Indonesia: Anguish in Aceh

Aceh, the strictly Muslim, gas- and oil-rich Indonesian province on the northern tip of Sumatra, is no stranger to secessionist movements. An independent sultanate before the Dutch takeover in the 1870s and a leader in Indonesia’s independence struggle in the 1940s, Aceh was promised autonomy when Indonesia declared independence in 1945. The pledge was never truly fulfilled. In the 1950s, insurgent Acehnese set out to free themselves from Jakarta’s rule and create an Islamic state. Though their efforts were crushed, the Free Aceh Move-ment (GAM) later sprang up to continue the mission. This group, intent on establishing an independent homeland, has been battling the Indonesian military (TNI) for 27 years.

Just after midnight on May 19, the ante was upped.  Indonesian troops parachuted into Aceh, marines landed on its shores, and rockets were launched into its hills, signaling the start of what President Megawati Sukarnoputri called a six-month offensive to crush the rebel movement. In total, more than 45,000 troops were sent in to face an estimated 5,000 GAM fighters. It is likely to turn into the country’s biggest military conflict since the invasion of East Timor in 1975.

Hours before, peace negotiations sponsored by the United States, Japan, and the World Bank had collapsed in Tokyo. The talks, aimed at resurrecting a December 2002 cease-fire, had been a cause for hope among the province’s 4 million people. Ten thousand lives had already been lost to the conflict.

Within days of the outbreak of violence, representatives of both the TNI and the GAM were trading barbs. GAM military spokesperson deputy Tgk Isnandar Al-Pase told Tempo (May 21), “If it [the Indonesian government] wants war, it will get war….Don’t even think that they will win a war in Aceh.” Tempo (May 22) quoted TNI chief Gen. Endriartono Sutarto saying, “They [the GAM] should show their bravery and face Indonesian military troops if they are indeed true warriors.”

Many in the Indonesian government worried that if Aceh were permitted to secede, the very unity of Indonesia would be threatened. But The Jakarta Post questioned this assumption (May 29): “The ‘loss’ of East Timor in 1999 has left such a stigma that the nation’s leaders vowed never to cede another inch of the country’s territory again, and any insurgency must be dealt with harshly before it grew too large to handle….To suggest that GAM has become a serious threat is to grossly overstate its strength….The massive military campaign looks more like an unnecessary major surgery, when what Aceh really needs is probably some simple medicine, like antibiotics. The danger with this approach is that in performing the wrong surgery, Jakarta may end up having to amputate Aceh altogether, and...we ourselves—rather than GAM or anybody else—may end up killing [the unitary state of Indonesia].”

Much attention was paid to the fact that although GAM leaders, including the group’s founder, Hasan Tiro, were commanding troops by telephone and e-mail from Sweden, where they fled in the 1970s, Sweden had refused to arrest them. The chairman of the People’s Consultative Assembly, Amien Rais, advocating cutting diplomatic relations with Sweden, said, “Sweden is a small country. Don’t think there will be solidarity among Western European countries that will be hostile to us” (Kompas, June 4). But Tempo (June 8-15) saw things differently: “The Indonesian government’s attempt to ask the Swedish government to punish Hasan Tiro does not seem right. Especially if it is followed by a threat to boycott Swedish goods or even freeze diplomatic ties with Sweden. It was an overreaction, too hasty, and unnecessary.”

The media, which devoted much ink to the death tolls of both GAM and TNI fighters, generally steered clear of covering civilian casualties. One notable exception was the story of Lothar and Elizabeth Engel, German tourists who were traveling Aceh by bike when they were shot by TNI troops. Many called for a full inquiry into the event. Insisted Suara Pembaruan (June 5): “The investigation should be thoroughly, objectively, and immediately conducted, taking into account that the incident could stir international dispute over the government’s integrated military operation in Aceh.” The Jakarta Post noted (June 10): “If Lothar and Elizabeth Engel had been Acehnese, few people would have heard about them or their fate.”

Despite the deaths, the Indonesian government was confident about the way the war was progressing. According to Tempo (May 31), the country’s minister of defense believed that the conflict in Aceh was “running smoothly...[and] said he was optimistic that this operation would be finished quicker than what had been planned.”