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Palestine and Aceh: Limits of Solidarity

an interesting opinion article appeared in this newspaper, which drew a comparison between the plight of the palestinians and the acehnese. (the jakarta post, nov. 8). this is maybe the first time an indonesian has connected the two conflicts.
20 November 2004

An interesting opinion article appeared in this newspaper, which drew a comparison between the plight of the Palestinians and the Acehnese. (The Jakarta Post, Nov. 8). This is maybe the first time an Indonesian has connected the two conflicts. There has been no identification of the similarities between the two in Indonesia, despite common elements of widespread and deliberate human suffering, injustice and human rights violations. When Palestine is raised, Indonesians are outraged, but when the Acehnese conflict is raised, Indonesians frequently refuse to acknowledge that terror and horror are the daily reality in a corner of their nation. Having made the link, however, the writer failed to consider the critical question of why Indonesians react differently towards the conflicts in Aceh and Palestine. This is a hugely important question that must be answered, as the different responses go far beyond the nature of the two conflicts, and enter the tangled but critical arena of one's nationalism, which is what dampens human solidarity.

As we know, Indonesia's response to injustice can be passionate and vocal. Not only have Indonesians protested against the abuses endured by the Palestinian people, they have shown their support for oppressed people worldwide. Recent unlawful killings in Southern Thailand, for example, sparked public outrage in Indonesia. This is a very positive sign of Indonesian solidarity for human suffering. But what is of concern is that this compassion and humanity shown towards people in other countries is not extended to those suffering the same wrongs within Indonesia. It seems that moral outrage is not universal.

Efforts are made to justify the different reactions, to cling to distinctions about the rights and wrongs of each case. It is usually said that Palestine is a different story, that is the history of an oppressed people, while the conflict in Aceh is branded with the "ethno-separatist" label. Muslim groups cite the brotherhood of Islam to justify their support for the people of Palestine, but refuse to apply this to Aceh.

They ignore the fact that even the Palestinian leadership has rejected a religious definition of the conflict. As the writer correctly pointed out, even Yasser Arafat refuted suggestions that the situation is simply a struggle between Islam and Judaism. Nonetheless, Indonesian Muslim groups continue to encourage support for Palestine in the name of religion while supporting military operations against their equally Muslim fellow citizens in Aceh.

The problems of oppression of Palestinians and Acehnese are similar: The daily violence against the people. In fact, in terms of death tolls, more people have been killed in Aceh in the last two years than in Palestine. From May 2003 till October 2004, 1,160 Palestinians were killed. However, since martial law was imposed in May 2003, according to conservative estimates 2,100 people have been killed in Aceh. The average death toll in Aceh is four to five a day compared to one or two a day in Palestine.

What then is the cause of this disparity in compassion and solidarity? The answer lies in Indonesians' deep-rooted nationalist sentiment. This emotion overrides people's instinctive feelings for solidarity towards suffering, regardless of religion or nationality. Scholars who study nationalism have discussed the way in which devotion to the nation state takes precedence over any other kind of loyalty. Aceh, Palestine, Southern Thailand, Mindanao and Papua are no different; their people are oppressed and they are victims of injustice. Yet the solidarity they receive depends on how it affects the interest of people of any given nation state.

Nationalism limits Indonesian solidarity for the problems in Aceh, as well as in West Papua, in a way many would find shocking when Palestine is being discussed. As long as suffering happens outside their own country, Indonesians are boundless in their solidarity and support. But there are frontiers to this compassion that can be clearly marked on a map: boundary from Sabang to Merauke. Injustice beyond these borders stirs sympathy, and injustice within them will evoke quite different responses.

This glaring discrepancy should warn us that giving nationalism privileged status is dangerous. While it still allows people to condemn unacceptable practices elsewhere outside its borders, it shuts people's minds to similarly horrendous realities within the border of Indonesia, most notably in Aceh and West Papua. Of course the conflicts are not completely ignored. Some cases are so horrible they sneak through people's radars. We occasionally notice violent deaths and sometimes speak about them. But, in general, we have started to accept the abnormal as normal. The extraordinary becomes not only expected but accepted.

This also explains why Indonesians will go into the streets to protest against the U.S. war in Iraq, but not Indonesia's war in Aceh. People recognize external power relations between the center (the West), and the periphery (Third World countries), while failing to see the power relations within the latter, far closer to home. They do not consider that unjust power relations and abuses within their sphere are as dangerous as those "outside".