Indonesia: Aceh Needs Some Lateral Thinking


Gerry van Klinken

Nineteenth century concepts of national sovereignty have served the world well in many ways, but they have also caused rivers of blood. In Indonesia their downside is nowhere clearer than in Aceh. Jakarta and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) are squaring off military, but ideologically they speak a disturbingly similar language.

The central claims of that language are that national sovereignty is absolute and indivisible, that those who possess it have a monopoly licence to kill, and that 'interference in internal affairs' is the number one international offence. Where Jakarta bases its claims on it succeeding to the colonial state of the Netherlands East Indies, GAM says it succeeds to the once internationally recognised Aceh sultanate. This can only be a fight to the death of one, and never mind the civilian casualties, of whom there are already thousands.

Fortunately Indonesia has a president who is not obsessed with national sovereignty. In May 2000 Abdurrahman Wahid's ambassador signed a 'humanitarian pause' agreement with GAM in Switzerland, in which each side promised to accept initial mediation through the Red Cross-related Henry Dunant Centre. To my knowledge this is the first time that Indonesia has accepted such mediation since the national revolution of 1945-49.

The humanitarian pause was extended in September 2000, and again in January 2001, but the latter for only one month and with a reduced mandate. Both GAM and Indonesia's police and military have often broken their promises of restraint. Meanwhile Abdurrahman Wahid has been weakened by a growing opposition alliance that accuses him of being too liberal on many issues including Aceh.

Now is not the time for Indonesia to retreat into the nineteenth century. The myth of absolute national sovereignty has long been eroding around the world. A body of international law and modes of cooperation have been taking shape since World War II that offer hope for lateral movement in apparent deadlock situations like Aceh.

In Southeast Asia these international mechanisms remain extremely weak. Their failure on East Timor demonstrated that none of the ASEAN members can supply the needed breakthrough. But they are willing to serve as mediators to one. ASEAN's 'troika' of foreign ministers, inspired by the EU model, helped mediate in Cambodia in 1997 after the Hun Sen coup. The Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), based in the Middle East, was an important facilitator in the southern Philippines, with Indonesia's help. The ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) has working groups on preventive diplomacy and peacekeeping in recognition of the fact that that today the greatest threat to regional stability is internal conflict.

The ARF in particular should now urge Jakarta to ask for the good offices of the one organization that can supply the needed breakthrough, the United Nations through its Secretary General. No one is talking armed intervention. Kofi Annan could start by sending monitoring delegations, then move to third party mediation.

Jakarta, increasingly nationalist, will at first be shocked to hear Aceh and the UN named in one breath. But some will realise that asking for help is also a way of sharing responsibility. Violent dogmatism within, and acquiescence to it without (also by western governments), must now take a back seat.

WATCHPOINT: It is in Jakarta's interest to seize this chance of escaping from an outdated nineteenth century obsession that looks likely to trap the country in a damaging conflict.


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