Posts by Alice Dawkins


The Rohingya

Hares Shirbaz

Politics | Southeast Asia


An article from the Economist once called the Rohingya people ‘the most persecuted people on Earth.’ I, a refugee from Afghanistan now settled in the Netherlands with my family, arguably agree.

The first time I heard about the Rohingya was while reading a Dutch article in March 2014. It reported that Australian and American pilots sent in to find Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 - the infamous airplane that disappeared while on route to Beijing – had spotted a large boat filled with starving and dehydrated refugees. They also spotted floating corpses but upon realising they too were refugees, they flew the plane past them, not bothering to call for a rescue team.

I could barely believe what I had just read. I read it a second time, appalled. I understood the importance of finding the  remains of the MH370 passengers, but could these pilots not have paused just briefly to call a rescue team to these starving, dehydrated people probably in dire need of medical attention?.  After reading the article for the third time I stumbled across the word “Rohingya.” The refugees had been Rohingya people.

Not knowing who they were, I decided to look it up. Just who were these Rohingya that the MH370 search planes had so easily ignored?

The Rohingya are a Muslim minority from the Rakhine (also known as Arakan) a states in Myanmar. They make up around  forty per cent of the population. The majority  sixty per cent of the population in Rakhine are mainly Buddhists. ‘The differences between the Rohingya miniority within the Buddhist majority are currently dividing Rakhine with accute ethno-religious tensions.

The government of Myanmar and hard-line Buddhists claim that  Rohingya are illegal immigrants from the neighbouring country of Bangladesh. According to state rhetoric, the Rohingya arrived in Myanmar during British rule between 1824 till 1942. The Rohingya are not accepted as citizens but instead classified as “resident foreigners”.

The Myanmar government  even refuses to refer to these Muslims as “Rohingya,” instead titling them as “Bengali” in order to support their theory of the Rohingya being foreigners rather than from Myanmar.

The Rohingya refuse to accept this title and claim that their ancestors arrived in Rakhine before British rule. Rohingya theory states that during the 1404 war that reinstated  Min Saw Mon as King of the Launggyet Dynasty after being overthrown by rival Ava Kingdom, a small group of Muslim Bengalis migrated into the territory now called Rakhine. They came with Min Saw Mon when he returned to Myanmar after fleeing to Bengal to seek help from the Sultan Jalaluddin Muhammad Shah to regain his throne. The Rohingya claim this historical legacy as  their legitimate link to Myanmar.

Fast forward to 2016 and I’m  having a discussion with a young woman from Myanmar about a Quartz article criticising Aung San Suu Kyi for not protecting the Rohingya. I agreed with this critique.  Aung San Suu Kyi is revered as the leader of Myanmar who  promises to end military rule and bring democracy and freedom to all the people of Myanmar. This should include the Rohingya.

The young woman thought differently.

She claimed that these Muslims were “terrorists” who’d raped and looted.   Her comments shocked me. She soon ended our discussion as she felt I didn’t understand her.  I on the other hand, was infuriated. The Rohingya are lynched on a daily basis. How could she claim they were the aggressors? I felt curious. I wanted know why she thought this way. I decided to visit her Facebook page and what I saw shocked me - she was a normal student just like me. I saw pictures of her on holiday, with friends and family and with a sign demanding equal rights for women. My anger turned in to confusion. How could this young bright woman who demands equal rights for women not demand these rights for the Rohingya people?

You see I was a refugee too. In 1997, my family and I fled from the Taliban when they took over Afghanistan. We came to The Netherlands and were received with open arms by the majority of the people. The Dutch gave my parents the opportunity to start a new life. My sisters, brothers and I were granted the opportunity to go to school and study. They gave us a new home but most importantly, they accepted us. We didn’t look like them, talk like them, ate different things, and prayed to a different god, but they didn’t let these differences scare them. Their acceptance is the reason why this small country is known for its tolerance, and why I hold it as such an important country to take example from

I thought about destiny and how fearful a life we might’ve had if we’d fled to Myanmar instead of The Netherlands. I thought about the possibility of my family and I sitting in an improvised pontoon, fleeing from possible persecution, hungry and thirsty under the hot sun. Suddenly we would hear the engine of a plane approaching. The plane would fly past us and our hopes would disappear with it. The idea frightens me but the Rohingya are used to it. They are used to being ignored, be it by the Myanmar government, foreign search planes or the rest of the world.

That is their bleak destiny.

