A deadly clash between Burmese Buddhists and Muslims being held at an immigration detention center in Indonesia has put authorities on alert.
Police say eight Buddhists were killed Friday during an early morning clash with dozens of Muslim Rohingya at a detention center in northern Indonesia.
More than 100 Burmese Rohingya seeking asylum from ongoing religious and ethnic violence in their home country were living at the detention center in Belawan along with 11 Burmese fishermen detained for illegal fishing off Indonesia’s coast.
The local police chief there told the Associated Press that the clash started in the early morning hours after a Rohingya confronted a Buddhist fisherman about recent sectarian violence back in Burma. As fights broke out, some inmates reportedly wielded knives.
“It definitely highlights a problem for the Indonesian authorities," said Todd Elliott, a security analyst at Concord Consulting in Jakarta. "As more and more asylum seekers come to Indonesia obviously they will bring any conflicts or disputes from their home countries with them and it could erupt into violence here in Indonesia, especially if they’re waiting months and months on end for their asylum applications to be processed.”
Thousands of refugees move through Indonesia each year on their way to seek asylum in Australia. In recent months Indonesia has held a number of high-level conferences to address the issue and come up with a better humanitarian response.
But the Deputy Minister of Law and Human Rights, who apologized for the incident in Belawan, admitted that there were too few security forces guarding the detention center to handle the riot.
Officials from Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry said the incident is an isolated case and that prior to Friday’s violence the detainees had been living at the center for some time without a problem.
Regardless, officials say as long as Burma struggles to contain internal ethnic and religious tension, Indonesia will need to be on alert.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalagawa addressed those concerns in Jakarta at the opening of a workshop on regional conflict prevention.
“Very rapidly any conditions that are unstable even within countries can become at least a non-traditional type of security threat to the rest of the region,” he said.
Rioting last month in the Burmese city of Meiktila killed more than 40 people, mostly Muslims. A fire at an Islamic boarding school earlier this week blamed on faulty electrical wiring stirred further fears among the Muslim community.
By Friday morning police in Belawan said they had secured the detention center and evacuated those injured to a nearby hospital in Medan.
In the wake of the violence the United Nations refugee agency called for calm among the groups involved and urged the Indonesian authorities to move individuals into community housing to prevent further rioting.