Aceh and Jakarta set on collision course

Calls for independence for Aceh are growing by the day, raising fears of a dismemberment of the republic. Part I of a two-part special report looks at forces propelling the demands for self-rule in the province.

THE HORROR stays locked in Ms Norlailah’s mind. Her eyes are dark-ringed holes in a pinched and exhausted face, bearing years of pain and hate against Indonesia.

The 22-year-old university dropout, who came to the refugee camp at the Tungku Daud Beureueh mosque two months ago, has not been able to escape the memories of what took place one night in 1990.

Back then, she stood next to her weeping mother, too terrified to cry out, as she watched people in military uniforms and “cueks” or collaborators drag her father out of bed, beat and kick him until he was unconscious.

Then they took him away. His family learned about his fate only a day later. He was found dead with three shots – in the head and chest – just outside a torture camp in Lhok Kala in Pidie.

Now, whenever Ms Norlailah sees a soldier, the memories of that night come flooding back, accompanied with a mix of emotions: fear, pain, anger, and a thirst for vengeance.

When soldiers carried out a security sweep through her neighbourhood this year, she and her 54-year-old mother escaped with other villagers to the mosque.

“We were traumatised,” she said. “They said my father was GAM but they had no proof. We lived in fear for so long. What’s to stop them coming after me and my mother.”

Many of the 12,000 refugees in the mosque managed by the separatist Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM) or Free Aceh movement tell a similar story.

It is always about losing a loved one or being tortured at some point during military operations in the area since 1989. The Acehnese, in particular in Pidie, East and North Aceh which went through the martial law period, are mentally preparing to go back to the barricades to fight Jakarta for merdeka or independence to end their pain.

But what merdeka means remains very much in the eye of the beholder.

Ms Norlailah and many others in Pidie are blinded by their hate for the central government and the military. For them, independence means casting off the yoke of repression.

Others in areas that did not experience military atrocities are less emotional.

But they too want to break away, to pursue dreams of their province becoming another Brunei or Kuwait, given what they believe are its rich natural resources.

Mr Idham, 29, is a farmer in Indrapuri, about 50 km away from the capital, Banda Aceh.

He has pre-university technical education but has had no success in getting a job in the city or Lhokeseumawe, where Mobil and other firms are into gas exploration.

“The best jobs are only given to the Javanese,” he lamented. “Why should they? This is the land of the Acehnese. We should be the first choice.”

He makes about 250,000 rupiah (S$65) a month from the harvest of a padi field given to him by his father-in-law. But he hopes to make five times as much if Aceh gains independence and takes over control of its resources.

In a province where the per-capita income is only US$100 (S$167) when it should be US$500 if one includes the oil and gas revenues that Jakarta siphons off, such grievances have existed for decades. In the last decade, they have been exacerbated by the military’s atrocities.

Up until only a few months ago, one could argue that political discourse was dominated by calls for greater autonomy and economic justice although a referendum canvassing independence was a strong sub-theme.

That has all changed now with demands for a referendum and separation intensifying to what a senior military intelligence official has described as “a point of no return”.

The momentum is building, largely due to Jakarta’s mismanagement of the problem. As one drives down the main road in the capital of Banda Aceh, there is a huge banner that sums up the Acehnese experience of hope and betrayal, a central theme in the centuries of Acehnese history.

The sign says that President Abdurrahman Wahid pledged a referendum on self-determination when he visited the city in May before he became President.

But it adds, rather pointedly, that he reneged on it after becoming Indonesia’s leader.

Mr Abdurrahman’s promise was taken by most Acehnese to mean that Jakarta was going to give them a choice between staying in the republic or seeking a new future as an independent state.

Mr Muhammad Yus, the head of Aceh’s Parliament, said: “The hopes were raised to a point where nothing less than referendum with independence as an option was expected. Now, the central government is rejecting any deals that would involve the possibility of independence.

“Of course, many Acehnese doubt the sincerity of the government.”

This, he said, was reflected when nearly a million people from all over Aceh flooded Banda Aceh to register their demands for a referendum.

“The problem now is that referendum equals independence. Jakarta cannot afford to give the Acehnese anything less,” he said.

It was a case of Jakarta responding too late to the problem, he added, pointing out that if it had come up with wide-ranging autonomy proposals last year and implemented them, it would not be facing the rage of the Acehnese today.

“People are not thinking rationally. They are caught up by emotions. Jakarta always promises but never delivers.

“What a lot of Acehnese want now is separation without any sense of the costs and the benefits of an independent state.”

Like Mr Muhammad, Professor Dayan Dawood, rector of the Syiah Kuala University in Banda Aceh, is among the minority in Aceh who believes the province is not ready for independence.

It would take at least three years for Aceh to build up a proper state infrastructure, defence and establish its own currency, he said. It would also be difficult to attract foreign businessmen given that independence and troop withdrawal would not guarantee a climate conducive to large-scale investments.

