Indonesia's war that won't go away
Indonesia's war that won't go away
Op-Ed / Asia 5 minutes

Indonesia's war that won't go away

A war between independence fighters and the Indonesian military has claimed thousands of lives in Aceh in two major waves of violence. The first was in the early 1990s; the second began after President Soeharto's fall and continues to this day. As the Indonesian army presses for powers to end the rebellion once and for all, the Indonesian government is expected to decide to whether to impose a limited state of emergency in Aceh, a province of four million people on the tip of Sumatra.

Virtually all Acehnese have said no to martial law - religious leaders, local parliamentarians, professional groups, nongovernmental organizations, and the governor have urged instead a continuation of talks between the Free Aceh Movement, (known by its Indonesian acronym, GAM) and the government, that began in May 2000. That the proposal is even on the table attests to the tin ear of the Megawati government. An emergency would be very likely to worsen the conflict, not end it.

As always in guerrilla wars, civilians are caught in the middle. Most Acehnese still fear the army and police far more than the guerrillas, but GAM appears to be losing popular support because of its own abuses. It is an odd liberation movement. On the one hand, it talks of freeing Aceh from "colonialist Javanese oppression"; on the other, it is fighting to restore a sultanate that would be led by Hasan di Tiro, a frail and elderly man living in Sweden whose followers refer to him as "Your Highness." With an estimated 3,000 regulars, half of whom may be armed, GAM claims to represent all Acehnese, but not all Acehnese support independence, and of the many who do, not all support GAM. It is fair to say, however, that anger against the central government in Jakarta is close to universal, and the Megawati government has done nothing to lessen it.

The roots of this conflict go back to the 19th century , but the current phase began in 1976, when GAM declared independence. The rebellion sputtered along until 1989, when some Libyan-trained fighters returned to Aceh. The Soeharto government responded with massive counterinsurgency operations that effectively put the Indonesian army in control of Aceh for the next eight years. Many details of the atrocities that were committed during this period only emerged after the fall of Soeharto in 1998. But while there were formal apologies to the people of Aceh, nobody was prosecuted or called to account.

Jakarta's offer of a referendum to the East Timorese in January 1999 sparked a demand for equal treatment from student groups in Aceh, and others in Aceh took up the demand with enthusiasm. For the first time, GAM had a genuine popular base. Jakarta responded to growing political activism with still more troops, and the conflict grew worse. In May 2000, a political shift in Jakarta led for the first time ever to the government's agreeing to a dialogue with the rebels. Talks began in Geneva between GAM and Indonesian officials and for a while it seemed possible that the war might come to an end.

Two years later, however, the bloodshed continues, with an estimated 1,600 people killed in the first six months of this year alone. The Indonesian government says that the 'special autonomy' law passed last year - allowing the province, among other things, to keep a large share of its oil and gas revenues and implement Islamic law, must be the starting point for any further negotiations with the GAM. Many Acehnese are unhappy with the law, because only a tiny elite was involved in drafting it, because it gives wide discretion to corrupt local officials to allocate vast amounts of income, and because it does not contain a word about justice.

Moreover, if one aim of the Geneva talks is to persuade GAM to forego armed struggle in favour of democratic political participation, the autonomy law offers no incentives for doing so because it has no provision for the formation of local political parties. GAM could only compete for local office if it joined an existing party or developed a nationwide constituency - hardly realistic options.

Last May, GAM's representatives reluctantly agreed to use the law as a starting point, but they have since backed away, as Indonesian government officials have made it increasingly clear that the autonomy is the end, not the beginning, of any settlement.

A major national decentralisation process now underway also affects the political context in Aceh. New provinces and districts are emerging based on economic interests, demand for political power, ethnic pride - and sometimes, central government machinations. Since the decentralization plan was first announced, there have been rumours of a plan to split Aceh in two, hiving off the south-central, largely non-Acehnese areas into a new province to be called Leuser. The move is in the interests of the central government, to weaken the independence movement, but it also has support from some leaders of the Alas, Gayo, Tamiang, and Singkil ethnic groups. Many Acehnese intellectuals are convinced that any effort to divide the province will be resisted strongly, however, and not just by independence supporters, in a way that could provide further fuel for the war.

Too many parties in Aceh, with the notable exception of ordinary Acehnese civilians, are profiting from the conflict. When the guerrilla movement began, Jakarta's control of Aceh's rich natural resources was a major grievance. But after the 'special autonomy' law allowed the provincial government to keep a high percentage of locally generated oil and gas revenues, the windfall turned into a slush fund for the local political elite. Aceh's natural wealth is again disappearing into official pockets, although this time, the culprits are often Acehnese.

Corruption and extortion are constant themes in the local press. Police, soldiers and GAM all demand illegal levies along the province's roads. Illegal logging is a particularly lucrative source of income. Shopkeepers and businesses have to give a cut to both sides. So many people are being killed by "unidentified elements" that it is perfectly possible to hire a GAM or an army-backed thug to bump off a business rival. Everyone assumes that killings are political, and no serious investigations take place.

Aceh is also being used by Jakarta politicians as a test of political strength. Some Acehnese told me on a recent visit that they suspect the talk about a state of emergency is part of a power struggle within President Megawati's cabinet between top army officers and the Coordinating Minister for Political and Security Affairs. The army has branded GAM a "terrorist" organization, perhaps in an effort to get international support for a crackdown. The U.S., however, has no plans to include GAM on its list of terrorist organizations and has been actively involved in supporting the dialogue in Geneva.

ICG has consistently urged the Indonesian government not to pursue a military solution to the Aceh conflict but rather to seek a solution based on negotiation and international monitoring of a settlement. If the government proceeds with the state of emergency, or if it sends troops to add to the 22,000 already there, or if it finds another way of putting the military in charge of civilians, support for GAM may increase.

In order for the negotiations in Geneva to bear any fruit, the Indonesian government must address the problems with the autonomy law and establish a credible regulatory agency to monitor how gas and oil revenues are collected and spent. GAM also needs to recognise that the behaviour of its own forces is sapping the support it had from a population traumatized by years of military abuse. At the same time, the Indonesian government is going to have to find ways of prosecuting perpetrators of human rights violations, including senior officers. No amount of money or military might is going to make the issue of justice go away.

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