Why military will come down hard on Aceh

As Acehnese clamour for independence, Indonesia’s military is sending out strong signals that it would not tolerate any move to break from the republic. Part 2 of a special report on Aceh examines the reasons behind this stand and the likely, bloody consequences if the top brass is pushed too far

INDONESIA’S generals are once again losing sleep over the country’s westernmost province.

Their concern: that Aceh is headed for East Timor-style separatism.

The signs are ominous.

Up to a million people took to the streets in the capital Banda Aceh last month to call for a referendum on independence. Soldiers are being killed and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) is gaining in strength as its message of merdeka (independence) finds fertile ground among the common folk.

But the military (TNI) is opposed to letting Aceh break away and is prepared to come down hard on separatists and their sympathisers.

Newly-appointed Chief of Territorial Affairs, Lieutenant-General Agus Widjoyo, said a vote for independence was not stipulated in the Indonesian Constitution and would only set an “unhealthy precedent” for its 28 other provinces.

He said: “Legally, there is nothing in our Constitution that makes their claims to separate legitimate. It is not just for them to decide but for all of Indonesia.

“Indonesia is a unitary republic and any attempt by the Acehnese to break away by force is the equivalent of an armed rebellion.”

The military’s thinking is influenced significantly by Aceh’s leading role in the war of resistance against the Dutch.

Unlike East Timor, which as a Portuguese enclave never participated in Indonesia’s nationalist struggle, Aceh is an integral part of the independent nation-state that emerged after the Second World War.

For senior military officers, resource-rich Aceh is important not just in economic terms; it is also an important symbol of the ethnic diversity of the country.

The TNI’s refusal for a true referendum springs from its estimation that nearly 90 per cent of the Acehnese will vote for independence, and from the political ramifications of that result for other Indonesian provinces.

“It is now fertile ground for those who hate Indonesia,” said Colonel Syarifuddin Tippe, one of two army commanders in Aceh.

“We face a very dangerous situation. If we let Aceh go, other territories will also want to become independent.”

The immediate threat was a civil war in Aceh, and an armed rebellion by the separatists, warned Col Syarifuddin.

The military elite perceives GAM as much more dangerous than the poorly armed independence fighters of Irian Jaya and East Timor.

With growing popular support and financial backing, they believe that GAM’s 3,000 members would be a force to reckon with.

The TNI’s solution has been to respond with threats of imposing martial law in several areas of the province.

Brigadier-General Simanungkalit, who spent a week in Aceh to make an assessment of the ground situation on the orders of the national police chief, told The Straits Times that another round of military intervention was “becoming inevitable”. There is even greater urgency now, as close to 90 military personnel have been killed since August last year when the TNI withdrew combat troops from the area.

“There is very little respect for state institutions,” he said. “Acehnese are not the only ones being killed. Soldiers and policemen are being killed. Some of their bodies have been badly mutilated and cut up.

“These are also people with families. The separatists are testing our patience. We will wipe them out if the killings continue. Any other state will do the same thing.”

The great risk here is that a military solution to eliminating GAM will make it harder to resolve peacefully the question of greater autonomy for Aceh, and is likely to turn the four million Acehnese even more anti-Indonesia and vengeful.

Already, the Acehnese are resentful over the atrocities carried out by members of military during its nearly decade-long period of martial law.

Col Syarifuddin conceded that several soldiers took part in killings and rapes in Aceh during the “holocaust period”, and that little was being done to bring those responsible to justice.

“The central government has not been responsive enough to the feelings on the ground,” he said.

Not many other senior officers, however, share Col Syarifuddin’s sentiments.

Indeed, they argue that President Abdurrahman Wahid’s civilian administration is on a “campaign” to discredit the TNI with attempts to accuse it of “war crimes” in the territory.

An independent inquiry into the violence in Aceh has called on Jakarta to question all the TNI top brass involved in formulating military policy in Aceh since 1989.

The commission said that most of the violence was committed by members of the Special Forces (Kopassus), although it also named other army units responsible for the violence.

“The perpetrators were conducting war crimes on the orders of their superiors,” it said, naming all the military chiefs in the last decade to have their hands bloodied.

The list included General Edy Sudradjat, Gen Try Sutrisno, Gen Feisal Tandjung and Gen Wiranto. All except Gen Wiranto, who is now Coordinating Minister for Political and Security Affairs, have retired from active service.

Analysts warn that with the military being pushed into a corner with its pride wounded, there is great danger that it might hit back in Aceh and the Jakarta political arena without calculating the costs involved.

That explains Defence Minister Juwono Sudarsono’s recent warning, reflecting sentiments of several officers, that the military would launch a coup d’etat if the civilians were not capable of running the country.

It also explains the military clamour for martial law in Aceh.

Pointing to a split in the military, an intelligence operative disclosed that TNI elements were also sponsoring “a campaign of violence” in Aceh outside the chain of command to “take revenge” for the killings of soldiers there and to flex the military muscle vis-a-vis the civilians in Jakarta.

The military has beefed up its intelligence surveillance by deploying a 15-men team in Banda Aceh and Lhokeseumawe to monitor the activities of GAM and their sympathisers. This is in addition to the existing joint intelligence agency (SGI), the “brains” behind much of Aceh’s decade of violence.

It all sounds very much like what happened in East Timor in the months prior to and immediately after the referendum on independence.

The TNI’s institutional policy of non-intervention was eventually subverted by the covert aims of a few generals.

But unlike East Timor, the fault lines between the different military factions in dealing with the Aceh problem appears to have been blurred as a result of the challenge – albeit a rather uneven one – from the civilian leadership.

The balance of power within the TNI is in favour of the conservatives.

The immediate aim, however, is to support government proposals for a referendum that stops short of offering independence.

Political observers believe that only if this does not work would the military resort to the security option and move in to snuff out the separatists. It would give them a pretext to move in to defend the Constitution.

If history is any guide, trying to pacify the proud and fiercely independent Acehnese would be just too hard and costly. Military repression during operations in Aceh fuelled rather than quashed discontent in the province.

But as one army general explained: “We will be attacked for human rights abuses all over again. We have little choice, however, if we want to keep Indonesia united.”

Select the fields to be shown. Others will be hidden. Drag and drop to rearrange the order.
  • Image
  • SKU
  • Rating
  • Price
  • Stock
  • Availability
  • Add to cart
  • Description
  • Content
  • Weight
  • Dimensions
  • Additional information
  • Attributes
  • Custom attributes
  • Custom fields
Click outside to hide the comparison bar