Indonesia: Aceh’s Hidden War


Edward Aspinall

In the aftermath of East Timor’s divorce from Indonesia, and with growing media attention to calls for independence in Irian Jaya (West Papua), the world seems to have forgotten that there is another part of the archipelago which poses an equally acute challenge to the Indonesian state.

After a brief moment of optimism last May, when the Indonesian government negotiated a ‘humanitarian pause’ with the Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM, Free Aceh Movement), conditions in the staunchly Islamic province of Aceh at the northern tip of Sumatra have returned to a familiar pattern of violence. There are daily reports of armed clashes, kidnappings, mysterious killings and other atrocities. Outside the larger towns, the institutions of the civilian government are in virtual meltdown. Village heads, district administrators and judges have handed in their commissions or simply fled, abandoning large swathes of the province. The Indonesian military is like a foreign army of occupation, its troops raiding villages during the daytime, huddling in their bases at night.

As is so often the case in such situations, popular support for separatism, ironically, is largely a legacy of military counter-insurgency operations. When GAM was declared in 1976 it had few supporters. But the response to it from the central authorities was indiscriminate repression. Few Acehnese were unaffected by the wave of violence which enveloped the province in the early 1990s, when the military - employing the brutal repertoire it had refined in East Timor - killed an estimated 3000 people.

President Abdurrahman Wahid understands that the origins of the Acehnese crisis lie in the militarisation of politics during the Suharto era. But this does not make the dilemma much easier for him. Even though his administration’s legitimacy largely rests on its democratic credentials, the President and his supporters also know that if a democratic choice was extended to the Acehnese population, they would overwhelmingly choose independence. This is the lesson of last year’s referendum in East Timor, and it is also the conclusion of military field commanders. Such an outcome would be unacceptable to the majority of Indonesian nationalists, both democrats and authoritarians.

The result is that Indonesian policy is operating on the basis of two distinct logics. On the ground, the military is attempting to hold the line. Field commanders are widely believed to have contempt for the ‘humanitarian pause’ and are reverting to the same dirty war tactics that caused such alienation with Indonesia in the first place. At the centre, President Abdurrahman and his supporters are talking of compromise and peace plans. A draft bill on Acehnese autonomy is being debated, which aims to grant the province wide-ranging powers, but within the framework of the Indonesian state. The government is also opening negotiations on a ‘political solution’ with GAM.

Which of these approaches will triumph in the long run remains unclear. In large part it will depend on the outcome of the continuing battle at the centre to assert civilian supremacy over the military. At present, President Abdurrahman’s own political insecurity is tying his hands on that score. But if one lesson appears clear from Aceh’s history it is that there can be no military solution to the conflict. Neither GAM nor the Indonesian military will ever be able to win outright military victory.

WATCHPOINT: The alternative to a negotiated solution in Aceh is chronic, intractable insurgency and violence.


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