5 minute read

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Pacific women in parliament: A ‘pleasant surprise’

Matilda Gillis

Politics | Pacific


Matilda Gillis outlines the 'transformative' potential for culture to facilitate and promote female participation in Pacific politics.
‘Her election was seen as a ‘pleasant surprise to the nation’’[1]
There is, generally, very low participation by women in the national parliaments of Pacific Island countries. As of 2014, for example, ‘Vanuatu had no women MPs, there was just one woman MP in the Solomon Islands, and three in Papua New Guinea’.[2] Although there are exceptions to such statistics across the region,[3] and life is hardly the same for women in every Pacific nation, ‘similarities and uniformities’ nevertheless exist across the region [4] Low female representation in parliament constitutes an overall trend in twenty-one Pacific Island countries.[5] It is not simply ‘the region with the lowest proportion of female MPs, but it is also improving the slowest’.[6]

12 minute read

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Humans of West Papua

Emma Roberts

Society and culture | Southeast Asia


Emma Roberts documents an eye-opening week in the Baliem Valley of Papua, Indonesia. What she encountered was a place where Melanesian culture is strong but the lives of the locals are also dominated by mosques and Indomie; a place where people live in regions impenetrable by transportation but continue to travel long distances on foot with big smiles on their faces; a place where life is tough but resilience is tougher.

[gallery columns="2" size="large" ids="1072,1071,1077,1073,1075,1070,1074,1093,1069,1078"]

2 minute read

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A Shanghai Dispatch

Bernice Chen

Society and culture | East Asia


Shanghai’s largest bookstore, Shu Cheng on Fuzhou Road (a rather naff translation is ‘Shanghai Book City’; ‘Wall of Books’ is too ominous) is a monolithic building with eight cavernous stories of maze-like shelving. Like all the best bookstores, it’s stocked with mini shopping trolleys, here energetically pushed by parents busily purchasing tutorial books for their children. Slightly less busy is the floor dedicated to ‘Classics of Marxism-Leninism’, where you can pick up Xi Jinping’s latest, ‘The Governance of Modern China’ for 8 yuan (around $1.60). Other departments are more familiar: fiction, non-fiction, multimedia, stationery and the ubiquitous Starbucks.

Most of the book stock is shrink-wrapped to prevent in-store reading, although usually one of each book is available for perusal. The system makes sense when you realise how lovingly worn those unwrapped books are, or when you discover every conceivable horizontal seating or vertical leaning nook and cranny has been commandeered by readers. The readers - usually young, some middle-aged or elderly - completely unfazed by the noise and bustle around them, often peering into half-opened books so as to politely avoid breaking the spine, spend hours sitting in the same spot until the book is finished.

Of particular interest is the enormous array of sheet music, including Westernised arrangements of Chinese classical standards. I’d be a bit wary of these beyond their curiosity value: as a young piano student in the days before the Internet, well-meaning cousins meant I discovered first-hand the peculiarities of Chinese editions of the Western musical canon. The situation hasn’t changed dramatically - arrangements apparently aim to save paper and assume you have either six or fourteen fingers.

There is an entire floor of Chinese-language translations of non-Chinese literature: scanning the shelves to see completely unfamiliar Spanish or Japanese titles beside Middlemarch or Nineteen Eighty-Four or, indeed, War and Peace, it’s an interesting reminder that our literary horizons are strongly limited by our language skills. Classics are well accounted for, often in competing translations for your pleasure. The selection of modern fiction is also wide but charmingly haphazard. There is John Fowles’ A Maggot but not The French Lieutenant’s Woman; Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated but not Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Representing the Australians, one finds Peter Carey (Oscar and Lucinda) but not Patrick White. The odd selection makes you imagine two publishers and a put-upon translator, impulsively deciding they like one book and not another; thus dictating the vagaries of what is unleashed into the Chinese market.

Shu Cheng is on Fuzhou Road, the traditional destination for books, art and literary supplies in Shanghai. Spy on beautifully-dressed Shanghainese hipsters and survey the state of contemporary Chinese art in the rarefied air of the historical Shanghai Fine Arts Bookstore. Also on the same street is the Shanghai Foreign Language bookstore, which has an excellent selection to cure all homesickness, and a wonderful cafe. As you can buy almost anything off street-side hawkers in China, Fuzhou Road presents no exception: this is probably one of your only lifetime opportunities to buy books, notebooks, or pens off a large bike-powered wagon with cars whizzing by, a policeman striding ominously (and ineffectually) through the milling crowd.

