by Kevin Fogg

In the last week, as protests have flared around the Muslim world about the film Innocence of Muslims, Indonesia has not been left out. Protests in Jakarta and Surabaya (the capital and second largest city, respectively) on Friday and Saturday were led by the group Hizbut Tahrir. Today more violent protests flared at the US Consulate in Medan and again at the US Embassy in Jakarta, where police arrested four instigators from the frequently-unruly group Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defenders’ Front).

Since democratization in 1998, Indonesians (especially those in Jakarta, but also in other cities) have not been shy about protesting. Protests in front of the American Embassy (which also faces the central square in Jakarta and the site of most major protests) are not uncommon, but other countries are also frequently the target of protests, including majority-Muslim countries like Malaysia. Most of these protests about overseas issues have no impact on government policy, or on the issues that they are protesting about, but one case this summer shows the flip side of the coin: protests that became productive in international relations

Indonesians were outraged at news in June and July about sectarian clashes involving the Muslim Rohingya minority in Burma. These deaths were not the worst in the ongoing struggles of the Rohingya–involving denied refugee status, limitations on international aid, years of discrimination, and other woes–but the opening of the press in Myanmar allowed news on the conflict, which fed into Indonesian Muslim outrage. Not sparing anyone in their anger, Indonesians even loudly criticized Nobel Prize Winner Aung San Suu Kyi for not paying enough attention to this issue. This led in August to several demonstrations across the country, even including the leader of the national Indonesian Ulama Council. Indonesian attention has kept up since the initial news, too, with the largest Islamically-minded paper in the country hosting a special page for news on the “Rohingya Tragedy,” with new articles almost every day.

In this case, though, Indonesia is turning its outrage into a productive force. Since 2000, Indonesia has settled small- and medium-scale sectarian conflicts between Christians and Muslims in several regions, plus negotiated an end to the long-standing separatist struggle in Aceh that had Islamist overtones, and the Indonesian government is now utilizing that knowledge as a mediator helping the Myanmar government to sow peace. The Indonesian leader who represented the government in the negotiations that brought peace to Aceh, former Vice-President Jusuf Kalla, and an international NGO that also go the peace process in Aceh rolling, the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, are in Naypyitaw for discussions aimed to prevent further conflict. Kalla has already pledged support through the Indonesian Red Cross (of which he is also the chairman), and through this body is helping to coordinate donations from around the world. Kalla also compared the conflict involving the Rohingya with two sectarian conflicts in Indonesia in the early 2000s, where he also helped to negotiate a settlement. Even the Muslim political parties in Indonesia are joining in, with the largest Islamic party sending a delegation to Rakhine to try and open dialogues among local religious leaders, as was successful in Eastern Indonesia.

The presence of Kalla and other veterans of domestic peacemaking suggests that Indonesia is finally taking a leadership role in regional Islamic issues and democratization in general. Many before have called for Indonesia to be a model for democratization and tolerance, including US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but this is one of the first examples of Indonesia stepping up to the plate. And it seems that the motivation pushing the Indonesian government to send a delegation was the grassroots outrage and protest. So, although this weekend’s demonstrations across Indonesia can be considered at best a distraction from the real issues of governance and at worst another example of growing Indonesian intolerance, observers should not condemn all protests as counter-productive. For the Rohingya, the protests might just have brought a needed spark to efforts for peace and civil rights.

Kevin Fogg is an Al-Bukhari Fellow for the History of Islam in Southeast Asia at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies