Taking a cue from her American mentors, Indonesian president Megawati Sukarnoputri has discovered the art of talking tough towards the end of a term of office. Megawati has mostly maintained silence as the cornerstone of her presidency, leaving the legal and financial post-Suharto mess to be debated continually by members of the House of Representatives. But such silence cannot withstand the heat of the presidential election due next year.
Her decision also seems to be a gesture towards the military, to get their support for her presidential campaign, as much as to deflect attention from the mess in her government. She was forced to back down on price-increases early this year, and some generals were suspected of plotting to overthrow her government. Top army generals and security minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, their main spokesman in the cabinet, had been pressurising politicians to let them back into parliament since they were expelled by former president Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur). Protests have also mounted from civil groups recently over plans to enact laws that would give the police and military almost unlimited powers on the pretext of "fighting terrorism".
Megawati kicked off her unofficial election campaign on May 18 when she signed papers declaring martial law after giving an ultimatum to the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) to renounce their demand for independence. The martial-law declaration had been prepared several months ago by the generals, who have been missing DOM (the acronym of the 10-year old ‘military operation zone’ imposed on Aceh by Suharto), during which the worst atrocities were committed by the Javanese-dominated army. Those atrocities have come back to haunt Aceh, this time with troops backed by British-made Scorpion tanks and Hawk aircraft.
Since the full-scale war was launched on May 19, scores of civilians have been executed; eyewitnesses have spoken of villagers being lined up and shot by the notorious Indonesian Army (TNI). A BBC journalist reported on May 21 that, in one incident he saw, at least eight villagers were shot in the eastern Bireun area; the Jakarta Post quoted witnesses who reported that six teenaged boys, including a 12-year-old who was mentally handicapped, were killed in the village of Matamaplam. In Cot Batee, an AFP journalist saw the bodies of six farmers. In Bukit Sudan village 30 civilians were killed. The military has had no qualms about admitting these killings, saying that the dead were GAM members, including the young boys. The army has promised "investigations", but prevented reporters from visiting the villages.
All this is part of a long ‘ethnic-cleansing’ campaign (slightly delayed by the reformasi years) to gain control of Aceh, even without its inhabitants. Within days of the beginning of the full-scale war, almost 300 schools were torched, most of them in the Bireun and Pidie regions, both GAM strongholds. TNI blamed the attacks on GAM, although GAM has nothing to gain from terrorising residents in its strongholds.
The current campaign has all the marks of any Pentagon-inspired war: promise of a ‘quick war’, ‘freedom for the people’, army-escorted ‘humanitarian aid’, enemy defections, embedded journalists, and media censorship. Major-general Endang Suwarya, TNI’s commander in Aceh and head of martial rule, did not mince his words: "I want all news published to contain the spirit of nationalism. Put the interests of the unitary state of Indonesia first. Don’t blow up the news from GAM," he said, frustrated with the media’s neutrality in this war, in contrast to its position in the past.
GAM had been expecting this latest offensive, despite signing the second ‘cessation of hostilities’ agreement in Geneva last December. The months of relative calm in Aceh since then, however, had provided much-needed time for TNI to reinforce its firepower in the region, while calling on GAM to disarm. "For us, war is not new. We have been fighting since 1976 [and] we will continue to use guerrilla tactics," said Zaini Abdullah, one of GAM’s senior leaders-in-exile in Sweden, on May 21.
Despite its crimes and atrocities in Aceh being well documented by human-rights groups and Indonesia’s own National Commission on Human Rights, TNI has avoided every attempt to punish the perpetrators, in contrast to court proceedings in East Timor to try military officers for their actions there.
Rich in petroleum, Aceh has received special attention from Jakarta, which feels that it cannot afford another East Timor when its economy is strapped for cash, partly because scores of billionaires fled with their ill-gotten wealth after Suharto’s downfall in 1997. The lack of western pressure, the kind which was exerted during East Timor’s quest for independence, has also tempted Megawati to tear up the ceasefire agreement.
It is no secret that for decades western oil-companies have been working hand-in-glove with the central government in Java to plunder Aceh. In June 2001 the International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF), representing 11 Acehnese civilians, filed a lawsuit in Washington against ExxonMobil, accusing it of abetting Javanese atrocities in northern Sumatra. Exxon is accused of hiring army thugs to protect its oil-fields in Aceh, as well as of providing equipment for TNI to dig mass-graves and build torture centres. Despite all this, the Bush administration (which is run by several oil-tycoons) last year said that it would block attempts to bring Exxon to justice, claiming that such trials would jeopardise efforts to enroll Indonesia in the "war on terror".
