Tue, 03 Jun 2003

How sacred is the unitary state of Indonesia?

J. Soedjati Djiwandono, Political Analyst, Jakarta

By definition the Aceh crisis is a case of conflict in its pure form: It is one in which the interests of the parties involved are completely incompatible and mutually exclusive. The are a number of other conflicts of a similar nature: The Israeli- Palestinian conflict, the Indian-Pakistani conflict over Kashmir and one between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil ethnic group.

There are only two alternatives by which such a conflict may be solved: By a mutually agreed compromise or by force, in which one party will win and the other will lose. However, even a compromise is only possible if there is mutual understanding of each other's interest.

In the case of Aceh, that mutual understanding has been reached only recently. For long, the government has pretended not to understand the demand of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) for freedom, regarding it as making no sense on the ground that Aceh has been free and independent in the framework of the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia (NKRI).

Hence the government's offer of a special autonomy for the region as a compromise. It has refused to recognize that GAM demanded precisely independence or freedom from the rule of the central government of NKRI. Instead it has all along regarded GAM's demand as an act of separatism. And as such, in the face of its rejection of that kind of compromise and its insistence on independence from NKRI, while Jakarta would let it set up an independent state separate from NKRI, GAM as a separatist has to be crushed by force, hence the ongoing "integrated operation".

In fact, a fair and just compromise would be some form of a referendum for the people of Aceh by which they could exercise their right to choose between remaining part of the NKRI or to be an independent state, separate from NKRI. One can note the experience of Quebec, which has remained a province of Canada after the majority of the people of Quebec opted through some form of a referendum by parliamentary vote to remain part of the federation of Canada.

Indeed, the government may have to get approval from the House of Representatives (DPR) to hold a referendum for that purpose. But it would be its own problem, not the concern of the people of Aceh. This option, however, has never been considered by Jakarta. The question to be raised regarding the use of force to put down GAM as a separatist movement is whether it would be worth the price, especially because it is difficult to speculate how long such an action would last.

What would be the price in terms of the loss of human lives?

In the light of the history of the region since the colonial times, instead of winning the hearts and minds of the Acehnese, wouldn't a military action instead aggravate the vengeance and bitterness of generations of Acehnese against Jakarta, and thus even help to make GAM more popular among them?

In the offer of a special autonomy for Aceh by the government there is no mention of what it will do to make amends for the gross violations of human rights that occurred during the years of the military operation period (DOM) under the Soeharto era.

In fact, at the beginning of independence, like Yogyakarta, in recognition of the significant contribution of the Acehnese to the struggle of Indonesian independence, Aceh was granted a status of a "special region". Yet it was then dissolved and simply made part of the province of North Sumatra.

Apart from the well-known tension in the history of the Acehnese between a group of religious leaders (ulema) and the traditional leaders (hulubalang), the people are well known also in their revolts against foreign domination. This explains why the region was under Dutch colonialism in the shortest period of time among the rest of what constitutes Indonesia.

The "rebellion" by Darul Islam (DI) and Indonesian Islamic Army (TII) that started in 1953 was not a separatist movement, but part of a struggle to establish an Islamic Indonesian State (NII) as a substitute for the Indonesian Republic. It was preceded by and formed part of the DI/TII rebellion led by Kartosuwiryo in West Java and Kahar Muzakar in South Sulawesi.

The experience of DOM, perhaps also the crushing of the Darul Islam revolt, revived and encouraged the age-old aspirations of the Acehnese for independence. Fear that the independence of East Timor may serve as a precedent for the freedom movement of Aceh, Papua, and elsewhere such as Riau seems to be of little relevance.

Many here continue to cry over the "loss" of East Timor. But the majority of the international community did not recognize what amounted to "annexation" of the territory by Indonesia in the mid 1970s. We cannot lose what we never had.

Should the military action against GAM last long, it is likely that the loss of human lives, especially civilians, will be high. The country would likely face a situation similar to Sri Lanka, which has been beset by years of a civil war without a clear prospect of a solution in the near future.

The question now is, how sacred is the unitary state (NKRI)? Is it more sacrosanct than human lives? Would it not strengthen the case of GAM and thereby increase its influence and popular support?

Moreover, the "integrated operation" with the military action being the most prominent element, may form a real obstacle to efforts at the slow and clearly misled reform process and an additional burden to the country's multidimensional crisis.

And while some great powers, particularly the U.S., Japan and the European Union have continued to respect the integrity of NKRI in advocating a peaceful dialog for Aceh's solution, a change in their attitude is not inconceivable in the face of likely cases of gross violations of human rights, which may subject Indonesia to humanitarian intervention by the international community.