The rest of the street is restaurants and coffee chains stuffed with students, or stationery and art stores. Chinese stationery stores are enchanted places: tiny spaces crammed full of every conceivable writing implement or accessory, from fine-nibbed, almost invisible pens to rug-sized sheets of bright-pink card stock. Stationery storekeepers are unsurprised by any request or inquiry and will either be mildly grumpy or mildly disinterested, an occasionally refreshing departure from the prevailing model of Chinese customer service. On the dusty back shelf of a hole-in-the-wall store I found a gift for my grandfather: spectacular silk-covered calligraphy books with concertina-bound pages a millimetre thick. For myself, Baixin Stationery (founded in 1912) has creamy notebooks bound in traditional Chinese fabrics.

Some stores primarily stock Chinese calligraphic supplies: brushes, inks, inkstones, seal stones, thick rich paper. I like to gawp at the largest brushes, over a metre high, which are primarily used by calligraphy masters for large banners (think weddings and corporate openings). Their other use is particularly charming: take an early morning walk in a local park and you might spot an elderly person carrying one of these huge brushes and a bucket of water. They practice calligraphy standing up, using the pavement as paper and water as ink. It’s a form of exercise and meditation and flows beautifully in an echo of the tai chi practitioners nearby. After they leave, pouring out the bucket into a flowerbed, the words slowly evaporate in the heat of the day.

4 minute read

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Politics to what ends?

Alice Dawkins

Politics | Southeast Asia


The executions of nine foreign nationals on death row in Indonesia for drug trafficking has resulted in massive international outcry, especially from one of its closest neighbors, Australia. This group included Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan, who were caught smuggling drugs out of Indonesia in 2006.

Earlier this year, in January six people were executed, five of them foreigners, which strained diplomatic relations with Brazil and the Netherlands. These countries, along with Australia, have recalled their ambassadors from Indonesia. Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, rejected all clemency petitions for drug traffickers on death row.

Jokowi argues that Indonesia is in the midst of a national drug crisis and that the execution of drug offenders assists in deterring others, thus reducing the rate of deaths following illegal drug use. This issue has brought the international debate regarding the death penalty great media attention in recent months, and has resulted in diplomatic tension between Australia and Indonesia. This dispute arises largely from:

Indonesia’s claim of its sovereign right to execute drug smugglers,
whether these men received a fair trial,
and international law obligations.

However it has become clear that not only has the trial process been questionable, but also that Indonesia is arguably in violation of international law, namely the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Heightened tensions between Australian and Indonesia are not unusual, and most recently, these have been caused by asylum seeker and spying issues. However, the conditions surrounding this latest diplomatic quarrel could potentially result in more severe repercussions. This is due to the execution of two men who have demonstrated rehabilitation over the last nine years under questionable circumstances. I argue that the executions are not a question of Indonesia demonstrating its national sovereignty amidst international pressure, but a political ploy that is in violation of international law. I am not suggesting that Indonesia should not exercise its own laws, rather that these laws should be carried out with integrity and in conjunction with their international obligations.

The idea that executing drug offenders helps combat the drug problem in Indonesia, as claimed by Jokowi, is supported by dubious evidence. Jokowi recently declared that over four million Indonesians suffer from drug-related problems and that every day around 50 people die from the same problem. According to Jokowi, the application of a blunt, no-compromise approach is essential to combat this national emergency,. However, the statistics he cites that are repeated by various media outlets in Indonesia, are based on studies with problematic approaches and unclear measures. Claudia Stoicescu, from the University of Oxford, argues that the Indonesian government has selected specific figures that provide credibility and justify a futile deterrent but politically effective policy. To begin with, the number of drug victims mentioned above is a result of data extrapolated from a 2008 study jointly undertaken by the University of Indonesia (UI) and National Narcotics Agency (BNN). This number is a prediction rather than an actual estimation of the number of people who suffer from drug-related issues in Indonesia.[1]

The alleged number of people dying every day from drugs is also taken from the same study and was measured using unclear methodology. That number was not actually determined by recorded deaths, but was based on a survey of people questioned about drug deaths. This unreliable data collection methodology is used to justify the taking of human life. These faulty statistics along with Jokowi’s consistently blunt attitude towards not granting clemency demonstrates the underlying political motivations behind the executions.[2]

Jokowi has appeared increasingly weak since his presidency began (a fact his rival, Prabowo Subianto exploited in the last presidential election). His opposition argued that Jokowi would be no more than a puppet within his party, the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI-P), and at the mercy of its leader Megawati Sukarnoputri. Thus, since coming to power, Jokowi has embraced a return to the previously suspended death penalty. Furthermore, Megawati appears to be pressuring him on the issue. This has resulted in humiliation in some cases; for example, he was pushed publicly on the issue at a party conference. Greg Fealy, an Indonesian scholar at the Australian National University, has said

