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Simultaneous regional head elections in Indonesia 2015

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Indonesia is one of the largest democratic countries in the world. Legislative elections and presidential election 2014 have passed quite well, although there are still many problems in terms of implementation.

Mass media is also one of the freest in the world. The General Election Commission (KPU) is now preparing the implementation of the Regional Head Election simultaneously in the first wave on December 9, 2015, for the regional head and regional deputy head towards the end of the term of service in 2015 and the first half of 2016. Registration of candidates for regional head election in the first wave simultaneously had started on July 26-28, 2015, provided that the candidate promoted by political parties with seat acquisition of 20 percent or 25 percent of valid votes, got a decree from the central leadership of the party, got the management Decree of political parties in Regency, City and the Provincial Level.

This simultaneous election modelis the first time in Indonesia, even in the world. Indonesia should be recorded in the history of world democracy because there will be 269 regions consisting of 9 provinces, 36 cities and 224 regencies simultaneously elect regional heads. That is, about 53 percent of the total 537 number of provinces and regencies / cities in Indonesia that will carry out elections simultaneously at the end of the first wave of 2015 into the ideal design, ie the simultaneous nationwide to choose the House of Representatives, Regional Representatives, the President and Vice President, as well as simultaneously to choose the regional heads and the DPRD at the provincial, regency and city level. After the elections simultaneously in 2015 in 269 regions, there will be followed by a second wave of simultaneous elections in February 2017 in 99 regions, the third wave in June 2018 in the 171 regions. Then another one wave will be implemented simultaneously again until towards the national elections in 2027.

Of course this is not an easy thing to do, because there are a lot of challenges to be faced. Some have suggested that the implementation of simultaneous elections should be postponed for various reasons, including budget issues, human resources, and handling disputes. Financial Supervisory Agency (BPK), for example, has issued a number of recommendations related to audit issues and the preparation of elections simultaneously in 2015 concerning, among others, about the unpreparedness of the budget, the signing of the regional grant agreement, plan budgets, grants account and security costs.

Nevertheless, the president Jokowi ensure the implementation of the first wave of simultaneous elections later remains on schedule, considering the preparations have been riped and in accordance with the stages. The Government and the Commission determined to rectify the deficiencies discovered by the CPC. Therefore, perhaps it is only natural disasters, social conflict, or war which could make simultaneous elections in Indonesia withdrew from the schedule. This paper saw eight crucial problems in the implementation of the first wave of simultaneous elections that will start on December 9, 2015.

1.   High Intensity of Conflicts

The elections simultaneously are heavier than the legislative and presidential elections. Competition of elections at lower levels is prone to security problems. The political dynamics in these areas are more difficult to predict. Because the strength of the local politicians have started immeasurable, both in terms of number of supporters, the distribution of influence, as well as the patronage of the party elite in central power. Approximately 827 pairs of regional leader’s candidates will compete in the first wave of simultaneous elections.

Based on data from the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the losses on recapitulation of the post-election in 2013-2014 at the provincial and regency and city level tend to increasingly high, the number of victims died are 59 people, injured are 230 people, damage to residential houses are 279 units, the damage to local government offices are 30 units, six police office units, and Election Commission (KPU) offices are 10 units, 159 public facilities in disrepair, also 11 offices of political parties, 3 offices of mass media, 25 vehicles, and also 1 shopping stores. Potential conflicts especially in areas that have a conflict-prone maps, such as in Sumatra, Madura, Central Sulawesi, Maluku, East Nusa Tenggara and Papua. Assault incidents of Eid prayer congregation and the burning of mosques in Karubaga, Tolikara, Papua, on July 17, 2015 can be a leasson to anticipate ahead of elections later. So effective coordination between the Central Government, Local Government, Election Commission, the Election Supervisory Body (Bawaslu), police, military, and also the State Intelligence Agency (BIN) is needed.

The main challenge for the holding of simultaneous elections later is to minimize conflicts in its implementation. Conflict pattern occurs mostly among election participants and supporters accompanied by anarchy and destruction of public facilities. Source of conflict is generally from unelected elite or who can not accept the victory of another candidates. Potential conflicts in 2015 elections is very high because it is done in areas involving various parties and only lasted one lap. No elections are devoid of conflict. Not neutrality of the electoral administration in the area is also a source of conflict.

2.   Neutrality of Regional Election Organizers

The regional head office in autonomy era is so attractive in the eyes of search powers for extraordinary authority to manage the full regional head of each region. That position could make a regional head like a little king with great power. Organizing simultaneous elections is the biggest celebration in the reign of President Jokowi, which can create an aura of competition and passion of the candidates to contest.

The organization of elections in the regions are mostly technical work, such as the nomination of candidates, ballot paper making and ballot boxes, sending results of the voting on the national committee, counting, distribution of seats and so on. The existence of the impartial or independent election organizing committee greatly determines the quality of democratic elections. The General Election Commission (KPU) and the Election Supervisory Body (Bawaslu) is the institutions established by the government and given the freedom to organize the stages of the election. From the data of Election Honorary Council (DKPP) until now there are 207 electoral organizers who had been fired. DKPP has received 740 complaints related to codes of conduct of legislative elections and the presidential election in 2014, which contains 3,960 names of election organizers, both of the KPU and Bawaslu at the level of the central, provincial, and district and city.

Election organizers simultaneously in the regions later should be neutral in carrying out each stage of the election, instead of ‘collusion’ with the local bureaucracy or into a successful team of competing candidates of regional heads. Neutrality of the election organizers will make the elections simultaneously be qualified, credible, and avoid conflict. The responsibility of organizing regional elections should be able to increase voter participation and minimize potential fraud that might occur, such as inflation and the reduction of noise, phantom voters, multiple voting, or voters who eliminated their right to vote.

