Fri, 03 Dec 1999

Dialog vs force

Spain has its Basque nationalist movement, Canada its Quebecois separatists. Closer to home, there is the militant Moro National Liberation Front in the Philippines. To some larger or lesser degree tribal or ethnic parochial problems are probably common to all but the most monolith of nation-states. But while in countries such as Spain or Canada governments can live with such movements with little or no risk to their countries survival at all, the former Yugoslavia presents a grim example of what extreme local nationalist sentiments can do to a nation's bond of solidarity.

It is probably with this latter example in mind that the Indonesian authorities -- the military in particular -- have in the past days been displaying a growing impatience with the secessionists demands for an independence referendum in this country's main trouble areas, such as Aceh and Irian Jaya. Minister of Defense Juwono Sudarsono, for example, earlier this week warned people in Aceh and Irian Jaya against flying their secessionist flags, which he said would be tantamount to a challenge to the state.

Military leaders in Jakarta have for some time been discreetly pressuring the administration in Jakarta to declare some form of martial law in Aceh, where the situation is considered to be getting out of hand as the secessionists are gaining an increasingly free hand in running the province and manipulating public opinion. The chief information officer of the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI), Maj. Gen. Sudradjat, told reporters around the middle of last month the TNI needed some form of legal legitimation to overcome the chaos in Aceh. The TNI, he said, was now awaiting orders and instructions to move into Aceh.

However, the strongest statement yet -- and the clearest indication so far that the military was ready and willing to move in if the situation demanded -- was made by Sudradjat yesterday. Speaking to reporters after the formal transfer of the post of the Army chief of staff, Sudradjat said the unity and cohesion of the country should be defended with blood and lives, if necessary. In order to uphold justice and unity, he said, "those bandits who want to secede must be dealt with."

As for the flying of the Morning Star flag of the Free Papua Organization (OPM) in Jayapura during the commemoration of the movement's anniversary on Wednesday, Sudradjat said that event did not represent a usurpation of the state's sovereignty since the Indonesian national flag was also flown on the occasion. "But when they start declaring themselves independent, set up a government, appoint a leader and accrue power, then they must be wiped out."

Sudradjat ascribed the flying of the Indonesian national flag on the occasion to a "changed strategic environment". Whatever the considerations may have been, the act reflected a certain wisdom on the part of the insurgents since it prevented a confrontation between the protesters and the security officers who were standing by. A similar wisdom, happily, was shown by Teuku Abdullah Syafei, a commander of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) who, apparently to prevent trouble, on Tuesday forbade the flying of the separatist flag during the movement's anniversary commemoration tomorrow.

While admittedly those are but small gestures of restraint in view of the depth of the conflicts and the gravity of the situation, any display of wisdom and temperance by all the parties involved is encouraging. For this reason it is heartening that the dominant view among our decision makers is still that dialog, and not force, is the best, or indeed the only way to solve the problem of secessionism in this country.

Hopefully, the same kind of wisdom that persuaded the secessionist leaders in Aceh and Irian Jaya to follow a course that could avoid violence and bloodshed is present among our state leaders, civilian and military alike. Only by using wisdom will it be possible for this nation to establish a climate in which dialog is possible. However admirable the patriotic intentions, to steer on a collision course by once again resorting to force would only get us further, rather than closer, to resolving those problems once and for all.