Indonesian aid to Rakhine State, Myanmar: Islamic humanitarianism, soft diplomacy, and the question of inclusive aid

  • Amelia Fauzia
31 January, 2018

The current humanitarian crisis in Rakhine State, Myanmar, has inspired global sympathy for the plight of the 500,000 Muslim refugees who have been forced to flee their homes. Humanitarian sentiment towards the plight of the Rohingya has been especially strong in Indonesia, fostered by factors of both geographical proximity and religious solidarity.

Muslim Indonesian concern for their Rohingya co-religionists has spurred a major mobilisation of Islamic charitable organisations. In order to coordinate their relief work, they have formed an innovative alliance with each other and with the Indonesian and Myanmar governments.

These inter-institutional collaborations have included the formulation of working arrangements which provide for the delivery of inclusive aid irrespective of religion and ethnicity. A close look at the questions, tensions and impulses shaping this alliance provides a window onto the ways in which Islamic organisations in Asia are negotiating the complex politics of global humanitarian relief.

Islamic humanitarianism

Indonesian Islamic NGOs have been working to carry out relief among the Rohingya since the crisis first attracted media attention in 2012. When a new wave of violence broke out in October 2016, a number of Indonesian NGOs were already active in the area.

Minister Retno Marsudi of Indonesia (centre, with hat), and Chief Minister U Nyi Pu of Rakhine State (center, tan jacket) marking the delivery of ten containers of humanitarian aid supplies to Rakhine State, Myanmar

Noting the active role Indonesian Islamic NGOs were already playing, Retno Marsudi, Indonesia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, and the Indonesian ambassador for Myanmar proposed that they should work together to deliver more relief assistance. In addition to maximising the impact of their relief efforts, the Minister also hoped to present the work of these Islamic NGOs as an initiative of the whole Indonesian people.

The proposal was readily accepted by 14 Indonesian Islamic NGOs in large part because this facilitated greater access to and support from the Indonesian state. The collaboration came to be called the Indonesian Humanitarian Alliance for Myanmar (Aliansi Kemanusiaan Indonesia untuk Myanmar, AKIM), with a total commitment of USD2,000,000.

In January 2017 an Indonesian delegation of NGOs led by Marsudi visited the Rakhine state capital, Sittwe. They brought ten shipping containers of relief supplies, including instant noodles, flour, baby food and sarong cloth, which the Indonesian state sent at the request of President Joko Widodo.

The delegation was greeted with a ceremony inaugurating the Alliance, which was attended by some 200 Myanmar government officials, representatives of the army and police, and the staff of UN agencies. I accompanied the Indonesian delegation throughout this visit and observed firsthand the warm welcome the Myanmar government extended to the Indonesian team.

Soft diplomacy

Some commentators have labeled the Indonesian visit to Myanmar in January a case of ‘sarong diplomacy’, referring to the common cloth culture shared by Indonesians and the Burmese. An Indonesian volunteer called it ‘Borobudur diplomacy’, referring to Indonesia’s historic Buddhist temple as a symbol of a common Buddhist heritage – as volunteers accompanying the delivery of aid supplies to Myanmar brought with them miniatures of Borobudur to present to their Burmese counterparts. The Alliance formally declared itself to be on a mission of ‘humanitarian diplomacy’.

All these framings define the alliance as fundamentally a diplomatic initiative undertaken by the Indonesian government as part of its engagement with the government of Myanmar. This kind of conduct of foreign affairs is often called ‘soft diplomacy’, differentiating it from the use of so-called ‘megaphone diplomacy’ by Malaysian NGOs and radical Muslim organisations in their vociferous critique of the Myanmar government.

It is out of such diplomatic considerations that the Alliance is identified as ‘for Myanmar’ (untuk Myanmar) – that is, for the nation as a whole, rather than just for Rakhine state or the Muslim Rohingya refugees. Framing it as a national engagement and a humanitarian initiative enables the organisation to pursue its work while bypassing potentially thorny questions arising from the concerns of some Myanmar government officials. 