3.   List of Permanent Voters

List of Permanent Voters (DPT) will remain a crucial issue and the object of the dispute. Moreover, polling stations (TPS) are very vulnerable in the intervention, especially in remote areas. The most crucial is the population data that until now have not been able to cover the entire population, especially those living outside the area. Ministry of Internal Affairs has submitted a list of Potential Voters in Elections (DP4) to the Commission which are used as data in arranging voter registration of simultaneous election. The number of voters have been recorded in the Ministry of Internal Affairs until now has reached 102 068 million people. The amount represents the total number of potential voters in the list that will follow the election of 269 Regional Head and Deputy Regional Head on December 9, 2015. Total registered voters exceeded 50 percent of the voters that gives right to vote on the 2014 Presidential Election. Total 269 regions that hold elections have exceeded 50 percent of the total of 514 regions in Indonesia.

Unfortunately, the election system in Indonesia do not consider the mobility of the population that is already very high. Residences are still statically defined. In fact, many people are outside the official address, including overseas, because of jobs and education. Governments need to create the population administration system and Pilkada system that can accommodate the mobility of people who are very varied. There is injustice to the voters in the regional election system. Article 56, paragraph 3 Perppu No. 1/2014 on the election of Governors, Regents, and Mayors, said if voters have more than one residence, the voter must select one residence listed in the voter list based on E-ID Card or certificate of domicile from the village chief. But there is a different treatment if a person wants to run for governor, regent or mayor. The candidates can run in an area that is not domicile. For example, when the election for Governor of Jakarta in 2012, Joko Widodo (Jokowi) was still served as mayor of Solo. Someone is possible to be a candidate for regional head in areas that is not domicile. It means, residential status can be more than one place. However, this flexibility does not apply to voters. Another problem is that not all people have e-ID Card because it is outside the eligible categories such as bums, beggars, migrant workers, domestic workers, and the like. They do not have an e-ID card so they can not involve in the election. It means, not all people have the right to vote because of their poverty. Not to mention also a matter of voters who have died but are still registered as voters, or voters who are registered at two different locations.

4.   Dualism of Management of Political Parties

The General Election Commission (KPU) had to revise Commission Regulation (PKPU) Number 9 of 2015 on the nomination by adding a ‘reconciliation limited’ for the sake of allowing the party who has’ double management, such as the Golkar Party and the United Development Party (PPP) to nominate candidates for regional heads together. In addition the candidate must submit the same pair, the two camps double management of political parties must also file the candidate pairs at the same time. Before the revision, regional head candidates must come from the political parties whose staff are recognized by government or have the Decree of the Minister of Justice and Human Rights (Menkumham). Dualism of leadership in the Golkar and PPP can also cause serious problems for vulnerable civil suit and of interests of each camp. Actually, the laws on political parties does not recognize dual management. While the stages of the elections are still running, the conflict in the body of Golkar and PPP whose legitimacy will be decided later in the court that had the legally enforceable decision (inkracht).

Why did the Commission need to accommodate the participation of Golkar and PPP in the simultaneous elections of 2015? The votes of both parties (Golkar and PPP) reached more than 26.5 million votes in the 2014 election. That is, the two parties accounted for more than 21 percent of valid votes in the election. Achievement of seats from the two parties reach 130 seats. This means exceed the number of seats of the Struggle Indonesian Democratic Party (PDIP) as the winner of the election that is only about 118 seats. At the local level, PPP as a whole has 1,400 seats, while Golkar has about 3,000-seats. Judging from these data, Golkar and PPP are quite significant in political and legal decision-making, at the local level and the central level.

PKPU revision is done not only to facilitate the dualism of leadership in the party of Golkar and PPP alone to participate in the elections, but also to comply with the decision of the Constitutional Court (MK). Thus, the revision also includes rules to permit family of incumbent to advance in the election, and requires that members of the parliament (DPR / DPD / DPRD) resigned their positions when they have been determined as candidates by the Commission. Previously, members of parliament (DPR / DPD / DPRD) are only required to report to the leadership of each institution. Of course this affects the political map of the nomination from all the political parties participating in the elections simultaneously in 2015. Many parliament members who subsequently withdraw as candidates for regional heada, otherwise a lot of the family members from the incumbents, even former inmates come forward to compete in the simultaneous elections next December 9, 2015.

5.   Doll Candidates

Another problem is the possibility if there is only one single candidate in an region. Commission Regulation No. 12 of 2015 set the whole stage of regional elections are stopped and postponed on next simultaneous election in 2017, if there is only a single candidate for the regional head after the extension of registration for 3 days. Steps must be done because the elections are held simultaneously in December 2015. Automatically, if there is one region that stage is only delayed, it will affect the overall implementation. However, the goal of the simultaneous election of regional heads is simultaneously inauguration, so that the end of their services are also simultaneous. There should be no regions that followed, except participate again in 2017. The Commission does not want to wait until the region has additional candidates for regional heads for a limited time. If the elections in an region later have to be ‘put on hold, then the position will be filled by the regional head of the temporary officials, or officers while being taken from staff transfer. There are 15 regions that potentially have only a single candidate in the simultaneous elections in the first wave.

Incumbent candidates are too strong making the whole political parties carry the same pair to run for regional heads. But it could happen in regions with strong incumbent do stratagem in order registering candidates not just one pair, namely by generating candidate pairs for regional head doll (false) as a challenger, could be independent pathway or request some political party that carried them. Legally regulation doll candidate is not problematic in the Commission if it meets the requirements. However, from a political education, it is a setback to democracy.

Single candidate is likely to occur in simultaneous elections later. This is evident from the higher minimum support candidates from political parties to 20 percent of parliament seats, or 25 percent of valid votes of the election results last year. Conditions that make the coalition become more stringent. In addition, individual candidates from independent pathway will also a difficulty become competitor, because of time constraints and the severity of a support condition. Especially against the strong incumbent supported by political parties it is tantamount to wasting the cost.

