Wed, 14 May 2003

Violence leads to reemergence of Aceh nationalism

Otto Syamsuddin Ishak Sociologist Jakarta

On May 9 The Jakarta Post held a panel discussion on Aceh with former Indonesian Military (TNI) general affairs chief Lt.Gen. (ret.) Suaidi Marassabessy, former state minister of human rights Hasballah M. Sa'ad, sociologist Otto Syamsuddin Ishak -- both Acehnese -- and military analyst Kusnanto Anggoro. After publishing the views of Suaidi and Hasballah on Monday and Tuesday, the Post is running the following two articles based on Otto's presentation:

Ahead of the Idul Fitri festival last year, parents took their children to the market to buy new clothes to mark the holy festival. However, since 1998 parents have been shocked by the interest their daughters have shown in toy AK-47s: "I don't need new clothes, just this rifle," one said. Many parents have cited such instances, and toy traders are enjoying a profitable time. What does this tell us?

In a survey on public aspirations in Aceh by the Civil Society Alliance for Democracy (Yappika) in 2000, those demanding a referendum for self-determination were mostly women -- who lived in the longtime conflict areas of East and North Aceh, Pidie and Greater Aceh, and in the newer conflict areas of Bireuen, Central, West and South Aceh, and even in nonconflict areas such as Sabang. Of the respondents, there were more youngsters who demanded independence for Aceh. Again, what does this tell us?

First, resistance after the end of the military operation zone (DOM) in Aceh (1989-1998) has spread across the province, along with an increase in troops and in the territory of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM). Violence by government troops against the Acehnese has led to a resurgence of resistance -- which has reached mythical proportions -- a sense of "Acehneseness", if not an Acehnese nationalism, in the face of the "colonialist", the Republic of Indonesia.

Second, the above signs bring to mind my own sense of shock on hearing how children who witnessed atrocities by soldiers against their siblings, parents or fellow villagers, by 1998 had become adults raising clenched fists in defiance against Indonesia. The above survey led to the reinforced conclusion that people's resistance is by now deeply entrenched -- formed as children become adults and as new generations are born.

Violence toward the Acehnese dates back to 1873, when the Dutch monarchy declared war against the Acehnese sultanate, and up to 2003, as the Republic of Indonesia prepares to declare war in Aceh against GAM -- who has learned from Jakarta's handling of earlier movements such as the Islamic DI/TII.

So we see generations who have live with war, several areas becoming pockets of resistance and a "culture of war" in which the people have always been in opposition against rulers.

During the 10-year period of the military operation zone, the brutal operations and the imposing of Golkar's (the former ruling party) rule led by governor Ibrahim Hasan went along hand in hand. Once a charismatic ulema in Pidie, who had shifted alliance from the United Development Party (PPP) to Golkar, fell sick, and people said this was a consequence of his action. People no longer asked for his blessing when they met him at the market.

Unlike in Java, both the ulema in Aceh's villages or cities immediately lose people's respect once they are perceived to be one of the rulers. This reflects both the opposition toward rulers and the people's egalitarian feature, in contrast with the bureaucracy which has been influenced by Javanese feudalism.

The above characteristic is evident in areas of resistance. Among the exceptions is West Aceh, where the town of Meulaboh has been a colonialist settlement. This explains the potential here to form militias and the presence of supporters of the planned military operation, such as the group that rejected the peace zone and demanded the continued presence of soldiers.

Central Aceh has been a hiding place and the last fort against Dutch colonialists, and its ulema were loyal supporters of the leader Daud Beureueh. However, under the New Order government, Golkar became strong in the local town of Takengon, and until now Central Aceh is led by the elite of Golkar and the military.

Furthermore, given its diverse ethnicities of Gayo, Aceh, Java, Batak and Padang, the potential to form militias in Aceh (apart from GAM's armed wing) is naturally large in Takengon. Thus the allegation, among others, that they were involved in the recent vandalizing of the local office of the Joint Security Council (facilitating the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement, COHA, between the government and GAM) without any preventive action by the military, and which was not followed up by an independent investigative team.

This was the first time in Aceh's history that a group was successfully mobilized to create a "horizontal" conflict.

In East Aceh, militias have gained a hold only in urban areas. This became possible after DOM, when the overthrow of Daud Beureueh was allegedly conducted by military members and a organization of thugs from North Sumatra. When people demanded an end to DOM, militias in Langsa town resisted this demand. Understandably, civilians here also resisted the presence of the JSC.

Interestingly, since DOM was ended, one result of the intelligence operation in Aceh has been the forming of militias in urban areas. Pockets of militias during the DOM period in East and North Aceh and Pidie were blessed by ulema before facing rebels. New pockets of militia are in Takengon, Meulaboh, South Aceh and Singkel, whose recruits are former thugs and transmigrants. In times of stability these groups can be mobilized for political parties, and in times of war they can be used to create conflict with other groups in society.

After 1998, demands to settle human rights violations, efforts toward democracy and the special autonomy were aimed at returning dignity to the Acehnese; all these tested the seriousness (of the central government) yet (the demands) were not realized, hence the Acehnese remain in opposition to Jakarta.

So how can a military operation conquer their hearts and minds? With the Acehnese, you cannot engage in physical contact and only touch their hearts. Weapons can only take out their hearts ... All males in Aceh, from 14 years old upward, have experienced being slapped in the face by the military.

One must therefore differentiate between the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and the rest of the people who are in opposition to Jakarta. Let the people's voices be heard, just help guard their rallies, in an effort to separate the people from GAM. Don't label them or they could really become GAM!

Thus, what is needed is to open up public space. Why was there no shooting when field offices of the Joint Security Committee (JSC) were destroyed while small rallies have been shot at? If people cannot channel their aspirations through nonviolent ways they will become radical.

If there is an opportunity to review the COHA, what could be