The Alliance has been heavily promoted by the Indonesian government to attract Indonesian NGOs to join the initiative and to solicit public donations. This was in part an attempt by the Indonesian state to outflank radical Muslim calls for violent jihad in defense of persecuted members of the Muslim community in Myanmar. The Alliance thus provided an alternative mechanism for concerned Muslims to engage in solidarity with their co-religionists.

This soft diplomacy seems to have worked to a considerable extent. Until relatively recently, calls for jihad in defense of the Rohingya have gained little traction, whereas support for the Alliance has mushroomed. By September 2017, the Alliance’s membership had grown to 25 organisations following an endorsement from the Zakat Forum (a nation-wide Islamic charitable association), which provided a kind of religious stamp of approval for the Alliance’s work as permissible according to Islamic law.  

Inclusive aid

Given these dynamics it is not surprising that the Alliance follows an inclusive approach in delivering humanitarian assistance. In keeping with broader humanitarian norms, recipients are assessed solely on the basis of need, and this therefore potentially includes Buddhists as well as Muslims. This ‘inclusive’ scope of relief work thus helps to mitigate concerns of the Myanmar government and its majority Buddhist constituencies about emphasising specifically Islamic aspects of the work of the Alliance.

Given the desire shared among many Indonesian Muslims to support suffering co-religionists, it would be surprising if there was no tension within the Islamic NGOs over the requirement for inclusivity. Indeed, some NGO workers that I spoke with found the requirement problematic. In Yangon I heard one representative of an Islamic NGO ask ‘why do we need to assist Buddhists too?’ A senior volunteer from Muhammadiyah Disaster Management Center, Rahmawati Hussein, answered by noting that victims of the violence included both Muslims and Buddhists. She continued: ‘There are only two options: Do you want to distribute the relief aid or not?’ The Indonesian Alliance had been given unprecedented access to Rakhine State, but this was predicated upon their commitment to impartial relief provision to adherents of any religion in need.

While the person who raised the initial question had also formally committed to the principle of impartiality, he could not hide his concern about how to explain this commitment to his organisation’s leadership and to their donors. Rahmawati answered that ‘this is not only your problem, but mine as well – and for all of us. Each of us comes from Islamic organisations. We just need to explain to our donors and organisations the situation here. We need to educate them. This is the only way to help Rohingyas and to deliver the aid they need’.

As this exchange suggests, it took time for all the members of the Alliance to accept the ‘inclusive’ approach to humanitarian relief work in this fraught religious context, even though generally they support and follow the notion of ‘mercy to all creation’ (rahmatan lil alamin), as their principle of impartiality. Yet pragmatic and moral arguments have been persuasive, and all members of the Alliance continue in principle to accept and embrace the need for inclusivity.


The negotiations that gave rise to the Indonesian Humanitarian Alliance for Myanmar, and which continue to take place within the Alliance, point to a complex role for both religion and NGOs. Transnational Muslim concern for suffering co-religionists inspired an outpouring of support among Indonesians for the Rohingya refugees. At first, it was largely Islamic NGOs that took up the task of mobilising this concern to support relief efforts in that troubled region.

And yet engagement with both the Indonesian and Myanmar governments – an absolute requirement for their work in Rakhine state – necessitated an approach that cut across confessional religious lines. That this dynamic has been successfully negotiated is a remarkable testament to the flexibility and pragmatism of the Indonesian NGO workers in navigating the challenge of delivering relief.

Another crucial dynamic at play here is the role of the Indonesian state and its active engagement with Islamic NGOs as an extension of its diplomatic efforts. While it is commonplace to note that NGOs are frequently less ‘non-governmental’ than they seem, it is also worth noting that the state is also often more religious than it initially appears – as here, where they strongly supported religious aid. This, it is important to note, is not only characteristic of Asia or the Islamic world, but of some of the most powerful nations of the West as well – something which can be more clearly discerned through critical work of comparison.

This post is part of a series on Religion and NGOs edited by R Michael Feener and Philip Fountain. Read their introductory post here and all posts in the series here.

The series has been produced out of a collaborative research project on ‘Religion and NGOs’ led by R Michael Feener, and funded by the Henry Luce Foundation.

Subscribe to the blog

About the author(s)
Amelia Fauzia