Marty in Myanmar

Earlier this month, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa went to Myanmar to see for himself the situation on the ground in troubled Rakhine State. As expected, he saw a huge landscape of humanitarian needs — shelter that was more for protection than as makeshift tents, food, medicine and other basics.

As a result of deadly communal conflicts that broke out in May last year, some 8,500 Rakhine now live in 31 refugee camps, while more than 110,000 Rohingya are crammed into 35. They have lost loved ones and their homes. They are surviving on humanitarian aid.

According to media reports, in two days Marty visited six of the camps and talked freely with the refugees, both Rakhine and Rohingya. Although moved by their anguish, he was also impressed by the resilience and dignity with which they bore their distress. He noted that they wanted to recover quickly, to plant crops like they used to. So, they needed seeds and farming tools.

He was accompanied all the time by Lt. Gen. Thein Htay, the country’s Minister of Border Affairs, but there was no attempt by the Myanmar government to engineer the dialogue, nor to influence Marty’s schedule. He went where he pleased and talked with whomever he wanted to reach out to — whether Rakhine, Rohingya or Bengali.

The Myanmar government isn’t famous for giving this kind of trust — but Marty has earned it. When he deemed that reform in Myanmar had gained enough momentum to be irreversible, he became a fervent advocate for the lifting of sanctions against the one-time pariah state. Now he was in Myanmar not only because of its long-time friendship with Indonesia, but also because Indonesia wanted to ensure an Asean Community would be attained by 2015.

“It is impossible to build an Asean Community if there’s instability in the region,” he said.

When Marty asked about the issue of Rohingya citizenship, Thein Htay gave an earnest albeit hardline answer. That’s generous; to such questions they usually reply with silence so thick you can cut it with a knife.

Nonetheless, in politics, positions evolve. That’s how democracy gained a foothold on Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi’s position on the fighting in Kachin State evolved in recent times from hesitation to a passionate call for a stop to the bloodbath. Perhaps her position on the Rohingya is also evolving.

In the case of Marty, he looked hard and saw beyond the refugees’ bodily hurt, beyond ethnic scramble for scarce resources. This is not just an economic problem, most certainly not a religious one. It’s a deeper problem with roots that reach back to ancient times. That is partly a legacy of colonial rule and partly the impact of the vagaries of history. As a result, villages identified by their ethnicity — Rakhine or Rohingya — stored an oversupply of hatred and endured a shortage of trust.

The Myanmar government is doing its best to cope with that problem. But it’s no match to an epidemic of hate.

In Marty’s words: “There is a greater challenge on how to promote reconciliation and trust between the affected communities.”

There’s need for relief and reconstruction, for which Indonesia has offered a modest $1 million in aid. As for the need of intercommunal dialogue, Indonesia would share insights from its experience in dealing with communal violence through sincere dialogue in such places as Kalimantan, Madura and Poso.

In offering this kind of help Marty made no pretense that Indonesia has solved all its own communal problems. Nations learn from one another. In shedding light on the communal conflict in Rakhine State, Indonesia could learn a thing or two on how to deal with its own communal problems involving Shi-as, Ahmadis and Yasmin Christians.

Marty’s offer is all the more effective because it’s given in humility.

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