Crisis in Aceh threatens Indonesian unity

25 Nov 1999
Lilian Fan, Student Coalition for Aceh

Only months after the East Timorese cast an overwhelming vote for independence from 24 years of Indonesian rule, the national unity of Indonesia is being challenged once again as calls for self-determination in other regions escalate at an alarming rate. The most urgent of these upheavals is taking place in Aceh, a province on the North-western tip of the Indonesian archipelago, where a huge majority of the population are seeking an end to over 50 years of Javanese control.

In a country made up of 13,000 islands, 213 million people, and hundreds of distinct ethnic and linguistic groups, many fear that the conflict in Aceh will spark off similar calls for independence across the Indonesian archipelago. If the crisis in East Timor was cause for international concern, the mounting tension in Aceh is at least equally urgent, and in some ways potentially more dangerous. While East Timor, an ex-Portugese colony which was annexed by Indonesia in 1974, was never part of Indonesia's original idea of a unified nation, Aceh played a key role in the country's struggle for independence against the Dutch after World War II. Religious factors are equally significant, for unlike East Timor, whose population is predominantly Roman Catholic, Aceh is a stronghold of Islam in a country that holds the world's largest Muslim population.

The conflict in Aceh threatens the very idea of Indonesia as a unified nation, and many believe that losing the province will result in the "balkanization" of Indonesia as a whole.

Aceh has a long history of rebellion. One of the most powerful kingdoms in the Malayo-Muslim world for hundreds of years, Aceh was a fiercely independent sultanate until the arrival of the Dutch in the late nineteenth century. During the colonial period the Acehnese fought a 70-year war against the Dutch from 1873 to 1942, after which the province came under Japanese control for three years. In 1945 Sukarno declared the independence of the Republic of Indonesia which the Dutch refused to recognize until 1949. In the struggle for independence, President Sukarno eventually persuaded Aceh to join the new republic, pledging protection, prosperity, and great autonomy to the province.

The Acehnese were soon disillusioned, however, by the unfulfilled promises of the Sukarno regime, and a movement against the national government emerged in Aceh as early as the 1950s. Ever since, the province has been experiencing waves of revolt, one of the major ones occurring in the 1970s with the appearance of guerrilla insurgents called the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, or GAM). The current wave of rebellion began in 1990 when President Suharto designated Aceh as a military operations area (Daerah Operasi Militer, or DOM) to implement counterinsurgency operations against the GAM. The Indonesian army responded to GAM activities with indiscriminate violence, leaving the Acehnese brutally scarred. According to human rights groups, the turbulence of the past decade has resulted in the following figures: 3,000 civilians killed; 3,862 disappeared; 4,663 tortured; 186 raped; 16,000 orphans, and 90,000 refugees and internally-displaced people. At least 100 mass graves were found, one containing over 200 mutilated bodies. Another 170,000 have been badly traumatized by the violence, and 6,800 have been rendered mentally ill.

Economically, Aceh was shamelessly exploited under 32 years of Suharto's rule, its rich natural resources supplying 20% of Indonesia's annual budget, with only 1% re-invested directly or indirectly in the province, which remained underdeveloped and impoverished. The increasing presence of multinational corporations further alienated the Acehnese from their own land and resources. In terms of job opportunities, Acehnese were marginalized as the multinationals brought in workers from outside the province, claiming that the local labor force was unskilled. These companies also polluted the wells and produced acid rain, poisoning the environment as they looted the province's natural wealth. Mobil Oil is currently is accused of being involved in the military violations, as activists claim that the corporation's bulldozers were used to dig mass graves and that torture sites were located on the multinational's compound.

Following the fall of Suharto in May 1998, the built-up impact of the DOM-era exploded as reports of abuses filled local newspapers and TV broadcasts, giving rise to demands that those responsible be brought to justice. Despite the surfacing of evidence against the military, the Habibie government failed to take advantage of the newly-opened political environment, and instead the arrival of more troops in Aceh resulted in continued violence and repression. It is only now, as Indonesia enters a new age of democratic reform under President Abdurrahman Wahid, that the Acehnese struggle for independence is being dealt with through means other than military suppression. Much to the opposition of his government officials, President "Gus Dur", as he is popularly known, has repeatedly stated that he personally supports the holding of a referendum in Aceh, and has given a time frame of seven months. He has also said, however, that this referendum will not include the option of independence.

The largest movement in Aceh today is that of civil society. Far from being restricted to the GAM's guerrilla rebellion, within the last two years the movement for independence has evolved into a massive popular mobilization involving all levels of society, from university students to peasants, women's organisations to religious groups. Only three weeks ago, two million people (almost half of Aceh's population of 4.3 million) showed up at the main mosque in the province's capital to rally for referendum. One group which has played a central role in mass mobilization is the Student Solidarity for the People (Solidaritas Mahasiswa Untuk Rakyat, or SMUR). The group's 22-year old secretary-general, Aguswandi, was in New York and Washington DC last month to campaign for international concern. "It is easy to understand why we Acehnese have lost faith in the Indonesian government. Sukarno promised us autonomy, Suharto promised us prosperity, Habibie promised us justice, and each time we were exploited and violated. How can we be expected to trust this new government?" Agus explained when asked why the Acehnese were not allowing the new Indonesian government a chance to prove their worth. "We see no alternative other than self-determination. It is our democratic right to have a referendum, one which includes the option of independence from Indonesia."

But both the Acehnese people and the Indonesian government should be careful about acting too hastily for referendum. Habibie's sudden decision to hold referendum in East Timor was done more out of spite than sincerity, and a repeat of such rashness could result in more humanitarian disaster. Thrown into a bloodbath which led to the deployment of international troops into the territory, East Timor is currently independent only in name, and it will take the United Nations years to rebuild the basic political and administrative structures needed for a sustainable community. It is a hard time to be a newborn nation, especially in a region so penetrated by the likes of the IMF and Nike, whose transnational activities increasingly undermine the sovereignty of the nation-state. In the context of today's dual trend of globalization and fragmentation, it is crucial for Aceh to build the capacity to navigate itself politically, economically, and socially, so that independence, if and when it arrives, will be genuine and secure.

Lilianne Fan
Student Coalition for Aceh
415 East 37th Street, 26F
New York, NY 10016

Jaringan Diskusi & Debat Serambi Mekkah - D.I. Aceh