Fishing off the Aceh coast, Dec. 2014 (Simon Roughneen)

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Fishing off the Aceh coast, Dec. 2014 (Photo: Simon Roughneen)
Fishing off the Aceh coast, Dec. 2014 (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Acehnese help out in Made in Myanmar crisis

YANGON – In Indonesia it seems helping the most vulnerable can earn you a reprimand from the government. Last weekend, after fishermen off the coast of Aceh saved around 700 Rohingya and Bangladeshi refugees and migrants from their sinking vessels, officials sent out word that locals could offer food and water to any distressed refugees they find, but could not help them to shore.

With around 1,600 boat people already sheltered at 3 locations along the Sumatran coast, the Indonesian government said enough is enough. It looked like the kindhearted fishermen would not get a chance to repeat their heroics, after Jakarta sent 4 warships to the north Sumatran coast to intercept any of the dozens of boats –  carrying an estimated 4,000 refugees  – that are sailing the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea in the direction of Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand.

But on Wednesday morning hundreds more refugees were helped to shore in Aceh, despite the earlier warnings from Jakarta. Reassessing its earlier demurral, the Indonesian government agreed later on Wednesday to share with Malaysia the burden of temporarily sheltering up to 7,000 boat people, after both countries’ foreign ministers met their Thai counterpart in Malaysia. Around 3,000 boat people have already made it to shore in Indonesia and Malaysia over the past 2 weeks.

The agreement comes ahead of a May 29 regional meeting in Bangkok in which Thailand, its image tarnished by ongoing revelations of human trafficking and slavery in its fishing industry, hopes to resolve the crisis.

Many of the boat people are Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Myanmar, hoping to join tens of thousands of other Rohingya who have found refuge and sometimes work in Malaysia.

But after Thailand’s recent crackdown on a brutal trafficking network that preyed on Rohingya and Bangladeshis aiming to enter Malaysia, boat crews have abandoned ship and passengers, fearing arrest. Another 2,000 refugees are thought to be moored near the Bangladesh-Myanmar maritime frontier, with traffickers demanding payment to allow them return to land.

For those rescued near Aceh, the fishermen’s heroics ended what for some was a four month ordeal at sea.

“When they were found by the fishermen they were all incredibly weak and many were barely conscious, especially the women and children. Those who were conscious were crying for help. Some jumped into the sea when they saw the fishermen approach asking to be rescued,” said Nasruddin, Humanitarian Coordinator for The Geutanyoe Foundation, which has been working with the survivors.

Abandoned refugees and migrants have described fatal brawls over diminishing food and water supplies and described dead bodies being dropped into the sea. Those who made it to land sound relieved and grateful.

“The fishermen and the local people are extremely helpful and kind to us,” said Fatimah, an 18 year old Rohingya who was rescued by the fishermen and is being assisted by the UN refugee agency. “They took us to the closest mosque and allowed us to rest while providing us with food, water and snacks.”

Aceh recently marked a decade since the Indian Ocean tsunami, which left 170,000 dead along the province’s shores and prompted an international multibillion dollar rebuilding job. That disaster came just months before a peace accord ending 3 decades of war between Acehnese separatists and the Indonesian army, a conflict that lingers long in local memory.

“Ordinary Acehnese empathase with the boat people because they were once victims of conflict and hardship themselves, said Lilianne Fan, Research Fellow at Overseas Development Institute in London. “During the war, many from these very districts, which were black areas during the conflict, themselves fled by sea to neighbouring countries from these shores,” Fan, who has 15 years experience working in Aceh, told The Edge Review.

But for Acehnese, it’s not just the recent memory of so much help coming from outside that underpins the assistance given to the desperate refugees.

“We have a wisdom that called in local language as “Pemulia Jamee Adat Geutanyoe” or ‘Serving the guest is our ritual,’ said Teuku Youvan, a member of the Aceh Disaster Management Agency’s advisory board.

“Most of people’s perspective is derived from Islam where we are told to be kind to all people, especially those are trapped in difficult situation, helping the others, and serving the guest to gain the bless of Allah,” Youvan told The Edge Review.

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