Tue, 19 Aug 2003

History points to dialog as approach to restoring Aceh

Aguswandi, Post Graduate Student, London Metropolitan University

The conflict in Aceh does not run straight along the line of the rise of Acehnese nationalism. The Acehnese have long devoted their energy to ending the abusive acts of the Indonesian government and its armed forces. The new rise of contemporary nationalism in Aceh is a reaction to the resulting unending feeling of oppression.

It would thus be misleading and ahistorical to say that the conflict in Aceh was simply a product of the rise of ethnic nationalism provoked by, among others, Hasan Di Tiro, as has been claimed by some people. And it would also be a mistake if the present war in Aceh aimed to reestablish Indonesian nationalism in Aceh, or to eliminate Acehnese nationalism through the heavy deployment of troops.

During the country's revolution in the 1940s, far from taking the opportunity to declare an independent Aceh, the Acehnese made huge contributions to the revolution -- both in terms of manpower and economic resources. But despite their strong republican tendencies -- soon after the full sovereignty of the new nation- state of Indonesia was handed over from the Dutch to the Sukarno regime -- their province was absorbed into the territory of North Sumatra.

This was the main reason for Daud Bereueh's 1953 rebellion, essentially a revolt against the centralistic tendencies of the Jakarta government.

The Bereueh rebellion did not aim for the separation of Aceh from Indonesia. Rather, the unjust policies of the central government, which had not only broken the promise of autonomy, abolished the very existence of the province of Aceh. Thus, the way the Indonesian nation state was being built in the post- colonial era was criticized.

Even so, the rebellion was met with the heavy deployment of troops to the region. Several massacres took place during this period, such as in March 1954 when 148 people from two fishing villages in Jeumpa were executed.

The rebellion was later settled through a non-militaristic approach, and the government promised that Aceh would be allowed a degree of autonomy through its status as a special region.

However, the broken promise of the Sukarno administration, and the brutality of the response to the Bereueh movement, caused disappointment with the Jakarta regime and spread the seeds of Acehnese nationalism among ordinary people.

But again, the status of special region became virtually meaningless and the promised benefits of the autonomy deal were largely unrealized. This was further exasperated by the rise of the New Order regime, whose nation-building was based on state terror and the massive exploitation of natural resources.

This could explain the Hassan Di Tiro movement that arose in reaction to the way the Indonesian nation-state was being built, but was also a reaction to the New Order regime. As historians note, it was probably not by chance that Di Tiro's declaration coincided with the New Order's alienation of Acehnese.

This is also illustrated by the fact that Di Tiro, in 1958, published a book entitled Democracy for Indonesia, in which he argued in favor of an "ethno federal" Indonesia.

The popular support for the Di Tiro movement (in contrast to its previously small number) was the result of New Order practices. The extreme face of the militaristic element of the New Order was most evident in Aceh, where military brutality was profound.

According to Indonesianist Ben Anderson, the New Order practices resulted in more and more Acehnese losing hope and confidence in their share in a common Indonesian project.

Therefore, the collapse of Indonesian nationalism in Aceh and the rise of Acehnese nationalism did not "just happen". Rather, it emerged, in reaction to the continued maintenance of an unjust system by the Indonesian government's oppressive regime, and the brutality of its armed forces.

The increasing alienation of the Acehnese from the New Order vision of Indonesia resulted in a search for other sources of belonging and recognition. Aceh was imagined to be a final stage of the nation, given that it held out longest against Dutch occupation.

Thus, Acehnese nationalism resulted from the unhappy historical relationship of two entities and the accumulation of disappointment, fueled by state violence in the region. This was nurtured by the continuous policy taken to address the conflict in Aceh.

To say that the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) is the group most responsible for producing Acehnese nationalism is misleading. Judging this complex phenomenon through GAM's rhetoric is not enough without the objective conditions to support it.

In fact, what the Indonesian government and the military are doing only corresponds to what GAM has been arguing -- that Indonesia is a kind of new colonial state. The government justifies this claim by continuing its unjust system in Aceh. GAM has said that Jakarta is not interested in the aspirations of the Acehnese. Indeed, Jakarta consistently acts in accordance with GAM's claims.

The domination of GAM's discourse, and of its organization to gain popularity, is a consequence of this continued correspondence. Thus, the government's own policies have contributed to the collapse of (Indonesian) nationalism in Aceh. The Indonesian Military has become the co-author, if not the main author, of this collapse.

If the present operation is intended to reestablish Indonesian nationalism and legitimacy in Aceh, it seems destined to failure. This is compounded by the fact that the present operation has turned out to be a war against all Acehnese, including those who support, and oppose Jakarta.

It has also resulted in the killing of more and more people who have differing political ideas from the central government in Jakarta. But killing people does not kill their ideas because these are proliferated by other factors.

The operation is even more dangerous for the genuine hope of solving the problem of Indonesian nationalism in Aceh when the very group that has contributed most to the collapse of nationalism in Aceh -- the Indonesian Military -- has been put in charge. The same people who destroyed Indonesian nationalism in Aceh are now believed to be the ones who can repair it.

Since the military operation will surely not restore nationalism, the present war in Aceh should be stopped. If Jakarta is serious about such a restoration then stopping the military operation and starting a new and genuine dialog with the Acehnese would be the best step for reestablishing nationalism in Aceh.

The writer, an Acehnese human rights activist, is preparing his Masters thesis on international politics and the rise of Acehnese nationalism.