Between a rock and Jakarta

  • Letters
  • Sunday, 25 May 2003


PEACE talks between the Indonesian government and the Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (Free Aceh Movement, or GAM) collapsed noisily in Tokyo last Sunday.  

Within hours, Jakarta returned to its 27-year civil war with Acehnese partisans, with the combined assaults by aircraft, warships, paramilitary forces and police mounting the most serious incursion since the invasion of East Timor in 1975. 

In 1959, Aceh was granted “special autonomy” status, and with it Jakarta acknowledged that Aceh’s origins as a part of the unitary Indonesian state were somewhat different from those of other provinces.  

But local discontent simmered over continued economic disadvantages amplified by cultural differences, and the official declaration of autonomy was seen as mere tokenism. 

The period that followed saw the failure of Tengku Hasan Tiro, descendant of the last Sultan of Aceh and a leading Acehnese activist, to develop Aceh with his entrepreneurial energies because of obstacles in Jakarta. GAM was then formed in 1976 to pursue Acehnese independence through armed struggle. 

In efforts to head off Acehnese separatism, former Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid drafted a “special autonomy law” which his successor Megawati Sukarnoputri formalised. GAM seeks either full implementation of this law or the granting of full-fledged independence, none of which has happened or seems likely. 

Although President Megawati is known to be a staunch opponent of separatism, her government prefers a working autonomy to complete independence. Its readiness to compromise could also be recognition of Acehnese realities: over the years, GAM’s original 150 combatants have grown to some 5,000 today. 

And yet the prospects for GAM’s demands do not seem promising at all. The Indonesian elite is still smarting from the recent “loss” of East Timor, Megawati herself is close to the Indonesian military (TNI) with its many hawkish elements, and there is a sense in much of the country that most people are against secessionism. 

So the Tokyo talks opened last week with little optimism, after postponement in April following two years of arrangements. This stage of the peace process was supposed to follow from the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (CoHA) signed in Geneva last December, but even that document was weak and ineffectual. 

From the beginning, key points in the CoHA proved intractable and were never properly addressed or resolved. The terms of the negotiations were vague, conditions for the disarmament phase obscure, and the prospect of local elections in Aceh remained undetermined. 

It seemed that few, if anyone, gave the Tokyo talks a serious chance to succeed. Over the past five months, both sides talked around peace without talking so much about it, playing to an encouraging international gallery while reports told of secret procurements of additional arms. 

Acehnese civilians in particular continue to bear the brunt of hostilities: most of the 10,000-plus killed since 1976 have been non-combatants. Already victim to decades of economic deprivation, they suffer further abuse, torture and summary killings. 

Even Acehnese children have suffered educational losses with the razing of 185 schools in the province by last Tuesday, just one day after Jakarta imposed martial law. The vicious cycle of violence and despair continues to be both self-fulfilling and depressing. 

Over a full decade to 2001, exports from Aceh dropped by nearly 80%. All approved investment in the province has been declining consistently since 1998, with domestic investment alone plunging by 99% in just two years. 

The view from Jakarta could be that these pressures might weaken GAM and its demands. But the feeling on the ground in Aceh seemed just the opposite: that recent experience only confirms the need to fight harder or bargain more resolutely at the negotiating table. 

Just before the Tokyo talks, Jakarta produced some preconditions: that GAM disarms, and drops all demands for independence by accepting autonomy instead. GAM rejected those preconditions, and found five of its officials arrested in mid-May on their way to the airport to attend the talks. 

Those arrests, and the subsequent re-arrests three days later after the Tokyo talks failed, created bad blood between GAM and Jakarta. These issues continue to add to festering problems like non-investigated allegations of human rights violations by the TNI, which need to be resolved as part of a peace settlement. 

The present desperation over Aceh stems from two conflicts being waged simultaneously. There is the fight over the political argument of Acehnese nationalism, and then there is the battle over the process of arriving at any settlement of that argument. 

None of those struggles seems likely to be resolved any time soon, especially given the scale of the TNI’s assault on Aceh over the past week. Yet some observers both within and outside Indonesia believe there is hope of a ceasefire and renewed talks in the coming months, with the current onslaught buying Jakarta more bargaining power. 

The multiple sets of confusion now spanning Jakarta and Banda Aceh cover both ends and means. What exactly is the purpose of the TNI’s operations, and is a scorched earth policy the best way to achieve the desired objective? 

Those are questions better answered with civil negotiations in mind, but talks have been scuppered for now. The question then becomes, what are the likely consequences of the present military operations against Aceh? 

The answer cannot be a peace agreement, or even talks to secure such an agreement. If GAM is to sustain its claim to embody the Acehnese people’s hopes, it cannot be seen to buckle under pressure, much less surrender abjectly. 

The decision to pummel Acehnese nationalists into the dust is military rather than political. Officials in Jakarta insist that, until at least May 6, Megawati had instructed the TNI to improve public services and the legal system in Aceh, besides providing more humanitarian assistance to people there.  

The larger picture seen in the region and the world at large is that the TNI is re-asserting its political role in post-Suharto Indonesia. The demands for a more professional and less political military now apparently forgotten, voters are more likely to endorse than oppose tough action against separatists. 

To the question of who is really making Indonesia’s Aceh policy may be added another: which is the actual target – independence, autonomy, GAM, Acehnese nationalism or the Acehnese? The vital answers to these questions are not clear anywhere. 

For its part, Indonesia predictably bristles at any perceived foreign meddling in its affairs. Yet the fallout from Aceh reverberates to other countries in the region, giving them a legitimate right to be concerned and offer counsel at least. 

There are three challenges that renewed military action in Aceh poses to Indonesia’s neighbours: the exodus of refugees (and migrants posing as refugees), the example of secessionism, and the possible resurgence of militant Islam. 

Acehnese partisans are keen to point out that while they remain staunch Muslims seeking to establish an Islamic state in Aceh, they are not religious extremists or Islamist militants. Their militancy appears reserved for the political struggle of secession from Indonesia. 

This makes the TNI’s attacks on Aceh and the implied rejection of talks doubly dangerous. Indonesia is already home to several terrorist groups championing supposedly religious causes, and cornering other groups like GAM could force them into forming menacing strategic alliances. 

Megawati needs to tread a fine line between separatist insurgents and religious militants, without uniting them against the government by default. This requires returning the TNI to full civilian management and political control: trigger-happy cowboys in police or military ranks are more likely than not to serve as a force multiplier for any insurgency. 

For now however, like Manila next door, Jakarta is bent on emulating the Bush-Afghanistan-Iraq formula of applying military overkill to overwhelm a much weaker enemy. And like Manila and Washington, it is doing so with some passing attempts to brand the enemy as terrorists. 

Through all this, Malaysia remains probably the only country in the region to have successfully resolved a decades-long insurgency through peaceful negotiations.  

Yet to others, the negative example of a dangerous and dramatic shortcut can sometimes seem more appealing, or at least appear to be less work. 

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