Aceh's Agony

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 in 1975.

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 terror.

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 human cost.

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 Abdurrahman Wahid.


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 organizations.

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 oppression.

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 ( 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 operations.

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.

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