Until recently, most political parties chose to support a strong candidate to win. In this simultaneous regional election, coalition parties of supporting the government, namely the Superb Indonesian Coalition (KIH) is very liquid with balancing coalition parties of government, or the Red and White Coalition (KMP) in proposing candidates for regional head. However, ‘political dowry’ that is raised each political party is also still looks like the tip of the iceberg that is difficult to remove. Many unscrupulous parties will utilize the elections to gain political dowry from the prospective regional heads. Instead, many pairs as regional head candidates that offer dowry can be able to qualify the support of 20 percent. The issue is initially exists in poor political party cadres and the weak party funding. People can only vote for candidates who submitted it. If the incumbent is qualified and well developed, it deserves to be reelected. The problem is that no quality incumbent but also prepare candidates for a doll that can be defeated in the next election. Prospective doll could be the choice of strategy for winning in the simultaneous elections. It is also the solution to anticipate a strong candidate for the regional head to remain chosen without delaying the implementation of the next elections in 2017. Candidates ‘dolls’ can also appear with the only aim to break down opponents who are considered the dominant voice in an region, especially in the region of three pairs of prospective candidates. But if the elections take place with only one candidate it could be a bad precedent for election implementation in other regions, because there are local leaders who have the power to monopolize the political parties in the regions. There is no choice of candidates, certainly not democratic.

6.   Political Dynasty

The Constitutional Court (MK) removes the restriction clause on prohibition of incumbent family or political dynasty in the election law. According to the Court, the 1945 Constitution gives equal rights to all citizens to use their constitutional rights, namely the right to vote and be elected, including former inmates. The Constitutional Court’s decision could open up a gap of one family control of certain regions, because the political rights of the incumbent relatives in the election is not removed. In 2013 there were as many as 61 regional heads, or 11 percent of all regional heads in Indonesia having kinship political networks or political dynasty. Ironically, from experiences that occur in almost every contestation of the elections that followed by the incumbent, often found the game of local budgets to the needs of the campaign. PNS subordinates that are supposed to apply neutral are often the incumbent winning team. Mobilization and politicization of civil servants are inevitable. The potential for corruption and violations or abuse of power by local bureaucracy increases.

Because the Constitutional Court’s decision is final and binding, then today society need to be given the political aspects of socialization and education in order to more critically assess the regional head candidates who will compete in the simultaneous elections later. However society that has the rights to vote determine how the future of the regional head candidate who comes from a political dynasty. Moreover, the people of Indonesia are still many irrational voters. Gaetano Mosca once wrote in his book “The rulling Class”, that almost in every class or nation will always be a tendency to build a tradition handed down in reality, if not in law. Oligarchy is an inevitable Iron law. And political dynasty in Indonesia is a necessity in a democracy now because it comes from the old oligarchy and patrimonial culture. The emergence of dynastic politics is directly proportional to the unhealthy political competition. Increasingly unfair rules of the game in political contestation, promotes wider political dynasty.

7.   Money Politics

The democratic process in Indonesia raises many opportunities for corruption. Because the democratic process in this country requires a huge cost. Regional election always had negative tendencies, ie transactional politics. In fact as many as 346 regional heads and deputy regional heads tangled legal cases. A total of 11.45 percent of the approximately 500 regencies thick with dynasty politics. In addition, many of the elections results in the past were broken joint between the head and deputy head of the regions. Currently there is no criminal chapter on money politics and the criminal chapter on the political dowry thus causing dirty political practices in the elections.

Simultaneous Regional Election 2015 budget swell to Rp 7 trillion compared to the implementation of the previous elections. There are three factors that influence. First, the inflation factor that can affect the value of the goods in the regions. Secondly, amounting to 65 percent of the total budget for the elections will be used to pay salaries of Voting Committee (PPS), District Election Committee (PPK) and Voting Organizer Group (KPPS). Third, based on Law No. 8 of 2015 on Regional Elections, the local government is obliged to bear almost all participants of the election campaign costs in 2015. Only two types of election campaigns are borne by participants themselves, ie limited campaign and dialogue campaign.

Implementation of the simultaneous election is originally meant to reduce the high cost of politics and money politics turn out to be an illusion. Financing campaign charged to revenue and expenditure budget can actually increase money politics. Regional head candidates would have more funds in view of campaign financing that become the responsibility of Regional Election Commission. By doing so, the candidates will have more funds to carry out the practice of vote-buying. Money politics also can occur when optimizing campaigns at the limited meeting. They can take advantage of unlimited meetings, where money politics is packaged in such a way in the meeting. Simultaneous regional elections in 2015 will be rife of money politics, in addition to political dowry, voters buying, that are also used to bribe electoral administration in the regions.

In addition, the use of campaign funds would also be a vulnerable point for the implementation of simultaneous elections, and misused to improve electability of candidates. Election campaign is more widely used as imaging media, not apply for a work program. Also the ‘game’ between the candidates by state officials still leaves a problem in any election in Indonesia until now. Education and political socialization to voters take lack of decent places. Misappropriation of budgetary funds and state facilities can also occur, such as social grants (Bansos), school operational funds (BOS), and funds from the budget, as well as vehicle or building facilities into a campaign tool.

8.   Violations and Dispute of Election

Elections Supervisory Board (Bawaslu) is not given the authority to execute the offense. Therefore, Bawaslu action is limited to giving recommendations. If the violations are administrative, submitted to the Commission and forwarded to the police. Simultaneous handling of cases of electoral violations this year will refer to the two laws. In addition to using the Law of the Elections, a number of violations will be processed by using the Criminal Code, such as inflate the voices and the problem of money politics. Money politics will be charged under Article 149 of the Criminal Code concerning bribery in elections, under penalty of nine months in prison. Perpetrators of votes are subject to Article 263 of the Criminal Code on forgery penalties of six years in prison. If there is a criminal offense, the police soon take over. For administrative violations, the Provincial Election Supervisory Committee (Panwaslu) directly provide recommendations to the Local Commission. Statements relating to the code of conduct is directly forwarded to DKPP. For disputes between participants and the Commission, the case will be solved alone by the Supervisory Committee.

