It said it deployed a helicopter to monitor the boat and confirmed that it was not in distress. The boat continued its voyage out of the Indonesian exclusive economic zone, the navy said. 

The navy took down an earlier statement posted on its website that it had “turned away” the boat. 

BenarNews asked a navy spokesperson why the description of the warship’s activity had been changed. The spokesperson wouldn’t say why, merely asking BenarNews to refer to the new statement on the navy website.

Newly arrived Rohingya refugees are stranded on a boat as the local community where they came ashore decided not to allow them to land in Pineung, Aceh province, Indonesia, Nov. 16, 2023. [Amanda Jufrian/AFP]

The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, urged the Indonesian government to let the boat dock and to provide assistance to the refugees, who have fled decades of violence, persecution and displacement in Myanmar and neighboring countries.

“UNHCR is very concerned about the safety of the refugees on the boat,” Faisal Rahman, the agency’s representative in Aceh, told BenarNews.

“For those seeking international protection, safe docking permission and access to asylum procedures and humanitarian assistance must be granted,” he said.

He added that Indonesia had a humanitarian tradition of providing protection for refugees, and he hoped to see the same solidarity and spirit now and in the future.

According to the refugee agency, there are about 2,000 Rohingya refugees in Indonesia, compared with 105,000 in Malaysia, 22,000 in India and about 1 million in Bangladesh.

On Wednesday, a group of students stormed a shelter for Rohingya refugees in the provincial capital, Banda Aceh, and forced them to move elsewhere. The students accused the refugees of being a burden on the local economy.

Some 137 refugees, mostly women and children, were transported by truck to another location under police escort.

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

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

Indonesian Navy sailors ferry supplies to a navy ship destined for a boat carrying Rohingya that was intercepted in waters off Bireuen, Aceh province, Indonesia, Dec. 29, 2021. [Handout/Indonesian Navy/via AFP]

Activists and observers suspect that the students were influenced by a disinformation campaign that portrayed the Rohingya as a threat to Indonesia’s economy, security, and sovereignty.

“[The posts] accused the refugees of taking their food and land, and of sexual harassment and other bad behavior. But these are all false accusations,” said Hendra Saputra of Jesuit Refugee Service Indonesia, an NGO in Aceh. 

Atika Yuanita Paraswaty, the chairwoman of Suaka, a refugee rights group, said the government should treat refugee boats in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which Indonesia has ratified, and its own statutes.

“The government should help when there are refugees who need help at sea,” she told BenarNews.

She said if there were indications of crime, such as human trafficking, the perpetrators should be prosecuted in Indonesia, but the refugees should still be accepted and treated according to a presidential regulation on handling of refugees.

Uli Parulian Sihombing, a member of the National Commission on Human Rights, said the option of returning the refugees to their country of origin was not feasible if they faced potential threats of persecution, torture or other inhumane treatment.

“This is in accordance with the principle of non-refoulement contained in the Anti-Torture Convention that has been ratified by Indonesia,” Uli said in a statement.

Nazarudin Latif in Jakarta contributed to this report.


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