International Socialist Review,
July / August 2003
Since 1976, Indonesian soldiers have killed
more than 12,000 Acehnese in an attempt to drown the struggle
for Acehnese independence in blood. Aceh is a region on the northern
tip of the Indonesian Island of Sumatra. Now, Indonesia hopes
that it can use the U.S. "war on terror" as a cover
to strike a fatal blow. The Indonesian government has already
mobilized 30,000 troops and 12,000 police as part of an all-out
attack on approximately 5,000 poorly armed Acehnese rebels-Indonesia's
largest military operation since it invaded and seized East Timor
The offensive has already driven 23,000
Acehnese people from their homes, and the government is warning
that the number will climb to 100,000. According to one report,
Indonesian troops in late May ambushed a group of seven Acehnese
youths, aged 12 to 20, from the village of Mapa Mamplam, executed
several-and told the rest to run before shooting them in the back.
They then beat up more than 30 villagers with sticks and guns,
sprayed a house with gunfire and stole money from others.
The offensive began when negotiations
over a peace deal signed in December 2002 broke down after Indonesian
officials issued an ultimatum to the resistance-give up your demand
for independence and put down your arms, or else. The flawed peace
agreement was designed to maintain Indonesia's grip on Aceh's
rich oil reserves, granting Aceh nothing more than an "autonomous
government" in 2004 and control over 70 percent of its own
resources. While Aceh accounts for 15 percent of Indonesia's exports-an
enormous proportion given Aceh's small size in relation to the
vast collection of islands that make up Indonesia-the Acehnese
population lives in poverty. For decades, the government has resettled
people from the densely populated region of Java in Acch.
As a result, "in Aceh's industrial
zones on the coast, and in the mountains of Acch, the people are
primarily Javanese transmigrants and workers," according
to Jafar Siddiq Hamzah, an Acehnese human rights lawyer. "So
the Acehnese have no access to the coast or to the mountains.
We can't get to the fish and the rice, which are the basis for
our existence. We're suffocating in the middle and are starving."
With Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri
facing a tight reelection bid next year, the nationalist appeal
of "crushing separatists" in Acch is a transparent attempt
to deflect attention from the country's deep economic crisis and
mass unemployment. And because most of the four million people
of Aceh are adherents of a stricter version of Islam than Indonesia's
other 190 million Muslims, Megawati has sought to demonize the
Free Aceh Movement as Islamist.
But the gamble could easily backfire if
the military doesn't win a relatively quick victory. This is why
the military moved quickly to using barbaric assassinations and
While the U.S. government officially supports
a continuation of negotiations and criticized the military offensive,
it has little credibility as a "peace broker." Washington
has long been the main pillar of support for Indonesia's military
and its brutality against nationalist movements-especially under
the rule of the former dictator Suharto, who was finally toppled
in a 1998 uprising.
What's more, U.S. oil giant ExxonMobil
has a significant natural gas operation in Acch and has paid millions
to the Indonesian military to provide "security services."
In 2001, the International Labor Rights Fund filed a civil lawsuit
in a U.S. federal court against ExxonMobil, alleging that the
corporation should be held liable for "genocide, murder,
torture, crimes against humanity sexual violence and kidnapping"
committed by the Indonesian military while it was providing security
from 1999 to 2001. The State Department has urged the judge in
the case to drop the lawsuit, saying that it could harm the war
on terrorism. Thus, the Bush administration would welcome the
brutal suppression of the Free Aceh Movement-despite the enormous
The International Socialist Review's ERIC
RUDER interviewed MAX LANE, national coordinator of the Australian
solidarity organization Action in Solidarity with Asia and the
Pacific and a national executive member of the Democratic Socialist
Party of Australia, on the current war being waged by the Indonesian
government against the people of Acch.
WHY HAS the Indonesian government decided
to launch its war in Aceh?
