Sun, 03 Aug 2003

Die for my country today? Not likely

Bagimu negeri, jiwa raga kami (For you, beloved country, our body and soul). It used to be oh-so noble to die for one's country. At least, that was what I learned from my late grandmother and my father.

My grandmother often told us stories of how our grandfather joined the war against the Dutch for the country's independence. One day in the 1940s, the Dutch managed to capture him and took him away, and to this day we don't know what happened to him.

Grandma spoke of grandpa with pride, telling us of the struggle for independence in such a way that we felt proud our grandpa was among those guerrilla fighters who gave their lives for the country.

Father, too, told us of the Independence War with such fervor that sometimes we felt we could hear the bullets hissing around us, making us huddle involuntarily around him in fear and duck our heads to avoid being hit. Like grandma, he spoke of being part of the war with pride.

Back then, going to war -- being part of the struggle for the country's independence, even to give one's life for the nation -- seemed an honorable cause. Everybody sang that song Bagimu Negeri and meant it, each in their own way, big and small, militarily or otherwise.

Things are different now. Everywhere in the world, human rights and peace groups oppose the use of force in settling disputes. "Human rights" is the key term, much feared and revered, depending on where one stands.

The war in Aceh has divided the nation into those who believe the war is necessary to maintain the country's sovereignty and others who insist that the problem must be solved through peaceful means.

Indonesian soldiers, meanwhile, are torn between carrying out their duty -- keeping the pledge to sacrifice their lives for the nation -- and the fear of being accused, even convicted, of human rights abuses. This is especially because the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) and other rights activists have continued their campaign against the war in Aceh and made an all- out effort to force the court-martial of erring troops.

Rights groups' opposition to the war against Acehnese separatist rebels has only served to augment the trauma among Indonesia's soldiers of the risk of wearing the uniform, particularly given the East Timor experience. The East Timor debacle not only humiliated them, but resulted in some of them being convicted as human rights abusers. It was a tragic end to what started as a call to arms to defend the country's sovereignty, to perform a state duty.

War is ugly, and it is everyone's wish that there was no such thing as war. But that is wishful thinking. Even in our daily lives, conflicts occur -- at home, in the workplace, on the streets. Aren't we glad we are not armed and are therefore spared the temptation of resorting to force in settling disputes at home and in the workplace?

The troops in Aceh are risking their lives for the sake of the nation for less than the monthly salary of around Rp 700,000 (US$84) of the average Indonesian laborer. They are performing a state duty, which is to crush the armed rebellion.

One may argue that it is their choice and they have to live with the consequences. Right.

That's why I'm glad I'm not a soldier. I would never lay down my life for a nation that pays its soldiers a pittance and then demands that troops perform professionally. I would never risk my life for a nation whose government fails to meet its obligations to provide adequate training for its troops.

What can you expect from a nation whose armed forces allocates each soldier 50 bullets a year for training, not to mention the lack of other basic training and support facilities? Why, if I were a soldier, I would desert and say to my fellow countrymen: I'm through, you guys better take care of yourselves.

-- Sheila Putri