Another important aspect is the matter of time limits of 45 days (including holidays) for the Constitutional Court (MK) in handling disputes of the election results. The Court will not be able to handle the dispute lawsuit of election results if more than 50 percent of the simultaneous election resulted in the Court, moreover there are 269 elections in the first wave later on December 9, 2015. The assumption, the Court had only 37 minutes to finish the one case. Therefore, it is quite natural that the Court then asks the number of days increased to 60 working days from receipt of the request. It also became one of the driving so that the revision of Law No. 8 of 2011 regarding the Constitutional Court is limited, because the Court has not set the authority in dealing with election disputes. To date the Court only handles election disputes. The Supreme Court (MA) – mandated to adjudicate election disputes in the regional election law – considered not ready to settle the dispute in 2015 simultaneous regional elections, because of its human resources.

Closing

The successful indicators of the simultaneous and massive regional elections in Indonesia later can take place peaceful and relatively free of the various modes of cheating. Credibility of regional election organizers is at stake in the regions, let alone a first test of the simultaneous elections held. Likewise with the Constitutional Court which was given the role of resolving disputes of regional election results, the future should be promoted for a special agency to resolve election disputes outside of the Constitutional Court or the Supreme Court. The government also needs to regulate population administration system that can accommodate a very varied population mobility to be put into list of legitimate voters. Therefore, updating the voters’ data is an absolute necessity.

Conflict, money politics and political dynasty, will still color the implementation of simultaneous regional elections on December 9, 2015 in Indonesia. Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) has an important task to verify the entire State Officials Wealth Report (LHKPN) registered by the regional head candidates, to be opened and made known to the wider community at large. Public participation is essential to oversee and monitor the regional head candidates, misappropriation of funds related to social assistance and grants for the campaign and capture votes. Neutrality of Civil Servants (PNS) also must be enforced, by prohibiting engage in campaign activities, whether a member or involved in it. Ministry of Administrative and Bureaucratic Reform can open a complaint service about the involvement of civil society in influencing voters and give strict punishment for civil servants who become involved in the election. KPU through an independent auditor should audit all finance of political parties, especially concerning the funding of cadres and outsiders. Bawaslu from central and local levels should optimize their role to take action against the perpetrators of money politics.

In prediction, candidates of independent pathway has also difficulties in this simultaneous election. Due to increasing electability, there are more advantageous for the candidate promoted by political parties. Independent candidates must have a minimum requirement of 80 percent popularity. Moreover, if you look at previous experience, very few candidates were elected as regional heads coming from independent paths. Even if elected, they will also have difficulties when running the government program, because they have to deal with Parliament who comes from political parties. Problems can also arise if there is a candidate who is a cadre of a particular political party, but it was carried forward as a candidate by the other political parties because his own political party to support another candidate. Looking ahead to reform political parties should continue to be done in a comprehensive manner, especially concerning rules, campaigns and financial budget. Law also needs to be changed, do not need a quota of 20 percent of seats, but every political party that has seats in parliament could propose regional head candidates. Or political parties and coalitions of political parties can still register the candidate with the minimum quota of 20 percent of parliament seats, but with a maximum of 50 percent of the seats. Terms of candidates from independent pathway also needs to be alleviated. In addition, the recruitment process of political parties also need to be open and democratic. In the future, the General Election Commission (KPU) should continue to conduct a study for the implementation of electronic elections (e-voting, e-recap, e-counting) and build public confidence (trust) for these technologies. Of course, all have to start first with the integrity and independence of the electoral administration which is currently implementing in the first wave of simultaneous elections on December 9, 2015 later.

Igor Dirgantara is Lecturer at Faculty of Social Politics, University Jayabaya, Jakarta, and Director Survey & Polling Indonesia (SPIN).

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China’s assurance of Rohingya repatriation between Myanmar-Bangladesh

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Rohingya refugees fleeing conflict and persecution in Myanmar (file photo). IOM/Mohammed

We now have new hope thanks to news reports that were published in the Bangladeshi dailies on Tuesday and contained the word of Yao Wen, the recently appointed Chinese ambassador to Bangladesh, that the repatriation of Rohingyas to their native Myanmar would begin as soon as possible. We believe that the Chinese government is truly considering Bangladesh’s concern over the safe and immediate repatriation of more than a million displaced Rohingyas in light of the Chinese envoy’s pledge.

The envoy reportedly made this commendable remark to our foreign minister at a recent meeting at his office.

If his words are followed by action, we think China’s role in this case will serve as a model for future efforts to advance world peace, particularly in light of the repeated failures of attempts to repatriate Rohingya due to the government of Myanmar’s blatant indifference and partially due to the insincere efforts of the international community. And when it comes to finding a long-term solution to the biggest refugee crisis in history, we wholeheartedly believe in China’s potential. China is a dependable friend of Bangladesh and a major global force. There is no doubting the importance of the newly appointed Chinese Ambassador’s position in this situation.

The Rohingya situation needs to be resolved diplomatically and via political means, according to the international community. The US and other Western nations keep applying pressure to Myanmar even though they are unable to ensure the safe and willing return of the Rohingyas. As Bangladesh seeks the swift repatriation of Rohingyas to Myanmar, Li Zhiming, the former Chinese ambassador to Bangladesh, stated that China would serve as a “bridge of communication” and do its utmost to support a timely resolution. China supports Bangladesh’s desire to begin repatriation, and China will keep assisting the two friendly neighbors in finding a solution to this persistent problem. China will make an effort to address this issue effectively because it is one of humanity.

In truth, Bangladesh, a country with limited resources and territory, is no longer able to handle such a large number of displaced people as it deals with a wide range of domestic and international problems as a result of the recent worldwide pandemic and the war in Russia and Ukraine. Hosting the growing population of Rohingyas, including newborn children, is also not a long-term option for them. In previous editorials, we have emphasized numerous times the importance of finding a long-term solution to this situation.

To protect China’s interests in Myanmar, the Rakhine state must remain stable. The infrastructure that China built in the state of Rakhine will have a big impact on the region’s economic growth. Human resources are also necessary to run all of these facilities. These Rohingyas and Rakhines can be trained by China to work efficiently in a variety of facilities and sectors. A stable Rakhine will draw tourists, and the region’s tourism industry can grow. Rakhines and Rohingyas can work in that sector as well. That will deal with the state’s unemployment issue. The level of racial animosity will progressively decline as the economy improves, and harmony may be guaranteed. The Rakhine region is essential for China’s military plans in addition to ensuring presence in the Indian Ocean.

