Worse to Come
by Far Eastern Economic Review teams, July 29, 1999
Renewed separatist attacks in Aceh pose a serious challenge to Indonesian unity.
Rebellion is seriously brewing in Aceh province. With an overseas arms supply, substantial funding and popular support, the Aceh Merdeka movement could pose a threat much worse than East Timor's separatist struggle.
By John McBeth in Jakarta, Syamsul Indrapatra in Banda Aceh, Nate Thayer in Bangkok and Bertil Lintner in Stockholm
When the Dutch colonialists came back to Indonesia after World War II, there was one part of the sprawling archipelago they made no effort to reoccupy: the lush, mountainous territory of Aceh, in the far north of Sumatra. Trying to pacify the proud and fiercely independent Acehnese, the Dutch had learned from long and bloody experience, would be just too hard and too costly.
It is a lesson the Indonesian government has yet to absorb. More than four decades after self-styled military governor Daud Beureu'eh led a nine-year campaign to turn Aceh into an independent Islamic state, the province is again in turmoil. In the past two months, with separatist guerrillas intensifying an offensive going back to the start of the year, more than 120 people have been killed, hundreds of state schools and other public buildings have been burned, and 70,000 refugees driven into improvised camps along the northern coast.
Indonesian military sources say the resurgent Aceh-Sumatra National Liberation Front, also known as Aceh Merdeka (Free Aceh), now has more than 800 men under arms--four times as many as in the early 1990s when a brutal government crackdown left a bitter legacy of summary executions and mass graves. Many of the guerrillas' weapons have been smuggled through Thailand and Malaysia from the now-silent battlefields of Cambodia--a pipeline that also feeds Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers, Sikh separatists in India and Muslim guerrillas in the southern Philippines. Aceh Merdeka is also believed to be well funded--not only by local sympathizers, but by Acehnese businessmen in Malaysia and southern Thailand.
For Indonesia's generals, it is this outside support that makes Aceh's rebels much more dangerous than the ragtag, poorly armed independence fighters of East Timor and Irian Jaya. With an arms supply, financial backing and growing popular support, Aceh's separatist movement will be much more difficult to deal with than East Timor's. Indeed, diplomats and analysts believe the renewed surge of guerrilla activity in Aceh over the past six months may explain why the military has been so reluctant to go along with next month's scheduled independence referendum in East Timor.
Unlike East Timor, which as a Portuguese enclave never participated in Indonesia's nationalist struggle, Aceh is an integral part of the independent nation-state that emerged after World War II. It was at the forefront of the war of resistance against the Dutch colonizers. It is also of major political importance to a country that has long prided itself on ethnic diversity. And due to its abundant natural resources, it is economically important, contributing more than most provinces to overall state revenues, but getting back only a minuscule amount in return.
"Independence for Aceh is non-negotiable," says presidential adviser Dewi Fortuna Anwar, who once lived in the province. "It's part of Indonesia and that's that." But in the hinterlands of Aceh, surrounded by guerrillas toting assault rifles, Aceh Merdeka field commander Abdullah Syafi'i is equally uncompromising. "We don't recognize Indonesia," he told visitors recently.
"It doesn't exist."
In a rare interview on July 16 in the suburbs of Stockholm, Aceh Merdeka's exiled leader, Hasan di Tiro, dismisses Indonesia's new autonomy legislation as irrelevant and calls the Javanese "barbaric and uncivilized" (see story on page 18). What sort of message would he send to a new Indonesian government, perhaps one headed by Megawati Sukarnoputri whose party won the largest number of votes in June's parliamentary elections? "No message. They're all
the same. Uneducated fools."
Pointing to the 2,000 people who died in the 1989-1992 military crackdown, human-rights groups insist the only way to halt the renewed unrest is to ensure that the army's past abuses are fully investigated and the perpetrators prosecuted. That would go some way towards redressing Acehnese grievances. It was a promise that President B.J. Habibie made when he visited the provincial capital, Banda Aceh, in March. But as in East Timor, the
military is dragging its feet for reasons which are all too familiar in a country struggling to come to terms with its past.
Armed-forces chief Gen. Wiranto told a recent parliamentary hearing that investigations of abuses in Aceh could open the floodgates to similar grievances left over from former President Suharto's regime. That in turn could further undermine military morale and impede its ability to deal with future disturbances.
