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Indonesia’s Military Launches Fierce Campaign Against Aceh Separatists - 2003-06-18

Sweeping into a village in Northern Aceh at dawn, the Indonesian soldiers opened fire. According to a Time magazine report, innocent civilians were their victims, a group of unarmed teenage boys who were guarding a fish pond. The soldiers with Indonesian flags wrapped around their heads like bandanas seemed happy, said a woman who rushed to the scene. “It was terrible,” she told Time. “So much blood.”

And bloodshed there will be as the fighting escalates in Aceh. The Indonesian army is determined to wipe out the elusive rebels known as GAM, the Free Aceh Movement that seeks independence for the province. The soldiers say they are keeping their country, beset with other rebellions, from falling apart. Acehnese say the killing will only fuel more rebellion.

Sidney Jones, a specialist on Indonesia at the International Crisis Group, has recently returned from a trip to Aceh. Speaking at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, she said the December peace accord never had much of a chance. The two sides had radically different interpretations of it and so informed their followers.

Don’t romanticize the GAM, she cautioned. It has its share of violent extremists. “I do not challenge the Indonesian military’s decision to use force,” she says, “because this is an armed rebellion. Negotiations had failed. The GAM represents a serious security threat to the Indonesian government, and there were very few other options. But the Indonesian government has shown no capacity to exert any kind of control over its troops, and this is where the problem lies. They are making no distinctions between GAM fighters and GAM sympathizers.”

So everyone is in danger, says Sidney Jones. Being an unarmed civilian is no protection against forces using the same ruthless tactics they employed against communists in the 1960’s. It is a fight to the finish, she says, but what kind of finish?

“There is almost a sense among officials in Jakarta but also to some extent in Aceh that if you get rid of GAM, you get rid of the problem,” she says. “There is no evidence that there is any appreciation of either the depth of resentment of Acehnese toward the central government in particular but also to some degree toward the provincial government or that these operations are simply increasing that resentment.”

GAM has brought this tragedy on itself, says George Benson, a retired U.S. Army colonel who served nine years in the U.S. embassy in Indonesia. “The leadership of the GAM group appears to be absolutely fixed with independence,” he says, “and that is a non-starter. From the Indonesian side, they will not accept that. There are atrocities on both sides in relation to the situation in Aceh. Nobody’s hands are clean. So I think the only solution they have right now is to send the troops back to get things under control.”

Colonel Benson thinks it was a mistake for the United States to stop training the Indonesian army because of its human rights violations. The troops need to be taught, among other things, restraint.

Sidney Jones says the Indonesian army has drawn some other lessons from the United States; in particular, from its swift victory over Iraq.

“The war in Iraq is very consciously being used as a model for what the Indonesian army is doing in Aceh,” she says. “From the dropping of paratroopers completely unnecessarily to the use of sonic booms to scare people, this is the Indonesian version of shock and awe very carefully modeled on the Iraq experience. They say that what they learned from Iraq is that a use of massive force translates into a quick victory, even though this is a very different kind of war.”

More to the point, says Sidney Jones, Indonesians are overlooking the atrocities and applauding measures, however harsh, to keep the country together. The nation’s rather complacent press encourages this view of Aceh.

“The Indonesian public sees the operations as finally a sign that civilian politicians are being resolute and forceful,” she says. “President Megawati is playing into nationalist sentiments by basically portraying these operations as an effort to defend the territorial integrity of Indonesia. Taking strong measures in Aceh is seen as the ultimate step in protecting Indonesian borders.”

As candidates jockey for next year’s presidential election, they vigorously compete for military support. None of them takes issue with military tactics in Aceh.

If Indonesians are tolerant of the Aceh crackdown, what about the international community? Its reaction has been strangely subdued, says Alan Tidwell, a program officer at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

“It seems right now the international community largely is ignoring what is happening in Aceh,” he says, “and is not working particularly hard, so far as I can tell, to reinvigorate the peace process. It certainly is discredited in Indonesia and while many are paying lip service to the peace process, there does not seem to be much happening on the ground to reinitiate it.”

Mr. Tidwell says the tendency is to view Aceh as an internal Indonesian problem. Outsiders sympathize with the difficulty of preserving a unified state of such disparate parts.

The GAM rebels are rather inept negotiators, says Mr. Tidwell. With a little more imagination, they might be able to achieve the independence they seek while settling for the autonomy the government offers.

“They have said quite openly that autonomy is a step toward independence,” he says. “Understanding what that means and how that actually gets rolled out in practical terms I think is the sticking point. If independence is something that is an eventuality in the next 300 years, that is different from independence in five years time. That is the issue that needs to be hammered out.”

In the meantime, the continuing war is damaging to Indonesia, says Sidney Jones. Its military needs no further strengthening:

“There is a danger that the military can use operations in Aceh as a springboard to greatly increase its political influence,” she says. “Success in the military’s terms in Aceh is also going to set back the process of military reform, which is already dead in the water. It is also going to give the military a greater say in other conflict areas such as Papua.”

Sidney Jones thinks the military can probably force GAM out of the villages they control and back into the mountains. But that’s not the hard part.

“The hard part,” she says, “is actually making any kind of dent in the political movement that is GAM, and the only way you can do that is by drawing away the support of the civilian population for independence with GAM as the vehicle for that independence. And that depends on getting some kind of visible benefits from the Indonesian governmental structure.”

But so far, says Sidney Jones, the people of Aceh have received not benefits, but military assault.