Given all, it can be concluded that the Rohingya situation will be resolved if China takes the proper action.

Bangladesh desires the safe and honorable return of the Rohingyas to Myanmar. Bangladesh and China have long-standing, close ties. During a visit to Bangladesh on August 6, 2022, China’s State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated that Bangladesh is making serious efforts to resolve the Rohingya crisis. During this tour, the Rohingya issue received important discussion. China’s help was requested during this visit in order to play a bigger role in the Rohingya situation and find a political solution that would guarantee return. China has contributed significantly to Bangladesh’s socioeconomic growth by funding numerous economic initiatives there.

We think the Rohingya situation would not have lasted as long if the big nations had shown the kindness and sincerity that we see now. An appropriate solution to the situation would have been achieved by now if the humanitarian component of it had been given precedence above its geopolitical ramifications.

According to our assessment, the main source of the crisis lost steam due to the competing interests of the major players, many of which Bangladesh and Myanmar have bilateral relations with for a variety of reasons.

The Rohingya situation is solely a matter of human rights. Democracy and human rights are related. From that vantage point, it is impossible to deny the significance of democracy for the sustainable return of displaced Rohingyas to their country of origin, Myanmar.

We believe that other global power players cannot avoid their collective responsibility to rise to the occasion above their political lines and assist China for a long-term solution to the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, despite the fact that China’s assurance to resolve the Rohingya crisis revives a ray of hope.

Bangladesh and China have close political and military relations in addition to the fact that China is Bangladesh’s top trading and development partner. The Rohingya issue must be addressed in Myanmar, a country that China has significant influence over. As a result, China can make a big contribution to the return of the Rohingya.

To resolve this problem, the regional powers need to step forward right away. Everyone expects that by resolving the Rohingya issue, China, a friendly nation of Bangladesh, will significantly contribute to the peace, security, and stability of the area.

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To engage or not engage. Hindus and Muslims suss each other out

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Moderate Muslims and militant Hindu nationalists are strange bedfellows at the best of times, particularly when they come together to reshape Hindu-Muslim relations in troubled India.

Yet, that is what Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama and India’s Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) seek to achieve.

Nahdlatul Ulama, arguably the world’s most moderate Muslim civil society group in the world’s largest Muslim-majority state and democracy, is everything the RSS, a notorious Hindu nationalist movement widely viewed as the catalyst of anti-Muslim violence and discrimination in India, is not.

What makes the endeavour even more remarkable is that the two groups have strikingly different visions of what Hindu-Muslim reconciliation should entail.

For Nahdlatul Ulama, engagement with the RSS is part of a bold and risky strategy to persuade faith groups, including Muslims, to confront their troubled, often violent, histories and problematic tenants of their religions that reject pluralism and advocate supremacy.

“Nahdlatul Ulama believes that the only way to overcome entrenched historical grievances and promote peaceful co-existence is to engage all parties and refuse to indulge in the sentiment of enmity and hatred based upon a claim of unique communal victimhood,” the group said in a statement in September explaining its engagement with RSS.

For the RSS, engagement is about redressing historical grievances dating to centuries of Muslim invasions and rule, defending Hindus against perceived contemporary Muslim threats, and ensuring that India is a Hindu rather than a non-discriminatory multi-religious state.

A 2019 amendment to India’s citizenship law suggested how the RSS defines a Hindu state. The amendment extends the right to apply for citizenship to members of religious minorities — Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, and Christians but not Muslims — fleeing persecution in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, Khwaja Iftikhar Ahmed, an Indian Muslim author and intellectual who maintains close ties with the RSS, insisted in an interview with the author that RSS ideology views Indians, irrespective of their religion, culturally as Hindus.

“They say that Hindu doesn’t have a religious connotation, Hindu being all those people living in this part of the world, they are culturally…Hindus… The religion is Santana Dharma or Eternal Faith (the Hindu reference to Hinduism). Hindu is the cultural identity… That is the middle ground,” Mr. Iftikhar said.

In 2021, RSS leader Mohan Bhagwat launched a widely acclaimed book authored by Mr. Iftikhar that argued in favour of Hindu-Muslim togetherness and harmony.

Nahdlatul Ulama and the RSS’ different visions have consequences for strategy. Although the RSS’ Indonesian engagement is with a movement led by clerics, in India, it tends to interact with secular Muslims who have no authority to reform Islamic jurisprudence rather than religious scholars.

Even so, Mr. Iftikhar said numerous Indian Muslim religious leaders of all stripes were in touch with the RSS, although many of them did so privately.

These include leaders of Deobandism, a revivalist ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim movement, which counts some 20 per cent of the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims among its followers.

Deobandism emerged in the mid-19th century around Darul Uloom Madrassa, a religious seminary in Deoband in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, to preserve Islamic teachings under British colonial rule.

“The difficulty is that contrary to the RSS, Muslim authorities in India do not have a strategy. Theologically, they have not accepted India’s existence but, for political reasons, do not challenge it. It’s an attitude they have yet to abandon,” said an analyst of Indian Islam.

In a separate interview on an Indian Muslim television channel, Mr. Iftikhar argued that the Muslim community had failed to address its differences with the RSS.

“The community has avoided any discussion or debate on that. It has always taken refuge behind others, whereas the challenge was ours. The response should have been from us, and we should have tackled those issues. The issues are challenges that India as a country and we as Indians…as one single nation, are facing. It is not a Hindu challenge; it is not a Muslim challenge,” Mr. Iftikhar said.

In a chapter that he contributed to an edited volume on the politics of hate in South Asia, Indian Islam scholar A. Faizur Rehman seemed to spell out Mr. Iftikhar’s castigation of the Indian Muslim leadership and align himself with Nahdlatul Ulama’s call for reform of Islamic law.