“It will be a disaster if we got independence now,” he warned. “We are just not ready for it.”

Tell that to the university students, non-governmental organisations (NGO) and students from Islamic boarding schools who want nothing short of a referendum with the option of breaking away from Indonesia.

Mr Muhammad Najar, leader of the Central Information Centre for Referendum (Sira) in Aceh, an NGO of students and activists that organised the demonstration earlier this month, said that going to the ballot box was one of the “most democratic ways to meet the people’s aspirations”.

“A referendum will break the stagnation in politics in Aceh,” he argued, adding that it would be the “midway solution” to finding a meeting point between pro-referendum forces, GAM and the government.

But GAM is against a referendum for independence because this would to some extent make it irrelevant.

The military commander of the Free Aceh Movement, Tengku Abdullah Syafiie, told The Straits Times at a secret hideout in Pidie that the separatists would never negotiate with the central government on the matter because a referendum would not guarantee independence.

“Indonesia does not exist in our eyes,” he said. ”It is just another name for the Dutch East Indies with new rulers who are Javanese instead of Dutch. “We don’t want to deal with the Javanese who are all liars and cheaters. Gus Dur lied, Sukarno lied, Suharto lied and Habibie lied to us. We also don’t trust Megawati … We don’t trust anyone in Java.

“If the Acehnese are not given their freedom, there are two choices for us: to live and fight or die.”

The separatists have been riding high on the bandwagon of increasing resentment against Jakarta and attempting to fill the void of leadership in Aceh.

Aceh Merdeka was practically decapitated within the first 18 months of military operations that began in 1990.

But reports suggest that it is making a comeback after the fall of Mr Suharto last year and the return of activists from exile in Malaysia.

The separatists have now taken the battle to the Indonesian military and police. Engaging in guerilla warfare tactics, intelligence sources say GAM has killed at least 88 soldiers in the territory since August last year.

Aided by the Pattani United Liberation Organisation, a separatist Muslim group in Thailand, AK-47s and grenade launchers have been siphoned in through the Thai-Malaysia border area to points along the North Sumatra coast.

GAM has also mobilised nearly 140,000 people from around the province gathered in more than 100 refugee camps. By creating a refugee crisis it hopes to gain international sympathy for its cause.

The movement has been busy recruiting sympathisers from brutalised rural populations in Pidie, North and East Aceh.

It is also enjoying some success in other parts of the province, most notably the south, which has never experienced wide-scale military operations.

Much of its success can be attributed to the pied piper role of the ulamas or Islamic clerics, whose sermons on the need for justice and freedom are potently influential.

Sidelined during the Suharto era, the traditional Islamic leadership in Aceh today provides GAM’s most able allies and commanders.

They have shifted the balance of power and initiative to the separatists with their indirect support and rejection of the government’s political overtures.

But Free Aceh has been less successful with the urban masses in Banda Aceh.

If anything, people in the capital find GAM’s idea of seeking independence in order to establish a medieval sultanate laughable.

Neither does GAM founder Hasan Tiro have widespread support in the city.

Said Prof Dayan: “East Timor had Xanana Gusmao as a leader. But Aceh does not have anyone now. Who is Hasan Tiro? Not many people know about him except GAM.”

The separatists also have to contend with internal tensions.

Earlier this year, Dr Tiro’s deputy in exile in Malaysia, Mr Husaini, “split” from mainstream GAM and its support for armed struggle to advocate peaceful independence for Aceh.

Jakarta did not lose any time exploiting such cracks in the organisation.

It sought to strike a deal with one of the GAM factions, albeit the weaker one, to bring a solution to Aceh.

The Indonesian President had sought secret talks with the exiled leaders in Malaysia during his visit to Kuala Lumpur earlier this month as part of his whirlwind tour of Asean countries.

But the meeting fell through because Mr Husaini could not attend it without Dr Tiro’s permission.

The government, however, will need to do more than just take advantage of intra-GAM factionalism.

To his credit, Mr Abdurrahman has given personal attention to the matter, much more perhaps than the Suharto or Habibie administrations did.

Besides seeking to hold talks with the separatists, he has ordered an inquiry into human-rights atrocities there and imposed a seven-month deadline for a referendum of whatever shape to take place.

He has also turned to the United States to help resolve the imbroglio.

While seeking with a measure of success to gain international support for a united Indonesia, he has failed domestically to articulate a clear and coherent Aceh policy, reflecting a split between the government and the military.

Statements by him and other government officials have been imprecise and inconsistent, pledging referendum with an independence option, and then backtracking days later.

Different ideas have been sprouted but it is yet unclear what kind of self-rule it will offer Aceh and whether this would differ from the autonomy options being considered in the other provinces.

The danger for the government is that a failure to give people in Aceh a true referendum could lead to a convergence of various social forces in the province to fight a common enemy.

Aceh and Jakarta are on a collision course.

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