Thu, 10 Jul 2003

Humanitarian gap between society and political elite

Max Lane, Visiting Fellow, Centre for Asia Pacific Social Transformation Studies (CAPSTRANS), University of Wollongong, Australia

On July 11 at the Taman Ismail Marzuki Jakarta Arts Center, more than 30 community, cultural, human rights and other organizations are sponsoring an Aceh Peace Concert. Among these organizations are the Indonesian Forum for Environment (Walhi), the human rights organizations ELSAM, the cultural organizations Satu Merah Panggung, Institut Ungu and political issues oriented groups.

Not only is the sponsorship of this free event very broad but so is the artistic program. Apart from rock and pop groups, and poetry readings by poet and playwright W.S. Rendra, musicians and singers from an Acehnese background, Zulaika and Zelly, will also perform.

The humanitarian organization Indonesian Institute for Pluralism will be collecting blood donations to be sent to Aceh.

The concert represents more than just a humanitarian or social justice cultural event. It points to the existence of a basic and very broad sentiment and sympathy for the suffering of the people of Aceh and a questioning whether a military approach is the best one.

At a press conference members of the Boomerang rock group and the Element pop group earlier expressed the sentiment that war would not settle anything. Other artists said, "The Acehnese are our brothers and sisters". Some of them stated that they hoped the concert will bring a halt to the war in Aceh. These are general sentiments but they express a concrete desire, which may be reflected in the peace resolution planned in the event.

It is not possible that this effort is only some kind of isolated manifestation of such sentiments of sympathy and concern.

These sentiments are expressed in daily conversations; they are also reflected in the media debate, and sometimes protests, over restrictions on reporting developments in Aceh or the alleged abuse of journalists at the hands of the authorities. It also expressed in the regular reporting on the plight of refugees. Some newspapers also report the impact on the war on the daily lives of people: The screening of ID cards; the inspection of houses by armed soldiers; the organizing of loyalty ceremonies for civil servants and so on.

There is little doubt that the Aceh Peace Concert is a genuine symbol of an underlying humanitarian and democratic sentiment of concern regarding the plight of the Acehnese people.

There can also be little doubt that there is a huge gap between this concern among society-at-large and the political stand of the elit politik -- the legislators, government and military authorities. At the political level, there appears to be a total consensus to resolve the situation in Aceh by purely military means.

One aspect of this, as expressed by the military emergency authorities, is the policy of attempting to "separate civilians from the Free Aceh Movement (GAM)". Such a policy implemented as a military operation inevitably means bringing civilians into direct contact with a fearsome entity, bands of armed men. This will always intimidate, frighten and eventually alienate people, no matter how "gently" this might be done.

It is also a frightening prospect that among the whole of the elit politik there are no voices calling for an end to the military operation. One exception is Syafii Ma'arif, the chairman of the Islamic organization Muhammidiyah, who has indeed called for the war to end. But is even more frightening that there is insufficient sympathy and humanitarian concern for anybody in this political elite to look for the causes of the conflict in Aceh.

Why? Why has a small band of maybe 20 guerrillas grown to 5,000? Why has it become necessary (in the eyes of the government anyway) to test even civil servants' loyalty and even that of legislators from political parties close to the national elite?

It cannot simply be because GAM is forcing people. No guerrilla movement anywhere in the world has been able to grow without some level of sympathy.

So why has GAM grown? I have not been to Aceh for a long time. The conclusion from what Acehnese are telling me is that there is a desire to escape, not so much from other Indonesians in general, from the political elite and its coercive methods, including its reliance on military methods. All the polls done on political popularity show that the vast majority of Indonesians would like to escape this elit politik. There is hardly an Indonesian political elite figure that can score more than 15 percent in the polls, and that an unenthusiastic 15 percent.

In Aceh, the militarization of politics has forced some Acehnese to resort to military means.

This particular war indeed cannot solve anything. The demilitarization of politics and the creation of an environment where different visions of the future can be struggled over peacefully is the pressing need now. Stopping the military operations is the necessary first step that the Megawati government must take. GAM could respond then by making it clear that it is willing to abide by the will of the Acehnese people in a future democratic decision making process, including if the Acehnese people reject GAM's vision.

The slogan "Unity from Sabang to Merauke", that has always been a part of the freedom movement in Indonesia, as well as the principle of Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (unity in diversity) were always a reflection of solidarity between oppressed people. The war in Aceh is a violation of such solidarity. Initiatives such as the Aceh Peace Concert are a more genuine expression of Bhinneka Tunggal Ika than either the military operations period of former president Soeharto or the state of military emergency under President Megawati Soekarnoputri.