Mr. Rehman took the Muslim community to task for not countering their own ultra-conservatives and militants on multiple issues, such as the defense of relations with non-Muslims, the rights of Muslim and non-Muslim minority communities in Muslim lands, and draconic blasphemy laws in countries like Pakistan.

“If the Muslim community fails to question and stop these fanatics, it would be unwittingly contributing to Islamophobia,” Mr. Rehman said.

Mr. Rehman argued that Muslims needed to clarify their beliefs by stating that India is not part of the Muslim notion of an abode of war and, like Nahdlatul Ulama, declare that the concept of the kafir or infidel does not apply to non-Muslims.

A gathering of 20,000 Nahdlatul Ulama clerics ruled in 2019 that the concept of the kafir was no longer legally valid.

Mr. Rehman contended that Muslims should discard the concept of dawah or proselytisation “as a tool of supremacism” and abolish apostasy and blasphemy as capital crimes under Islamic law.

“In short, what is needed…is a radical rethink of Muslim theology,” the scholar said.

Three years into the dialogue, the jury is still out on Nahdaltul Ulama’s interaction with RSS, which started as a cautious dialogue and has expanded into a degree of cooperation.

So far, the endeavour, embraced by moderate Indian Muslims and reformers, appears to have worked more in the RSS’ favour than that of Nahdlatul Ulama.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s credentials offer the RSS Muslim legitimisation.

The RSS has used the Muslim group’s push for reform of religious jurisprudence, the concept of a pluralistic Humanitarian Islam, and unequivocal endorsement of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to tell India’s 200 million Muslims, the world’s largest Muslim minority, what their faith should look like.

To be fair, there may be no Hindu-Muslim reconciliation without the RSS, a five million-member-strong movement whose disciples constitute the core of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and government. The RSS is the ideological cradle of Mr. Modi, who has been a member since childhood.

In a rare recent interview published in Hindi and English by two RSS sister publications, Mr. Bhagwat, the group’s leader, discussed the movement’s strategy and objectives that frame engagement with Nahdlatul Ulama although he did not refer to the Indonesian Muslims.

Mr. Bhagwat’s statements offer reasons for both optimism and pessimism.

From a tactical point of view, Nahdlatul Ulama is likely to have taken note of Mr. Bhagwat’s acknowledgement that the RSS can no longer refuse accountability for what its associates in office do.

“People forget that swayamsevaks (RSS associates) have reached certain political positions through a political party. Sangh (RSS) continues to organise society for organisation’s sake. However, whatever swayamsevaks do in politics, Sangh is held accountable for it,” Mr. Bhagwat said.

“Even if we are not implicated directly by others, there is certainly some accountability, as ultimately it is in the Sangh where swayamsevaks are trained. Therefore, we are forced to think – what should be our relationship, which things we should pursue with due diligence,” Mr. Bhagwat added.

To be sure, Mr. Bhagwat was talking about the RSS’s relationship with the BJP and its current accountability rather than the historical responsibilities of the group and Hindus at large. He stressed that the RSS was concerned about “national policies, national interest, and Hindu interest,” not electoral politics.

By drawing a line between the RSS and the BJP, accepting the principle of accountability, and framing the groups’ political involvement, Mr. Bhagwat appeared to hint at a potential divergence between the movement and the party.

“The RSS thinks about the endgame. Bhagwat thinks about the future. He is not elected and does not have to worry about re-election. The BJP does. That’s why the BJP is more prone to polarisation. The RSS does not need polarization for electoral purposes,” said an analyst who closely follows the RSS and BJP.

Even so, Mr. Bhagwat did not shy away from polarizing language when he asserted that Hindus were engaged in a “1,000-year war.” Moreover, Mr. Bhagwat magnified the notion of war by insisting on the RSS’ majoritarian vision of India, or Hindustan in his words. as a Hindu rather than a multi-cultural nation.

The RSS leader defined the war as a fight against “foreign aggressions, foreign influences and foreign conspiracies” that seek to force others “to accept their path as it’s the only true path. And if you refuse to do so, you will have to choose between our mercy and death.”

Mr. Bhagwat made clear that he was referring to Muslim rather than Christian proselytisers by insisting that “Muslims should give up the mindset of superiority…(and) ‘we can’t live with others.’”

Mr. Bhagwat asserted, “foreign invaders are no longer, but foreign influences and conspiracies have continued. So, there is a war to defend Hindu society, Hindu Dharma (cosmic law), and Hindu culture.”

Drawing a contrast with Hinduism, Mr. Bhagwat asked rhetorically: “What is the Hindu worldview? Does a Hindu ever say that everyone should endorse his faith? This is not how we think. We want to present an example for others to see. We want to have (a) dialogue with everyone. Those who wish to improve will follow our example. If they do not, we do not intend to harm them.”

Mr. Bhagwat’s polarizing rhetoric notwithstanding, Nahdlatul Ulama sees common ground in the RSS’ rejection of what the Indonesian group describes as “obsolete and problematic elements within Islamic orthodoxy that lend themselves to tyranny.”

Nahdlatul Ulama, a conservative, nationalist organisation in its own right, hopes that its willingness to confront head-on intolerant and supremacist tenants of Islamic law will convince the RSS to develop a Hindu equivalent of Humanitarian Islam and take a critical look at Hindu theology, history, and anti-Muslim attitudes.

In an article entitled “What the media has misunderstood about Mohan Bhagwat’s interview,” Ram Madhav, an RSS executive committee member and associate of Mr. Modi, sought to finetune Mr. Bhagwat’s reference to war.

“The UNESCO Constitution begins with the statement that ‘wars begin in the minds of men’. Bhagwat’s emphasis was actually on removing that mindset of war. It is a historical fact that India has been subjected to various political and religious aggressions over millennia. That history has left an imprint, leading to occasional aggressive outbursts in sections of the society. Bhagwat was categorical that such aggression was uncalled for,” Mr. Madhav said.

