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Which Way Aceh? 
By Anthony Reid 
Far Eastern Economic Review, 03/16/2000 

In Jakarta, it is unthinkable that Aceh should separate from Indonesia. Yet in Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, it is difficult to escape feeling that the province is irrevocably drifting toward independence. Daily reports of revenge killings and village burnings by the police have resulted in growing anger, and as such fewer and fewer Acehnese now care or dare to say anything good about their 55 years as part of a unitary Indonesian republic. 

This public outrage has played beautifully into the hands of the Aceh Independence Movement, or Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, more commonly known as GAM, which increasingly is looking like a government in waiting. The commander of the GAM guerrilla army, Teungku Abdullah Syafiie, appears regularly on the front page of the local press. More and more it is to him that people turn to right wrongs. Although GAM's guerrilla forces operate in only half of Aceh's districts, plantations, shops and offices everywhere now pay contribution to its treasury. Most of the thousands of Aceh villages pay GAM 20% of the 10 million rupiah ($1,400) that each receives annually from the central government in development funds. 

The majority of Aceh's population were never enamored of the Indonesian government. They got on with their lives, aware that attempts to renew the proud tradition of defiance of outside authority would lead to more suffering and hardship. But Aceh's two elites, the Islamic-educated ulamas and the modern-educated technocrats, did participate fully in the Indonesian national culture during the Suharto years, and largely absorbed the belief in national unity that the republic's education system had striven to promote. During the past year, the overwhelming evidence of military atrocities has rapidly eroded this faith. 

The mood change is so profound that it's difficult to imagine it reversed without repressions more severe and prolonged than any Indonesia has waged. Given the present demoralization of the army, and a government led by an idealistic democrat, that is not going to happen soon. Indonesian and international policymakers need to begin thinking about how messy and prolonged the transition to some form of statehood will be, what kind of Aceh will emerge from it and what effects this may have on Indonesia. 

The first of these questions determines the other two. A prolonged half-hearted war will strengthen the more militant Islamic elements, and perhaps extend the illegal economy in drugs. An orderly transition to a separate state within an Indonesian commonwealth, but without the hated Indonesian army, would make an ultimately federal or decentralized Indonesia more likely. 

The shift in opinion of both elites became evident in February last year. Two concurrent meetings were both radicalized by news of yet another atrocity by the supposedly reformed military. One was a closed meeting of established politicians and academics, who surprised each other in a straw poll by their overwhelming preference for a referendum on independence. The other was a congress of 104 student organizations, which agreed to establish a referendum-campaign organization. This group pulled off a large mass rally on November 8, which forced the two elites to line up behind the referendum campaign. 

The unexpectedly quiet passing, on December 4, of the 25th anniversary of the Aceh Merdeka declaration of independence was a victory for the third force of student and NGO groups. On that date, they persuaded GAM commander Syafiie to avoid the bloodshed that would follow an explicit challenge to Indonesian sovereignty. If anything, this moderation has consolidated a growing sense of common purpose between all the student-NGO groups and GAM in the direction of a peaceful, democratic transition. 

The international community, understandably concerned about disintegration and chaos, is in danger of worsening the situation by backing the army as the ultimate guarantor of Indonesian integrity. The emphasis needs to be on democratic procedures and responsible governments, rather than the sacredness of colonial boundaries. The worst outcome would be a continuation of war and the radicalization of the student movement toward both Islamic fundamentalism and ethnic cleansing. The best would be an elected local government within some kind of Indonesian commonwealth, which could absorb the independence movement rather than surrender to it, and the disarmament or withdrawal of both Indonesian and GAM forces in favour of an internationally trained Acehnese police. The congress of Acehnese representative groups planned for this month could be a necessary first step to producing a leadership that can negotiate in this direction. 

Indonesia can survive Aceh becoming a state if it doesn't remain hostage to its military, but responds as creatively to this regional issue as it has to reforming the central government. No other province has Aceh's credentials for statehood -- in its ethnic homogeneity, memory of a successful monarchy and blood shed for the cause. If Jakarta can imagine a nation held together by bonds other than military ones, a democratic Aceh state could still be part of it. 

The writer is director of the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of several books on the history of Aceh and Indonesia, and has just returned from a visit to Banda Aceh. 

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Last modified: June 22, 2000