Tue, 08 Jul 2003

Unspoken protest amid prolonged war in Aceh

Aboeprijadi Santoso, Radio 68-H, Banda Aceh

There is an intriguing public silence in Banda Aceh and Lhoksemauwe. Of war and silence, the first has characterized much of Aceh's history, but the second has not -- until very recently. With hundreds of civilians killed, village life disrupted and 60,000 civil servants to be screened on their loyalty to the nation, the impact of the war will be profound. The state, with its promises unfulfilled and its nationalist discourse appearing obsolete, has created its own problems.

The war in Aceh has provoked changes. From students, activists to civil servants, intellectuals and public figures, people tend to be either silent, hide or leave their home province to seek security. They call this option mengendap (to absorb) or tiarap (to lay down). These terms -- from activists' vocabulary -- are often heard these days in coffee shops as people express fear and insecurity in response to the war and the consequences of martial law; they indicate an acute awareness of the current war and a reflection on things to come, but avoid public comment and suppress the desire to protest.

Abdullah -- not his real name -- comes from Bireuen, but lives in Banda Aceh. When the war broke out, this brave young man cried because his beloved mother was among thousands of locals forced to move to the football stadium of Cot Gapu. He could not take her to the capital as she needed to get a new ID card in her district. An ID card has become a matter of life or death, as the antiguerrilla warfare penetrates into urban and, especially, village daily life. Others face a worse situation.

By contrast, Farida, a woman from another district in Bireuen, is outspoken. She publicly displayed her anger, as her brother had been brutally murdered. His body was left in a yard, but she decided to leave it intact and waited for journalists to see it before she buried him. "My brother was a religious teacher, nothing to do with politics. But last night he was taken by men in uniform with guns, speaking Javanese," she said.

Farida's case may be tragic, but not exceptional. Another woman, a teacher from Juli, questioned the official version of school burnings. Unlike those living in safe towns, villagers are quite willing to talk.

In war-torn Aceh, these differences are significant and illustrative. Villagers like Farida have been living in distress for too long. She broke her silence, as the district where she lives became a war zone and the conflict, literally, came into her house. Now she is "liberated" as she has lost her fear. Abdullah, too, is in distress, but he lives in relative peace. He maintains silence in order to survive and safeguard his family. Like Abdullah, students, humanitarian activists and officials in the capital quietly absorb information but avoid the media, and outspoken intellectuals turn quiet.

There are exceptions, though. In the Cultural Center of Banda Aceh, young artists get together. "We lack an audience, as people stay home after 9 p.m., so we can no longer perform," said poet Yun Casalona. Others, like Rafly and his group Kande, capture the suffering in the countryside in their protest songs Hom ("Don't know" -- said when opposing Army questioning), Anuek Yatim (A son who lost a father) and Kutidhing (Let's bear it together).

However, silence remains the mainstream. "We are fully conscious, yet, in reality, we are mati suri (as if in a state of death)," a high-ranking civil servant said.

The war in the countryside has thus directly affected life in the cities. It has dramatized different public attitudes in the urban and rural world of the Acehnese. It could create a crisis, as Aceh lacks new leaders. But true leadership can hardly be expected, for neither the corrupt and unpopular local politicians nor the rebels can provide it, as the province is under strict military command.

From 1998 to late 2001, during a period the Acehnese call "the referendum era", when millions of Acehnese, including today's local politicians and civil servants, showed public support for the demand for an East Timor-type referendum, differences between the Abdullahs and Faridas, if any, were irrelevant. Most Acehnese were then united in euphoria and spoke out.

Now, in a reversal, a big wall has silenced them. The martial law authorities in Aceh (PDMD), acting as a new Leviathan, are in action.

Yet, sooner or later, it may prove to be a boomerang. People like Abdullah and Farida may adopt a common platform if the war continues unabated and the martial law authorities are increasingly seen as reviving Soeharto's New Order, with the latter's disregard for human rights.

After all, the conflict in Aceh had essentially grown out of a protest against what was seen as the militarization of the state and society that had marked this country, especially Aceh, during the last decades. One of the strongest prodemocracy manifestations outside Jakarta, following Soeharto's resignation, occurred in Aceh (apart from that in Yogyakarta).

It was not a separatist rebellion, but a manifestation of the momentum of public protest and demands, largely neglected by the reformist administration of former presidents B.J. Habibie and Abdurrahman Wahid, manipulated and exacerbated by the rebels.

Subsequently, and worse, local civil society was repressed as human rights activists were threatened and killed. Like villagers, they are sandwiched between the two warring parties. As one keucik (village chief) -- a critical link between villagers and the authorities -- put it, "both sides claim they own us."

Currently, under martial law, the war has intensified state control. Retired military officers will replace subdistrict chiefs. Persecution, interrogation and arrests have quietly started beyond the rural battlefields in and outside Aceh. Public figures, including Teungku Imam Suja, have been interrogated for four days, each from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. It is not known what this prominent religious leader, who helped mediate between Jakarta and the rebels in the past, was accused of. Soeharto's infamous institution of litsus (special investigation into ones' life history and intentions) has been revived.

There are now more national red-and-white flags flying across Aceh today than ever before, yet there are more than 50 army posts along the 270 kilometer Banda Aceh to Bireuen highway alone.

What does all this signify?

The big irony of Indonesia's antiguerrilla war in Aceh is that while it is said to crush the rebels in order to assure peace and security, it has made its people even more worried and they suffer, in various ways. Civil rights are threatened and villagers are exposed to physical and other threats. If this continues, the flags and shouting that urge love and loyalty to the nation-state of Indonesia, may instead strengthen alienation.

It means that the Indonesian state has stuck for too long to the idea of nation-state and nationalism as a taken-for-granted historic legacy that had become sacrosanct, rather than as processes to be nurtured through negotiation and justice. Aceh is a challenge to rethink that discourse: Here, silence is not golden.