“If there is a Hindu who thinks like that, he should discard it. A communist should also shed it”, Mr. Madhav quoted the RSS leader as saying.

In his interview, Mr. Bhagwat downplayed aggression by RSS members. “Since there is a war, people are likely to get overzealous. Although this is undesirable, yet provocative statements will be uttered,” the RSS leader said.

The dialogue with Nahdlatul Ulama did not stop the Indian group from accusing in its March 2022 annual report “a particular community” of seeking to “enter the government machinery” to further its ”malicious” agenda” as part of “a deep conspiracy.”

The report repeated allegations of imaginary Muslim jihads, such as the alleged forced conversion of Hindus to Islam.

“This challenge has a long history, but, of late, different newer ways of converting new groups are being adopted,” the report said.

Mr. Rehman, the Islam scholar. discounts Hindu fears of a demographic threat to their majority status in India but acknowledges that deep-seated distrust dates to the 12th-century Muslim conquests.

“By the turn of the 20th century, a deep distrust developed between Muslims and Hindus. The Muslims came to be seen as outsiders who had come to conquer and convert the original inhabitants of the subcontinent to Islam, “Mr. Rehman said.

Noting that Hindu distrust is rooted in the insistence of Muslim conquerors that India was Islamic territory, Mr. Rehman conceded that Hindu fears are fueled by “clerics and televangelists in India (who) continue to display their supremacist arrogance.”

Mr. Rehman points to ultra-conservative and militant clerics who forbid Muslims to congratulate non-Muslims on their religious holidays and denounce the operation of non-Muslim houses of worship in Muslim lands.

Another Muslim reformer traces the roots of strained relations to Muslim invasions that started with the Umayyad conquest of Sindh in the 8th century.

“It all began with Muslims invading, slaughtering, enslaving Hindus, and burning their temples. Today, the demographic fear may be blown out of proportion. But how long would it take deer to overcome their fear of tigers if tigers became domesticated and tigers stopped killing deer? This is the way Hindus look at Muslims. The fear is still there that Muslims continue to believe that they should dominate and prey upon non-Muslims,” the reformer said.

For his part, Mr. Iftikhar, the Muslim intellectual, insisted in his interview with the author that Indian Muslims were as much victims of Muslim conquests as were Hindus.

“All the Muslims who ruled India in the last seven, eight centuries were either Arabs, Turks, Iranians, Uzbeks or Iraqis, not Indian Muslims… We have never ruled India… So why should I take it on myself when I was not part parcel of that history?… We belong to this land. We stayed here by choice. We are the citizens of this country. So why should we take the baggage of the foreign Muslim rulers?” Mr. Iftikhar asked.

The latent fear of Muslims, fuelled by perennial Indian-Pakistani tensions, enabled ideologues and politicians to weaponize demographic concerns in a population for which it is primarily a lingering prejudice rather than a living memory or a daily life challenge.

Moreover, the population figures speak for themselves. Muslims account for 200 million of India’s population of 1.4 billion. Demography, in the best of cases, is only a potential concern, if at all, if Indians look at South Asia as a whole. The subcontinent is home to three of the four largest Muslim populations that, alongside India, include Pakistan, with 231 million, and Bangladesh, with 169 million.

Even so, Mr. Bhagwat asserted in October that “population control and religion-based population balance is an important subject that can no longer be ignored” because “population imbalances lead to changes in geographical boundaries.”

Countering Mr. Bhagwat, Mr. Rehman, the Islam scholar, argues that “Hindu-Muslim mistrust in India today is based on imaginary fears. Both communities are not responsible for what their respective ancestors did. But they would be if they buy into the politically motivated propaganda that seeks to keep them divided.”

For his part, Mr. Iftikhar expressed support for Muslim dialogue with the RSS.

“If you keep a distance and detachment as your strategy, as your policy, then whatever opinions you form are stereotypes. Stereotypes are untested, untried so-called facts. If they become the source of opinion-making and opinion-building, then you can imagine that the argument will never have a logical base,” Mr. Iftikhar said.

The author went on to say that “the Muslim community should come forward and instead of putting conditions, raising doubts and making it an issue that do this and then it will happen, no, relations are not build up, understanding is never achieved as a goal when you put conditions. Engagement is the way forward, sit, talk, interact, exchange, put forward your viewpoint, listen to the other viewpoint.”

It’s an approach that Mr. Rehman and Nahdlatul Ulama embrace. For them, as well as for Mr. Iftekhar, the onus is on all parties. For Muslims, that means conceptual and judicial reform; for the RSS, it means defining accountability in word and deed.

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Southeast Asia

Gates, Smooth and Striped Spaces, and the Royal Lore of the Aerial Silk Road

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The Coastal City, a Chinese-invested aviation center in Cambodia, will be used to illustrate the deep interface idea in the context of the Air Silk Road, a new vertical component of China’s Belt and Road Initiatives (BRI). Following the mobile aeroplanes reveals three deep interaction gates. Diplomatic movements on international aviation coordinations open institutional gates. The Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) launched the Air Silk Road to ally with ASEAN by rearticulating the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) No Country Left Behind (NCLB) program. Dara Sakor International Airport, a new kind of air-earth complex, is the second gate. However, the mangrove conservation zone that was commodified by special economic zones resisted. Cambodia’s Koh Kong coast mangrove woods become the third gate between land and sea, stalling the special zone project. As though throwing a pebble into the water and seeing it burst through the static concept of the surface and its underlying spheres, a new way of thinking about spatial practices as a dynamic, tumultuous, voluminous whole is opened up now. Through relays, the deep interface links the biological, material, and atmospheric.

Striking up the air: opening the door to civil aviation rights

The Convention on International Civil Aviation (Chicago Convention), promulgated by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in 1944, has steadily dominated civil airspace utilization in its 193 member countries. The Chicago Convention does not quantify airspace by airway altitude because there are no agreements on sovereign airspace’s vertical extent. Instead, it’s about the nine degrees of “freedoms of air,” which limit a country’s airlines’ access to another’s airspace. The first two freedoms relate “the transit of commercial aircraft across foreign airspace and airports,” while the others involve international transport of persons, mail, and cargo. The fifth freedom of air, which allows the contracting country to load and disembark passengers and goods as an intermediary station in an airway to a third country, is sought for by airlines. Only multilateral and bilateral conventions allow air liberties. Thus, sovereign nations can employ aeriality technology like air traffic control and vertical surveillance.