"That's a consequence that has to be accepted," insists Acehnese publisher Surya Paloh. He warns that if the government mishandles the situation, it could be confronted with a "second Mindanao"--the rebellious island where the Philippine government has been battling Muslim insurgents for more than 30 years. "The difference between the past and the current situations is that Aceh Merdeka now has the support of the people," says Surya. "Before, it was only supported by the ulemas" or Muslim preachers.
The chairman of the Indonesian Commission on Human Rights, Marzuki Darusman, is worried that the referendum in East Timor could fuel the crisis in Aceh. If the East Timorese elect to separate from Indonesia, he says, "it could have an impact on Aceh unless the government gets its act together in restoring justice--that's what they want there, rather than compensation and the building of infrastructure and other development projects."
Local anger is only one reason for Aceh Merdeka's resurgence. The deportation of Acehnese activists from Malaysia back to their homeland in March 1998 gave the separatist movement renewed impetus. Five months later, the withdrawal of Indonesian combat troops gave Aceh Merdeka more room to move. Neighbourhood rallies and the open display of pro-independence banners, flags and even weapons became commonplace. And a student-led movement for a referendum on Aceh's political future quickly gathered widespread support.
In late April, alarmed by the deteriorating situation in Aceh and a rising clamour for autonomy in other provinces, the government rushed through local-autonomy legislation promising decentralization of power over the next two years and giving resource-rich provinces a greater share of their revenue. But any goodwill the legislation might have generated was destroyed two weeks later when troops fired on a threatening crowd near the industrial city of Lhokseumawe in northeastern Aceh, killing at least 45 people.
Since then, two battalions of locally based territorial troops--backed by 1,700 paramilitary police reinforcements from Jakarta--have mounted offensive operations in response to a wave of ambushes, assassinations and arson attacks that have disrupted bus and truck traffic between Banda Aceh and the North Sumatran capital of Medan. In one of the worst incidents so far, guerrillas killed five soldiers and wounded 20 in a July 19 ambush on a military convoy east of Sigli, the Pidie district capital.
Ahmad Human Hamid, deputy co-ordinator of Care Human Rights Forum, reports more than 70,000 refugees scattered across Pidie, North and East Aceh--the districts worst affected by the unrest, which has now spread to West and Central Aceh. Most of the refugees are Acehnese villagers, but Aceh Merdeka's harassment has also driven 15,000 Javanese migrants out of resettlement areas they have lived in since the 1970s.
Acehnese historian Isa Sulaiman puts the overall strength of Aceh Merdeka at more than 2,000. He estimates that 500-750 Acehnese were trained in Libya in the late 1980s when the movement began its revival; it's not known how many are still active. Exiled leader di Tiro puts the overall figure at closer to 5,000, but claims the training in Libya has ended. Armed-forces deputy spokesman Brig.-Gen. Sudradjat says: "We suspect it is about to be intensified."
Sudradjat confirms what military and diplomatic sources in Jakarta and Bangkok told the REVIEW: Aceh is the latest destination for weapons that have been smuggled from Cambodia to Asian guerrilla movements since the early 1990s. The quiet western Thai port of Ranong on the Andaman Sea is widely believed to be the exit point for arms shipments to the Tamil Tigers, whose operatives have opened restaurants, vehicle-repair shops and other front organizations in Phnom Penh to finance the trade.
Indonesian intelligence sources suspect that the Pattani United Liberation Organization, a separatist Muslim group in southern Thailand, is helping to channel AK-47 assault rifles through the Thai-Malaysian border area to points along the northern Sumatra coast--from Tanjung Balai, south of Medan, to Padang on the Indian Ocean coast.
Habibie feels he has little choice but to listen to the military, which has given itself until November to put a lid on the violence in Aceh. "While we appreciate what the human-rights groups are saying, when it comes to a really determined separatist rebellion, there has to be a military pacification effort," says presidential adviser Dewi. "They want to cut down the insurgency first, then hand over to the civilians to deliver a political solution."
Marzuki, the human-rights-commission chairman, says paying lip service to human rights while cracking down militarily isn't the answer. "I think we've passed the stage of hypocrisy there," he says. "It needs a political solution rather than a military solution." Local officials say Aceh Governor Syamsuddin Mahmud is seeking contact with Aceh Merdeka leaders. But the outlook isn't encouraging, despite reports of a planned meeting between the governor and di Tiro in Bangkok.
Di Tiro's aides dismiss Mahmud as a "puppet of the Javanese." Di Tiro says of the government in Jakarta: "I don't want to talk to them. There'll be no solution until and unless the Javanese occupation army leaves Aceh."