I SUSPECT that the motivation behind launching
the military operations now was the fear that support for independence,
for the Free Acch Movement (GAM) and for other pro-independence
organizations was on the verge of spreading to unstoppable proportions.
But probably the biggest push has come from the Indonesian Armed
Forces (TNI) whose agenda is more connected to preserving a central
political role for itself in the post-Suharto political system.
The overthrow of Suharto was a big blow to the TNI. It has been
forced on the political defensive since May 1998. It has been
forced to see many of its officers put on trial for human rights
violations (although very few have been convicted and sent to
prison); it has lost its representation in future parliaments
and its day-to-day involvement in enforcing "law and order"
has had to be surrendered to the police. The TNl's general image
is very bad. It hoped, I think, to restore its image through a
successful operation in Acch and to also reinforce with the political
elite that they needed it.
I am not sure what the outcome of the
TNl's role here will be. Initially there was a wave of nationalistic
support for the TNI in the Indonesian media and from all the parliamentary
parties. However, little by little, media reportage has shifted
to coverage of high civilian casualties, human rights reports,
and attempts by the TNI to muzzle the media. Some media have even
started to question the whole military option, arguing that it
is only spreading support for independence among the Acehnese.
This latter view was actually expressed by numerous elements in
the Indonesian elite and among pro-lndonesian Acehnese community
leaders prior to the launching of the war operations. I think
even some parliamentary party leaders had this fear but none wanted
to be the first to stand up to the TNI and make it their enemy,
especially with elections only one year away. This applies to
President Megawati as well as to her main presidential rival,
Amien Rais, whose support base is among the conservative Islamic
parties. The only high profile political figure who has been critical
of the decision (although ambiguously) has been former President
AUSTRALIAN PRIME Minister Alexander Downer
told CNN that GAM have been perpetrating some terrible acts of
violence... [T]hey should not be seen as some sort of honest and
honorable victims. How do you respond to this?
DOWNER'S STATEMENT gets the cart before
the horse. GAM was founded in 1976 by a very small group of ultra-nationalists.
It attracted very little support for many years. It started to
grow in the 1980s after the Suharto dictatorship launched a big
military operation against it. As with all anti-guerrilla operations,
the TNl's tactics were to "separate the civilians from the
guerrillas"-which is their proclaimed main tactic today as
well. Inevitably, this makes the civilian population the target
of ID "sweeps," house-to-house searches, and so on.
In an atmosphere where GAM and any supporters or alleged supporters
are labeled by propagandists as terrorists, criminals and enemies
of the people and where the TNI was backed by a dictatorship,
this becomes a policy of terrorizing the civilian population.
As the number of civilian victims grew, so did GAM. At the same
time proindependence sentiment itself remained muted, with a greater
portion of he population sharing similar anti-dictatorship sentiments
as elsewhere in Indonesia.
GAM only exists as a serious force of
5,000 guerrillas and an extensive support network because of the
abuses of the TNI in the past. At the same time, it is true that
human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch in the
U.S., have claimed to document some abuses by GAM. GAM also acts
as the armed force of what its leadership considers is the already
established independent state of Aceh. It therefore can also enforce
taxation collection. Any abuses so far have not been on such a
scale or so systematic as to cause a drop in its support, although
there are Acehnese who now prefer to support other pro-independence
TO WHAT extent do the Acehnese people
seek secession hr religious reasons? Does Is/am play any role
in the resistance?
ISLAM AND religion are essentially irrelevant
in the current situation. The current Indonesian government legislated
to make Islamic law operative in Acch. However this was never
an important demand among the Acehnese people. Neither GAM nor
any other pro-independence organization raises the Islamic banner
in any serious way.
