By Chris Latham & Pip Hinman
On February 20 the "cease-fire" between the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and the Indonesian military (TNI) was extended for the third time since the so-called humanitarian pause in 2000. These declarations mean nothing, Syadiah Marhaban from the Aceh Referendum Information Centre (SIRA) told Green Left Weekly. That very night the TNI swept through four villages terrorising and killing people.
Following every previous cease-fire extension, attacks on unarmed Acehnese take place almost immediately; more than 100 people have been killed since January. Since GAM declared unilateral independence from Indonesia in December 1976, some 30,000 people have been killed.
Under the current cease-fire, GAM and the Indonesian government have agreed to a four-point code of conduct. However, given the lack of an enforcement authority, the TNI continues to hunt down GAM members especially in the rural areas. Ed Aspinall, who lectures in Indonesian studies at University of New South Wales and has recently returned from Aceh, told an Amnesty International forum in Sydney that the TNI routinely strafes whole villages in revenge attacks if even one of its soldiers comes under fire.
On February 15, the TNI announced an additional 6000 troops would be sent to Aceh, bringing the total deployment of combat troops to more than 30,000.
Aspinall described the northern-most city of Banda Aceh as being like a "war zone" in which there is an unofficial curfew as night falls.
"People are just too scared to leave their homes after dark. Local commanders are calling on the central government to call an all-out civil emergency", he said.
Aspinall described President Abdurrahman Wahid as pursuing a dual policy of negotiations with GAM while the TNI is allowed a virtual free hand to wage war.
And while the political situation in Indonesia remains unstable, the military is playing up their role as harbingers of peace and security.
The TNI's attempts to hunt down GAM members and terrorise its rural support base reflect the Indonesian government's unwillingness to engage in genuine negotiations over Aceh's future. The military have significant commercial operations in the gold, oil, gas timber and marijuana-rich state of Aceh.
Autonomy versus independence
Syadiah Marhaban told Green Left Weekly that a poll conducted by SIRA just before the November 8 referendum rally last year -- during which 48 people were killed, hundreds were injured and thousands of public and private vehicles damaged by the security forces -- 92.6% said they favoured independence rather than autonomy.
Despite the overwhelming sentiment for independence, the Wahid government is only prepared to allow greater autonomy -- a position the Aceh People's Council has adopted. Wahid's government is pushing the Acehnese House of Representatives to prioritise deliberation of the autonomy law which ensures the central government maintains control over financial and security affairs.
While the new autonomy laws -- scheduled to take effect from May -- are supposed to decentralise decision-making and allow Aceh to retain a greater percentage of earnings from the exploitation of its natural resources, they say nothing about reducing the number of TNI troops in Aceh.
In an attempt to shift the balance of forces and provide some legitimacy to the autonomy demand, the Wahid government is seeking to include anti-independence groups in the negotiations. However this is unlikely to be successful given GAM's strong base of mass support, and the activities of pro-referendum groups like SIRA and the radical Student Solidarity with the People (SMUR).
On February 20 Indonesian defence minister Mahfud Mahmoddin declared he was tired of prolonged talks with the independence movements in Aceh and West Papua and threatened to become increasingly tough with "separatist groups".
SIRA has evidence that the TNI has started to train militia groups in the northern part of Aceh. "Jakarta is going to try to repeat what it did in East Timor", Marhaban warned. She said that the TNI is recruiting poor transmigrants from Java for six months of training. "This shows the Wahid government's desperation. It has been unable to contain or curtail the pro- referendum sentiment by military means, and is now resorting to inciting communal conflict to achieve its ends."
Following the forced resignation of the despot Suharto in 1998 the democracy movement forced a number of concessions from President Habibie's government and the TNI including the abolition of wide-ranging anti- subversion laws.
However, many restrictive laws remain on the books, including those dealing with freedom of speech (including the law banning the propagation of Marxism).
Last November Muhammad Nazar, chairperson of SIRA, was detained and charged with treason. After growing pressure he was finally set to go to trial last week. He looks set to be the first activist to be so charged since the Suharto days. According to Marhaban, some 500 extra soldiers have been deployed for his trial in Banda Aceh.
The Western powers' opposition to Aceh's independence is primarily motivated by a desire to maintain a politically stable environment for corporate investment throughout the Indonesian archipelago. There is a general fear within the ruling circles of the imperialist powers, in particular in Washington and Canberra, that if Aceh was to win its independence, the West Papuan independence struggle would be given added momentum and other provinces dissatisfied with rule from Jakarta would become similarly inspired.
US support is important for the Wahid administration to maintain control in Aceh. It gives political cover to Jakarta and helps keep the independence forces relatively isolated and serves to strengthen a weakening military position within Indonesia.
TNI and Indonesian police forces are increasingly stretched. It is estimated that half of Indonesia's 200,000 soldiers and 300,000 police are now deployed in provinces waging struggles for independence such as Aceh and West Papua or where communal violence is breaking out, such as in Kalimantan and Malaku.
Marhaban is under no illusions about how the fight for the right to a referendum would eventually be won. "International pressure on Jakarta, particularly from countries such as the US and Australia, is vital", she said.
US military training, or the stepping up of such training by Australia, will provide further legitimacy to the Indonesian government's effort to smash the independence forces. For this reason, she argued, the Australian and US governments must be forced to end all military ties to Indonesia.
SIRA is demanding the TNI and police leave Aceh. After that there's a need to conduct a campaign to raise consciousness among Acehnese about what a referendum would mean. "We have to be ready to take the consequences", Marhaban said, alluding to the likely difficulties a democratic government might encounter from multinational companies, such as Exxon (Esso), currently profiting from the Acehnese people's misery.
From Green Left Weekly issue #440
Saturday, April 14, 2001
By Chris Latham & Pip Hinman