China began diplomatic efforts to lead ICAO in this context. In 2015, former CAAC chief Liu Fang became ICAO Secretary-General. China demanded results from bilateral aviation development agreements. China as an ASEAN brother with a “situated vision” is a compelling new narrative. Liu noted that China might influence NCLB implementation not as a member of the advanced group, which easily invokes the memory of colonization, but as one of the Asian siblings, who have recently gone through years of battles to rise out of the post-colonial setting. As Liu and many Chinese intellectuals believe, China is replete of still-fresh lessons and experiences from its decades of self-advancement, making it a stronger candidate who understands the struggles of emerging nations. ASEAN countries at the start of aviation growth may need this more. China’s experience is also more regional, geopolitical, and geoeconomic due to its proximity to these countries. ASEAN and China must then establish an “integrated plan for the aviation industry” in a new BRI zone.

China’s story of placed vision highlights the NCLB scheme’s new Asian focus: the BRI region. Diplomatic acts form a buoyant global network that seems to transcend earth. ICAO and CAAC signed the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation Letter of Intent in Aviation Cooperation in May 2017. In his meeting with Luxembourg Prime Minister Bettel one month later, Xi Jinping formally launched the name “Air Silk Road” as a new direction to increase financial and production capacity cooperation within the “Belt and Road Initiatives”. The Chinese Central Enterprise Aviation Industry Corporation of China chose the phrase for their Air Silk Road Alliance initiative. The planned alliance has two layers: a cross-sectoral alliance linking a full chain of the aviation industry—aviation equipment manufacture, aviation infrastructure construction, and aviation operating services—and a cross-boundary alliance that channels the “going abroad” of the domestic aviation industry and capital. As of 2017, China has bilateral aviation transportation agreements with 62 Belt and Road countries and direct air links with 43 countries.

China signed a document with ASEAN on the region’s Fourth Freedom of Air in 2010, but made no progress at country level. Air service provision and air security and safety were added to the agreement in 2014. Cambodia’s National Assembly approved the ASEAN-China Aviation Cooperation Framework in 2016. These inter-state agreements allow China to enter ASEAN airspace and participate in transnational aviation standard-setting.

Diplomatic efforts to place Chinese professional elites in ICAO’s transnational authority reconfigure ontological territory. Here, elites, transnational organizations, and their norms create a pathway for airplanes to take off from China, enter ASEAN airspace horizontally, and land vertically on their soil as “existential constructions of… our planet” on their takeoff and return journeys. The gate broke the relationally smooth airspaces of two sovereign countries and provided a new stripe with a new institutional path for airplanes going between them. The Air Silk Road’s image is bolstered by its intangible geopolitical networks. The NCLB scheme’s narratives on aviation safety and China’s story of Asian brothers for a placed vision wooed Cambodia into bilateral air service operations treaties. Chinese companies in aviation products and services, professional training, supporting facilities, and economic zones are intervening in the aviation economy under the integrated strategy.

Stratifying the earth: airport check-in

Surprisingly, Chinese land-development developers who weren’t initially beneficiaries supported China’s airspace outreach in ASEAN countries. This has led to the rapid construction of an aviation special zone with an airport at its center. The Royal Government of Cambodia and Tianjin-based Union Group developed the Coastal City Resort Developmental Zone, a special economic zone. After the Cambodian government adopted the special economic zone model for industrialization and urbanization in 2008, the Union Group entered the land-development competition. The Coastal City was intended as a resort development along Dara Sakor’s coast to take advantage of natural resources like the world’s second-largest mangrove forest and Botum Sakor National Forest Park. The resort-style master plan included hotels, holiday villas, yacht marinas, and golf courses. The project stalled for several years. The Union Group quickly revamped Coast City’s aim to be ASEAN’s regional aviation center with a second-class airport, echoing the Air Silk Road Scheme.

Sphere of influence

The flying relay from China to Cambodia passes through three institutional gates, the airport’s material context, and mangrove environments. The three gates, which function in atmospheric, terrestrial, and biological worlds and involve diverse actors and policies, form one interface to invite, assist, regulate, or reject relay succession. After being conditioned by contingently coupled socio-technical forces, the three sites function as gates along the same chain of effects. The three sites then connected air, earth, and water.

The moving airplane disrupts the original spatial configuration of the aerial system and causes a series of reorganizations due to the interdependence between the two gates of aviation arrangement and airport. Cambodians expect foreign firms to privatize airports. Since 1995, French corporation Vinci Airport has privatized all three major airports in the nation. The NCLB scheme and Cambodia’s “an integrated plan of the aviation industry” spurred additional bidders to compete for airport privatization and aviation-led development. Vinci expanded Sihanoukville Airport’s runways from 2800 to 3300 m in 2016 after finishing Phnom Penh’s airport development. Yunnan Investment Group, another Chinese enterprise, signed the contract for the Siem Reap Angkor International Airport Project, a top-tier airport.

Regional aerial networks were reorganized after effective territorialization on Earth. The Asia Pacific Regional Aviation Routes Committee held four sessions in Mongolia, Kazakhstan, China, and Cambodia from 2017 to 2018 to hear ideas from allies. The U.S. and Indonesia replanned the aerial route between Australia and Asia, but Thailand and Vietnam halted Cambodia’s idea. The Cambodian top-standard airport project garnered criticism from various countries. Steven Mnuchin, US Treasury Secretary, questioned Cambodia’s longest runway, which fighter-jet pilots prefer. The US imposed visa and financial sanctions on Coast City military personnel for wrongdoing. Local opposition parties echoed these claims. A local researcher noticed that the two superpowers “start to compete, push, and splash water at each other” in Cambodia.

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