Thus the zeal in which Megawati has launched the latest military operation is not surprising. In spite of the historical evidence, it is clear that many would still like to see the unity of Indonesia’ and its ‘sovereignty’ survive on the grounds that a East Timor-style independent Aceh would weaken the "world’s largest Muslim nation". Aceh has never benefited economically or politically within the Indonesian entity. Jakarta has installed a corrupt governor, councillors and mayors to run the administration of Aceh–a fact admitted even by People’s Consultative Assembly speaker Amien Rais recently. Since the war began, more than half of Aceh’s civil servants fear for their safety and have not come to work; on May 20 Hari Sabarno, Indonesia’s home affairs minister, even suggested that the government replace these workers with retired military officers.
For now, however, Javanese politicians in Jakarta (especially presidential hopefuls) have decided that silence is the better part of valour, and are backing Megawati’s actions; a poll by Tempomagazine last April indicated that 76 percent of ‘Indonesians’ backed military action. Polls on topics such as this, however, are notoriously unreliable, one reason being that the majority of readers are Javanese.
Despite his shortcomings, former president Gus Dur is one of the few prominent Java-based leaders to condemn the military frenzy: "The solution to the Aceh problem should be through a peace agreement only," he has written in the Indonesian-language Media Indonesia. "Military operations show that the government has failed and has grown desperate to solve the problem." During his tenure, Gus Dur –despised by the generals for his role in expelling them from politics – had promised an East-Timor style referendum in Aceh.
Gus Dur is not alone in voicing displeasure at Megawati’s latest display of ‘patriotism’; for weeks before the military action she was under intense pressure to step down. Within hours of the military campaign starting, tens of thousands of students rallied in the capital, demanding that she resign or be removed. The only support Indonesia can hope for may be from the western powers, who hope for a ‘quick war’ so that their oil-businesses can operate normally again. The Jakarta Post on May 22 quoted the security minister as saying that "virtually all ambassadors from friendly countries had expressed support" for the offensive in Aceh. That could be partly true, judging by the lack of condemnations, especially from regional governments, themselves involved in repressions at home. The concerns expressed by Malaysia had more to do with worry over a possible influx of refugees than concern about anything else.
US allies Australia and Singapore, meanwhile, have had their fill with the western-backed creation of East Timor state, displaying their usual hypocrisy when it comes to Muslims seeking freedom. Australia - the main instigator behind East Timor’s secession - now claims that any victory to GAM could be "disastrous" for the Asia-Pacific region, as Alexander Downer, its foreign minister, said on May 25.
That there exists what is called a "donor group" (namely Japan, the World Bank and several European countries) in the recently-abandoned peace process also speaks volumes for the real interest in the region: its oil wealth. It also helps to explain why these "donor" countries were not as passionate as they had been before about finding a lasting settlement, as they had been in East Timor. Instead, much attention is focused merely to end the violence, shying away from tackling the real causes of the violence. All they really want is a period of peace so that their oil-businesses can go on as usual.
Located on the northern tip of Sumatra, Aceh was the centre of trade during the 16th and 17th centuries, and the earliest base for the propagation of Islam in southeast Asia. Acehnese have a proud record of defying outside attempts at domination, first against the Dutch in the Great Aceh War (1873), then to the period of Japanese occupation during the second world war. Only after large-scale genocides did the Dutch, who ruled what is now Indonesia, manage to control a small area around Banda Aceh, the capital.
Muslim resentment grew when president Sukarno merged Aceh with North Sumatra as a single province, and started his de-Islamisation campaign (pancasila), later pursued by Suharto. In 1953 Daud Beureu’eh led a successful jihad, which prompted Jakarta to grant it a Special Region status, giving the Acehnese control over education, religion and customary laws. Even this remained only on paper, however.
The discovery of huge reserves of oil in Aceh in the 1970s hardened Jakarta’s resolve to maintain its ‘sovereignty’ over Aceh. Unequal distribution of revenue drawn from the exploitation of these resources gave rise to the formation of GAM in 1976 under the leadership of Hasan di Tiro, who proclaimed Aceh’s independence. In answer Suharto launched a widespread terror campaign, killing tens of thousands of people.
The Acehnese are distinct in their culture, because of the Islamic influence, from the Javanese, whose culture and even Islamic rituals have been mixed up with pagan and Hindu elements, although attempts by many ‘puritan’ Islamic groups have recently partially cleansed the Javanese culture of pagan practices. Even its Malay language is distinctly different from the distorted ‘englishized’ national language adopted by the central government, which is called ‘Bahasa Indonesia’. All this and decades of plunder in Aceh lay bare the argument for ‘Indonesian sovereignty’ as only an excuse to avoid having an independent and wealthy Muslim state in the region, although in fact Hasan di Tiro has never claimed to be representing an Islamic struggle, only a nationalistic quest for freedom.