Even as one of its most senior-ranking members faces the death penalty for crimes committed in East Timor, the Indonesian army has been unleashing a similar wave of terror in Aceh. It is fuelled by the indifference of western governments who have been crying foul over the same crimes in East Timor. In the latest episode of Jakarta’s military crackdown in Aceh, scores of people have been killed.
In one incident on July 17, officials said that eight people had been killed in military operations. While the army claimed to have killed Acehnese ‘insurgents’, other sources have said that unarmed villagers had been executed. Such claims are not far-fetched: cases of Indonesian soldiers destroying whole villages after shooting their inhabitants are well documented. Yet only few weeks earlier, Endriartono Sutarto, the Indonesian military chief, claimed that the situation in Aceh had improved.
With the US and other western governments accusing Jakarta of “not doing enough” in the “war against terrorism”, president Megawati Sukarnoputri has been forced to do something. Indonesia’s neighbours, the Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore, have already been praised by Washington for forming military alliances to counter so-called ‘terrorists’ and al-Qa’ida cells (whose presence was never clearly established for the public to be convinced).
Jakarta was continuously criticised for its lack of action over Muslim groups such as Laskar Jihad, whose members have travelled to the Malukus to oppose rampaging Christian militias in the current strife there. Although Jakarta could not make Laskar Jihad a scapegoat and begin an ‘anti-terrorism’ campaign against it, because of lack of evidence, it could not have a more convenient scapegoat than the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), which has been in an armed struggle for many years for independence from the Javanese-dominated Indonesian government.
Not surprisingly, the Indonesian version of ‘counter terrorist’ activities was not at all creative, instead imitating the neighbours’ accusation against their opponents: having ‘links’ with Usama bin Ladin and al-Qa’ida. The Jakarta Post on July 10 quoted Indonesian officials as saying that a “senior Al-Qaeda operative” had visited Aceh last year. This is the first time that Indonesia has claimed that al-Qa’ida has reached its shores; it had earlier rejected any suggestions that the group had links with locals. GAM immediately felt obliged to deny any links with al-Qa’ida, even saying that Islam is not a factor in Aceh’s struggle for independence from Jakarta. This departed from GAM leaders’ earlier views, in particular that of Tenku Hasan di Tiro, who detested the Javanese mainly for their de-Islamisation and pagan-based pancasila policies.
A week after these accusations appeared, the Indonesian government branded GAM as “terrorists”, creating the pretext to impose a state of emergency in Aceh, and discarding whatever agreements had been reached in the peace talks with GAM, the last of which had been held in Geneva in May. A declaration of emergency would also give licence to the army to search houses and detain suspects without trial, with a possibility of repeating the atrocities of the Suharto era. Susilo Bambang, the Indonesian chief security minister, a former army general, did not conceal these intentions when he said: “It’s difficult for Indonesia to negotiate with terrorists. Would the US, the West talk to terrorists?”
The army’s stand followed calls by Megawati to take tough actions against ‘rebels’ in Aceh. Unlike Abdurahman Wahid, her predecessor, who promised an East-Timor-style referendum for Aceh, Megawati and her Christian advisors have rejected every such suggestion.
Analysts agree that the decision to label GAM as ‘terrorists’ shows Jakarta’s desperation at having to fight the 25-year-old independence movement. Cash-strapped Jakarta hopes that Aceh’s huge oil and mineral resources will bring in the revenues it desperately needs; hence its refusal to agree even to autonomy for Aceh. Fighting ‘terrorists’ would also effectively neutralise western sympathy for Aceh’s struggle, and invite the much-needed cooperation from other governments in the region, or even the US. One need only see how quickly US commandos were dropped in southern Philippines to fight alongside Manila, purportedly against al-Qa’ida’s members. The first to respond has been Thailand; Tempo of Indonesia reported on July 18 the Thai government’s commitment to help Jakarta in its campaign in Aceh, by blocking arms sales to Aceh’s freedom-fighters. It is the first time a neighbour has offered direct help to the Indonesian military, in defiance of the ‘non-interference’ policy of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations).
GAM, on the other hand, has not provided the leadership that the Acehnese people look for. It has been on the defensive, trying to make a ‘moderate’ image for itself, especially because its leaders are based in Europe and seeking western assistance for a free Aceh state. For instance, when the Java-based Muslim civil-action group Laskar Jihad wanted to show solidarity with the Acehnese by holding a mass rally in Aceh last February, GAM condemned the plans and prevented the group from establishing a base in Aceh. It said that Laskar Jihad’s presence could create “religious and ethnic problems,” accusing the group of “endangering the lives of non-Muslims”. GAM also warned that the plan for a mass rally could be a provocation to the Indonesian military; this claim, however, could not be confirmed.
GAM’s position is understandable and not surprising: it has already agreed to autonomy as a basis for negotiations for peace with Jakarta—something it has vehemently rejected in the past. But what it fails to realise is that attempts to shed its Islamic image to impress the west are futile, especially now when the west is renewing its love affair with dictators in the Muslim world.
While GAM has been claiming the leadership in the Acehnese’s ongoing jihad against the Indonesian military, and issuing strong statements urging the people to resist “Javanese domination”, the truth is that its leaders have been detached from realities at home for far too long. While the army was perpetrating terrors on the people, GAM leaders were having secret meetings with European governments in the hope of consolidating GAM’s political support base. Yet it is now forced onto the defensive, especially since September 11. This has happened despite GAM’s leaders, who are in exile, heeding pressures from western governments to sit at the negotiation table with Jakarta’s officials, in the hope of formulating a peace deal like East Timor’s.
In 2000, GAM officials took part for the first time in secret negotiations with Jakarta, in meetings held in Geneva, paving the way for a ‘ceasefire’ agreement on June 2, 2000, suspiciously termed a “humanitarian pause” aimed at ending the violence on both sides. The violence and killings that followed almost immediately demonstrated the futility of such deals with the Indonesian military, whose atrocities have been well documented. One hopes that, as a result of September 11, GAM will realise the true colours of the west when it comes to seeking freedom from oppression, especially for Muslims.