The spread of pro-independence sentiment
as a mass phenomenon only emerged in 1998-99. There had been Islamic
state armed movements in Aceh in the 1950s but these had envisaged
being a part of an Islamic federal state of Indonesia. Also, they
never gained significant popular support. Most of Acehnese society
supported the establishment of the Republic of Indonesia in 1945
(except the pro-Dutch layer of hereditary traditional rulers who
were wiped out in a social revolution in 1945 which also redistributed
their land). Most Acehnese willingly participated in Indonesian
political life during the 1950s and 1960s, even when they had
grievances with policy decisions made in Jakarta.
Widespread opposition to the military
operations in Aceh in the 1980s intensified hatred of the Suharto
dictatorship throughout the 1980s and 1990s. The Acehnese student
movement mobilized in 1997 and 1998 against Suharto just as students
did elsewhere. There were no demands for independence or self-determination
then. The demand was for the bringing the political and military
leadership responsible for the abuses during the Suharto period
to justice. The post-Suharto political elite promised such justice
but nothing happened except that the military abuses continued.
It has been the realization that the overthrow of Suharto is bringing
no relief from a de facto military rule (and now de facto military
occupation) that has been the basis for the spread of pro-independence
sentiment, possibly now to the majority of the population.
Mixed with this desire to be rid of the
military and political repression, have been grievances about
Jakarta hogging most of the wealth produced by Aceh's oil and
gas exports. However, this has never been a determining issue
at the mass level. The Abdurrahman Wahid presidency pushed through
legislation giving Aceh 70 percent of all income produced by its
natural resources but this has not changed the political atmosphere.
Continuing widespread corruption everywhere and general patterns
of severe exploitation negate such legislation anyway. However,
it appears that the real motivation for increasing support for
independence is a desire to escape from military rule and political
The fact that this phenomenon is so recent
also means that there is a potential ideological divergence between
the long-term leadership of GAM and pro-independence section of
the population that has emerged since 1998. The GAM Ieadership
calls for the establishment of a constitutional monarch (Sultanate)
as well as the rejection of the existence of any kind of Indonesian
state. Some GAM leaders have claimed that Aceh has rightful suzerainty
over the rest of Sumatra (which is why its official name is Acch/Sumatra
National Liberation Front). As the GAM leadership proclaimed Aceh
independent in 1976, they do not politically campaign for a referendum
on self-determination, which might open the possibility of either
a choice to remain in Indonesia or for a different form of state
apart from a Sultanate.
In Aceh itself, the rapid growth of GAM
in recent years appears to mean that it is developing as a politically
and ideologically heterogeneous organization, recruiting from
the victims of the TNI military operations.
There have developed other political organizations
with different political perspectives. Probably the most important
is the Acehnese Peoples Democratic Resistance Front (FPDRA-www.fpdra.com).
It grew out of the 1997-1998 radicalization among students, and
also includes worker- and peasant-based organizations. It campaigns
for a self-determination referendum as the path to independence
as well as for democratic rights in the immediate situation. It
has established alliances with pro-democratic and progressive
groups in other parts of Indonesia and has participated in nationwide
or archipelago-wide mobilizations against the Megawati government.
In the current de-facto war situation,
however, GAM, as the only armed group, remains the main vehicle,
or for some, the main symbol, of resistance to the current military
It is not clear, l think, how things will
evolve. As even some Indonesian media have noted, the military
operations are serving to further alienate the Acehnese from the
Indonesian state. At the same time, GAM is now under heavy military
pressure with no international backer or serious source of weapons
replenishment. GAM's apparent unwillingness to seriously campaign
for a referendum closes off the main opportunity to build political
pressure on the Megawati government. While this situation remains,
Aceh is likely to remain in a protracted state of war operations.
GAM could conceivably change its policy. Another pole of leadership
could emerge, either from the left or as a result of a "going
over" to the pro-independence side of that significant section
of the Acehnese elite and middle class which is still pro-Jakarta
and which controls the civil service, trade and the police. Or
the prospects of a never-ending and ultimately failing military
"solution" may erode political support for this approach
within the Indonesian bourgeoisie who would then revert to a policy
of trying to buy off the pro-independence movement.