“The politics is that death penalty is extremely popular in Indonesia, Jokowi is slipping in the polls, he’s desperate to turn it around, and of the available issues this is the most available on which he’s looking strong, according to most Indonesians.”[3]

This highlights the largely political nature of the executions and how their use is arguably a response to popularity in Indonesia. The executions also serve as a means for Indonesia to flex its diplomatic might against world powers through demonstrating “faux defiance,” even if it is at the expense of human life. This “faux defiance” was probably best exhibited during the prison transfer of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran to the prison where they were executed. This transfer was accompanied by an outrageous and unnecessary display of force that including commandos and jet fighters. Jokowi is willing to execute rehabilitated human beings as a response to a misconceived sense of his, and more broadly, Indonesian weakness.

This has been exacerbated by pressure from senior government officials and arguments from Indonesian legal academics that claim that Indonesia is simply exercising its sovereign right. According to Arie Afriansyah, a law lecturer at UI, international concern for the use of death penalty in Indonesia is unwarranted. He argues that Indonesia’s tough anti-drug stance should be maintained because it is Indonesia’s sovereign right, and its exercise of the death penalty does not contradict international law. State sovereignty engenders Indonesia with the right to make and apply its own laws without international intervention. This principle underpins international law, and how countries relate to one another. He also argues that Indonesia‘s use of the death penalty is in accordance with Article 6 Paragraph 2 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which states that countries can use the death penalty for the “most serious crimes in accordance with the law in force at the time of the commission of the crime.” Finally, Afriansyah claims “Indonesia provides all death row convicts equal opportunities to appeal.” However, Sukumaran and Chan’s trials did not follow due process, and drug smuggling arguably does not fall under “the most serious of crimes.”[4]

Don Rothwell, a law expert at ANU, argues that drug smuggling is definitely a serious crime but it does not fulfil the definition of “most serious crime.” It is important to bear in mind here that these men were bringing drugs out of Indonesia, not into Indonesia. The use of the death penalty in the context of the ICCPR is supposed to be a “quite exceptional measure,” not to he handed down lightly. Indonesia, as party to this treaty, should undertake its obligations in good faith. Aside from the fact that the punishment does not fit the crime, the nature of the trial process also contradicts Indonesia’s treaty obligations. Firstly, judges involved in the case have been accused of bribery allegations and secondly, the right to a pardon is supposed to be available to all. This was not abided by due to Jokowi’s “refusal to grant clemency without consideration of their circumstances.” [5]

This blanket approach to the death penalty contradicts Indonesia’s treaty obligations and highlights the political context surrounding the executions. Sukumaran and Chan’s executions were not merely a matter of Indonesia exercising its national sovereignty. Such a blanket approach can be seen as political ploy aimed more at combating Jokowi’s dwindling political position, rather than carrying out Indonesia’s treaty obligations with integrity. Australia is not challenging Indonesia’s sovereignty, but rather questioning whether international treaty obligations have been honoured. Jokowi was asked to use his power of clemency as it was clear that both Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan demonstrated rehabilitation over the last ten years. It is highly tragic that these two men, and others in a similar situation, have been put to death simply to make a political point.


‘Law experts say Indonesian death penalty is illegal’ (ANU Newsroom, 27 April 2015),

Hartcher, Peter. “Indonesian President Widodo under corrupt thumb of Megawati” Canberra Times, 28 April 2015

Afriansyah, Arie. “Indonesia does need the death penalty to deter drug traffickers.” The Conversation, 27 April 2015

Stoicescu, Claudia. “Indonesia uses faulty stats on ‘drug crisis’ to justify death penalty” The Conversation, 5 February 2015

Quiano, Kathy and McKirdy, Euan. “Australia lodges formal complaint over Bali 9 transfer,” CNN, 6 March 2015

[1]Stoicescu, Claudia. “Indonesia uses faulty stats on ‘drug crisis’ to justify death penalty” The Conversation, 5 February 2015

[2] Ibid

[3]Hartcher, Peter. “Indonesian President Widodo under corrupt thumb of Megawati” Canberra Times, 28 April 2015

[4]Afriansyah, Arie. “Indonesia does need the death penalty to deter drug traffickers.” The Conversation, 27 April 2015

[5]‘Law experts say Indonesian death penalty is illegal’ (ANU Newsroom, 27 April 2015),

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