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In an apparent gesture of support to Myanmar, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said on Saturday that the Southeast Asian state had done its best to handle long- standing tensions between ethnic Rakhines and Rohingyas.
The ethnic conflict between the two groups has turned deadly in recent weeks.
“The Myanmarese government has been on the track of democratization, which includes reconciling conflicting communities. Myanmar has also formed an investigation committee after communal conflicts peaked in May and June,” the President said in a press conference at his residence in Cikeas, West Java.
The statement came amid growing protests against the government’s “unresponsiveness” regarding the deadly violence that has forced thousands of Muslim Rohingyas to flee Myanmar.
Protestors at home have urged the government to help settle hundreds of Rohingya refugees and asylum seekers, particularly those stranded in several locations across Indonesia.
Critics also asked the government to officially file a protest against the government of Myanmar after a number of international human rights groups reported that security forces had committed killings, rapes and mass arrests of Rohingyas.
Yudhoyono, however, said he believed the Myanmarese government was aware of such criticisms.
He said he was trying to explain the situation in Myanmar “completely, properly and objectively, particularly after listening to reports from Indonesian ambassador to Myanmar and Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa.”
Yudhoyono also claimed the government had done whatever was necessary to help settle the issue, particularly through diplomatic relations as well as international forums such as ASEAN, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the UN.
“I have also prepared a letter for Myanmar President Thein Sein consisting of Indonesia’s hopes for the Myanmarese government to settle the ethnic issue as well as possible,” Yudhoyono said.
The President also said that the Rakhine-Rohingya conflict was communal instead of religious. “Coincidently the Rohingyas are Muslims and the Rakhines are Buddists,” he said.
“The Rohingyas originate from Bangladesh. However, even after four generations, Myanmar’s policy has yet to include them as one of the country’s 135 ethnic groups,” Yudhoyono added.
According to Yudhoyono, the ethnic clash in June killed 77 people and wounded 109. “As many as 5,000 houses were set ablaze while 17 mosques and 15 Buddhist monasteries were damaged,” he said.
“The number of Rohingyas in refugee centers increased from 28,000 to 53,000. The Rakhine refugees were recorded at 24,000,” Yudho-yono added.
He said that both the Rohingya and Rakhine refugees were “jealous”.
“Critics say the Myanmarese government prioritizes the Rakhines but on the other hand, the Rakhines also perceive the Rohingyas as enjoying much better treatment from the UN,” Yudhoyono said.
The President also called on Indonesians to “help provide humanitarian aid to our Rohingya brothers,” despite his previous comments that pointed to victims on both sides.
Yudhoyono’s first official statement on the Rohingya issue was made only a day after former vice president Jusuf Kalla, in his capacity as the chairman of the Indonesian Red Cross, attended an OIC forum in Kuala Lumpur.
The forum, which was also attended by representatives of dozens of NGOs from 20 OIC member states, concluded that international political pressure on the Myanmarese government would be crucial in settling the issue.
At the time of the press conference, hundreds of congregation members from the Yudhoyono-founded Majelis Dzikir SBY Nurussalam Muslim flocked to the President’s residence to hold communal prayers and break the fast together.
The President has held numerous press conference is at his residence but this time his podium was moved meters forward so the cameramen and photographers could also capture the Muslim congregation in the background.