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Aceh: Conflict of Religion or Political Manufacturing?
by Jafar Siddiq Hamzah, International Forum for Aceh, New York

Talk before A Religious Liberty Forum on "Religion and Society in Indonesia." 
Sponsored by International Fellowship of Christians and Jews 
January 19, 1999, Dirksen Senate Office Building

Distinguished Members of Congress,
Ladies and Gentlemen

First, allow me to thank you for inviting and giving me the opportunity to testify before this honorable forum. I believe that there are a lot of things that the United States can and should do in helping us, the people of Aceh, in our struggle to bring peace and justice to our homeland; our struggle for the rights to live in peace without fear. I am glad to learn that the US Administration, last August, has granted political asylum to two dozen Acehnese that previously resided in Malaysia. I am also thankful that the US Congress has for several times sent its members to learn more about this case. While here in America, following our radio interview with the Pacifica Radio, we -- the Aceh Forum of New York-- received so many inquiries regarding the role played by the Mobil Oil Corporation in helping the Indonesian military to carry out this atrocities.

Mr. Congressmen, before I continue to the topic that you have invited me to talk about, first let me share with you a little bit about the atrocities that is currently happening in my homeland, Aceh, why it occurred, and what price we the Acehnese were forced to pay.

Aceh is province located on the westernmost tip of Indonesia. It is renowned for its prominent role during the Indonesian struggle for independence against the Dutch colonialism rule. The post independence Indonesian government in Jakarta acknowledged this contribution by granting Aceh the status of "Special Region" with autonomy in matter of religion, education and social custom. In reality, however, the Acehnese was never permitted to exercise its autonomy and the majority of Acehnese did not benefit or become integrated into the new nation-state. Aceh is one of the poorest and underdeveloped province in Indonesia with a very high number of people living below poverty level. What Aceh contributes to the Central government in term oil, natural gas and other resources and what the Acehnese people receive in return in profoundly unequal. As an example, in 1997/98 the central government collected more than 32 trillion Rupiah and gave to Aceh only 290 billion Rupiah. This stark economic inequality, among many other factors, made some Acehnese decide to fight for the independence of Aceh by joining the guerilla movement Aceh Sumatra National Liberation Front/Free Aceh Movement/Gerakan Aceh Merdeka.

Instead of working to ameliorate socio-political and economic conflict through open dialogue, Jakarta mobilized the military to institutionalize state violence and counter-insurgency against suspected members of the independence movement. The exercise of military brutality and abuse of power exceeded far beyond counter-insurgency to the most chilling acts ever executed upon ordinary civilians. Ten of thousands of civilians were tortured, killed, and disappeared, hundreds of women -- including disabled women-- were raped. In the past two weeks, 16 civilians were killed while more than one hundred were hospitalized in the what the military named "Operasi Wibawa '99" (a military operation to bring back soldiers that the military said were kidnapped by members of the ASNLF). To make matters worse, General Wiranto, Indonesian Armed Commander, who went on record as apologizing for the suffering of the Acehnese people during the military operation, said that no officer would be brought to trial over Aceh, "because they were merely carrying out their duties".

Mr. Congressmen, and Ladies and Gentlemen,

Soeharto, who stepped down as President of Indonesia last May 21 after 32 years in power, was very well known for creating or maintaining conflicts among Indonesians for his own purposes. There was the time when tension between Muslims and Christians was high. The Muslims suspected Christians of "Christianization", while the Christians at the same accused Muslims of trying to make Indonesia an Islamic State. This conflict was in fact used by Soeharto and his military regime to justify the presence of the military at all levels of society and government. This is the real political environment of Indonesia for over three decades. The resignation of Soeharto did not automatically eliminate this condition. The military still very much dominate the political arena. Some people joked that President Habibie is no more than a speaker for the military. 

Understanding this condition, I believe that there is no conflict of religions in Indonesia today. The burning of the Mosques can happen in areas of Muslims domination. At the same time, the burning of Churches may occurred in the places dominated by Christians. The burning of a Mosque and hostels for religious teachers last November in Aceh, a place where the population is 100% Muslim, I believe is strong evidence to this analysis.

Mr. Congressmen, Ladies and Gentlemen 

I believe that until today there is no conflicts of religions in Indonesia. 

What is happening now is no more than the continuation of power struggle in Indonesian elite. The political system created by Soeharto very much benefited them and they do not want this situation to end. The best contribution is to make Indonesia a more democratic country. 

Thank you.

Panelists included:
-- Robert Seiple, ambassador-at-large-designate for International Religious Freedom
-- Bob Clarke, Indonesia Desk Office at State Department
-- T. Kumar, advocacy director for Asia and Pacific, Amnesty International 
-- Lynn Fredriksson, Washington representative with East Timor Action Network 
-- Jafar Siddiq Hamzah, former officer, Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation 

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Last modified: June 22, 2000