Saturday, January 08, 2005

Conflict In Aceh

There are reports everywhere of Kofi Annan's visit to Aceh. He is quoted as being "shocked" by the scale of the devastation. The Indonesian government is now reporting more than 100,000 deaths and, of course, millions remain vulnerable. Annan is next due to visit Sri Lanka. There are two obvious links between Aceh and Sri Lanka. They are the places that have suffered most from the catastrophe. And they are the sites of longstanding conflicts between authoritarian governments and secessionist movements. The post-earthquake situation in Aceh is already threatening to descend into a renewal of fighting between the Indonesian military and the main secessionist movement Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (Free Aceh Movement - GAM), as well as radical Islamist interlopers such as the Indonesian Mujahideen Council and Laskar Mujahideen. There is a full account of the tit-for-tat claims between the GAM and the Indonesian military over at Agam's Gecko. There he calls for the protaganists to quit their squabbling and get on with helping the people. I think it's easier said than done. The prospects for reconstructing Aceh don't look at all good unless a viable political settlement is reached and that looks as far away as ever.

A little bit of context may help and here I'm drawing from the excellent analysis provided by Edward Aspinall and Mark Berger. The conflict in Aceh is part of a much wider and long-term crisis of the Indonesian nation-state. Secessionist movements - not just in Aceh but also in East Timor and Irian Jaya - arose in direct response to the ways in which the state, especially during the Suharto period, went about the tasks of nation-building. In particular, the radicalisation of each movement was to a large degree driven by indiscriminate state violence. An explicitly secessionist movement in Aceh appeared in the 1970s as a result of the intensified and exploitative centralising efforts of Suharto's New Order regime. The GAM's present mass support is a direct product of the iron fist tactics employed by the military to repress the movement from the outset. There was a particularly violent crackdown in Aceh during the early 1990s, when it is estimated that around 3,000 were killed. This repression is now deeply inscribed in Acehnese popular memory and has swelled the ranks of the GAM insurgency and produced many other forms of resistance.

After the fall of Suharto in 1998 the immediate focus of Acehnese activists was on uncovering human rights abuses committed by the military and punishing their perpetrators. When the new "democratic" Habibie administration stalled and military brutality continued, the focus of demands shifted towards a referendum on independent statehood. A new independence movement emerged based largely on students and youth. Organisations like SIRA (Aceh Referendum Information Centre) have campaigned vigorously on the referendum issue, organising massive public rallies and demonstrations to advance their case. Members of the local ruling elite were partly swayed by such demands, although their primary objective remained negotiating a more generous autonomy deal with Jakarta.

It is GAM which remains the central force in Acehnese nationalism. This organisation has attracted many members of the urban intellectual elite, but its support base remains primarily rural. In the years after the fall of Suharto it managed to assert de facto administrative control over much of Aceh’s territory and to present a substantial military challenge to the Indonesian army. For its part, Jakarta stepped up
its offensive in May 2003 when it imposed martial law in Aceh - more than 2,000 people have been killed since then.

This is the background against which today's massive relief effort has to be understood. For its part, the Indonesian government has shown no great willingness to concede Acehnese legitimate demands and is on record as saying that its recent crackdown will continue even while relief efforts continue. One example of its outrageous contempt for Acehnese sensibilities:
General Adam Damiri is leading the Indonesian military's PR effort in Aceh - and he was deeply implicated in the training, funding and arming of pro-Jakarta militias in the bloody lead-up to East Timor's independence in 1998-99.

At the same time, there are concerns that the secessionist struggle in Aceh is being hijacked by equally appalling radical Islamist groups. There is a disturbing report in today's Guardian concerning the intervention of the Java-based group
Laskar Mujahidin. Its Aceh commander, Salman al-Farizi, offers an "interesting" theological take on the causes of the catastrophe: "The Acehnese had betrayed Allah .... They were not true to their faith. Allah had given the Acehnese Islamic law and they did not implement it". This ex post facto reasoning is terrifying in its cold absurdity: "It is crucial that the survivors, and indeed all Muslims, understand that this was a warning from Allah. If they don't be come true Muslims then they will be struck down".

There are real dangers here. In the final analysis, the prospects for the secession of Aceh will be driven primarily by the political dynamics of the nation-state of Indonesia. Today, the attitudes of Indonesia's political and military elites have hardened against natonalist sentiments and the reconstruction of Aceh will be undertaken on Jakarta's terms or not at all. On the other hand, radical Islamic groups see an opportunity amid tragedy. In the middle, the people of Aceh continue to suffer enormous deprivation while their legitimate political grievances get squeezed by the political manouevring of the state and the Islamists. Beyond "shock" and relief, the UN also needs to turn its attention quickly to the politics of conflict in Aceh.

2 Comments:

Blogger josh narins said...

You can read reports that show that Aceh independence movements existed in the late 1950s...

GAM only dates from the 1970s.

Maybe you should find new sources?

"The Acehnese demand for autonomy, expressed in support for the 1950s Darul Islam rebellion, was partially met by the central government's acceptance of a 'special region' status for the province in 1959"

11:01 am  
Blogger Gareth said...

Josh, thanks for your comment. You are quite right to point out the spread of the Darul Islam revolt to Aceh in the 1950s. It was in 1958 that the central government ceded 'Special Territory' status to Aceh, with the authority to regulate its own affairs in the fields of customary law, education and religion,
leading to the eventual peaceful resolution of the Darul Islam revolt. In fact if we go back in history, Acehnese resistance to the Dutch began in the 1870s and was not broken until 1903, making it one of the last territories in the archipelago to be integrated into the Dutch colonial empire. The point I am making in the post, I guess, is that the GAM was the first explcitly secessionist movement - the first concerted movement for a separate Acehnese state.

11:56 am  

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