Indonesia's northern province of Aceh is the country's second breakaway region permitted international assistance for ending a long-running separatist conflict. But unlike East Timor - which gained independence from Indonesia three years ago - the Aceh movement collapsed and the government imposed martial law.The parallels between two major conflicts in Indonesia - Aceh and East Timor - are easy to discern. Guerrilla armies in both regions fought for independence against a larger and much better equipped Indonesian military for more than two decades.
Both had foreign diplomatic help to bring an end to the fighting. In Aceh, that was a Swiss organization, the Henry Dunant Center. In East Timor, the United Nations supervised a referendum that eventually brought the territory independence. And both Aceh and East Timor seemed for a time to be struggling with an emerging militia movement.But the difference is that before Aceh's five-month ceasefire collapsed last month, Aceh separatists made some serious strategic mistakes that East Timor managed to avoid.
In Aceh, ceasefire monitors from the Henry Dunant Center (HDC) started to be harassed and their offices ransacked by mobs of demonstrators in March. Because of threats of continued violence, all HDC monitors were forced to withdraw to the provincial capital.The pattern of violence in Aceh appears very similar to what happened in East Timor: Armed militias, that had the support of the Indonesian military, organized some of the violence.
Sidney Jones, an analyst with the independent policy organization, the International Crisis Group, suspects military involvement in the Aceh demonstrations. "So [the militias] did the kind of organizing of Acehnese… to portray what was going on as a reaction of one group of Acehnese against the other -- very similar in the way the Army tried to portray East Timor as a civil war," says Ms. Jones.
Observers say the militia movement in East Timor was intended to provoke conflict with East Timor's guerrilla army, called Falintil. That way, the Indonesian military, called TNI, could justify a crackdown and possibly block East Timor's bid for independence.Colin Stewart was the head of political affairs for the United Nations mission in East Timor in 1999. Mr. Stewart says, Falintil won the battle by refusing to fight. "But Falintil played their cards very well in 1999, and realizing that the eyes of the world were on them, refused to be provoked into armed conflict," says Mr. Stewart. "As a result the international community unequivocally condemned the actions of the military, as a one-sided offensive against the people, which it was."
In Aceh, the HDC never confirmed that the demonstrations were carried out by militias or organized by the Indonesian military. That is why Sastrohandoyo Wiryono, the government's top negotiator in Aceh, disagrees with the comparison between the Aceh of today with the East Timor of 1999. "While the government of Indonesia I know is not a popular government, because of our experience in East Timor, people are still thinking in that mode," he says. "And this is incorrect and this is unfair."Analysts say if the Free Aceh Movement had been more politically savvy, the rebels could have used the allegations of militia activity to draw the attention and sympathy of the international community. Instead, the rebels focused on something else: domestic propaganda.
Observers say the rebels used the five-month ceasefire to campaign for independence in violation of the peace deal. "That more than anything else was driving the government beyond frustration - the propaganda effort that GAM maintained during these last few months," says Ken Conboy, an analyst with the Jakarta consulting firm Risk Management Advisory.Sidney Jones says the Aceh independence propaganda fueled the government's military offensive in Aceh. The assault began two weeks ago, and includes martial law in the province. "Certainly GAM handed them the military option on a silver platter," she says.
There is a critical difference between Aceh and East Timor's situations, however. Indonesia's annexation of East Timor in 1976, a year after it invaded the former Portuguese colony, was never recognized by the United Nations. East Timor had international support and financial assistance to achieve full independence through the United Nations.As for Aceh, most of the international community supports Indonesia's continued rule because they, like the Indonesian government, fear that letting go of Aceh could lead to the break-up of the entire nation.