Indonesia’s past experience with East Timor has been a lesson of political, military and human disaster. Jakarta’s assault in Aceh, a province suffering from human rights abuses, puts the locals’ hearts and minds at stake. Far from solving the problems, it risks a greater danger.
In February 1989, in a meeting with local civil servants in Dili, East Timor, the Indonesian military chief Gen.L. Benny Moerdani sternly warned: “There will be no independent state of East Timor. The man named Xanana, the movement called Fretilin, any (separatist) attempt will be crushed!” As he spoke, Jakarta’s apparatuses had been heavily infiltrated by pro-independence elements.
The popularity of the resistance grew as the outburst of people’s anger was soon manifested in a series of incidents, culminating in the November 1991 killings. In August 1999, this trend was fully demonstrated when East Timor, in a clandestinely orchestrated public show, “celebrated” Indonesian independence day by turning the territory into a sea of Indonesia’s red-and-white flags, and, yet, two weeks later, overwhelming voted for independence.
The dynamic of oppression — the ongoing human rights abuses — turned the people towards massive protests and deception. This was East Timor’s most important lesson for Jakarta. But it took international support, a regional crisis and the fall of a dictator before a referendum brought freedom. Lacking such likelihood, Aceh has little prospects of independence.
In Aceh, however, more than elsewhere, the crisis of 1998 had precipitated fresh dynamic as collective sentiments, born out of suffering, a deep sense of injustice, pride and resentment, has accumulated for decades.
It linked up what used to be an unpopular separatist rebellion since 1976 with the growing local grievances that came into the open amidst the momentum of reform. Significantly this coincided with, among other things, the return of hundreds of Libyan-trained GAM (Free Aceh Movement) rebel cadres via Malaysia.
When the pendulum swung throughout 1998 to 2000, the Acehnese window of change reminds one of the Prague Spring of 1968 — a liberal face of the surviving Soeharto’s New Order, a kind of short-lived Dubcek’s “human face of communism”, yet with “the blossoming of a thousand flowers”.
The local civil society, independent of GAM but increasingly critical of Jakarta, and GAM itself, had greatly profited from this new freedom. Thus, the Nov. 8, 1999 pro-referendum mass rally and GAM’s anniversary on Dec. 4 that year became historic and momentous events.
One villager in Pidie summed up the sentiment: “We used to hate the GPK (GAM rebels) because their presence provoked army sweeps and tortures. Now we don’t care about them, but we want independence.” It was also seen as a return to a civilized life. “Before, it was time of jahiliyah (pre-Islamic barbarism),” another villager said, referring to DOM, Jakarta’s military campaign from 1989 to 1998.
The DOM-atrocities may have ended, but the pain remains. The Aceh Spring, too, soon ended as the civil society and the common people were caught between the warring parties. It must remain incomprehensible to the Acehnese that those responsible for past atrocities, mainly army officers, remain free, while former president Abdurrahman Wahid’s promise of a referendum and president Megawati’s “no more drop of blood” pledge remain unfulfilled. Now, while they welcome last year’s truce, peace is short-lived.
In addition to a few thousand armed guerrillas, GAM’s supporters are most likely victims of past atrocities and their relatives; only a few seem to support GAM’s ideology based on historic claims; while the third category consists of a mix of them and criminal elements. However, they reportedly control districts along the eastern coast and pockets elsewhere.
A peace effort will only be credible if, in addition to bringing those responsible for both sides’ atrocities to justice, it can halt the criminal extortions of the people by both GAM and the Indonesian army and police that has sustained violence for years.
Meanwhile, Jakarta regaining Acehnese hearts and minds will take a long time. When the Indonesians faced the Dutch in the 1940s and the East Timorese in the 1990s, in both cases the colonial army was militarily superior, but politically very weak, so time was on the side of the guerrillas.
With a new offensive in Aceh, Jakarta may risk a similar situation; indeed, with his numerous visits to Aceh before last year’s truce, the top political chief, Gen. (ret) Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, appeared to perform the same role as then Gen. Benny in Dili.
For, already since 1999, local administrative and judicial functions in many parts of Aceh were paralyzed and taken over by the rebels. GAM has been able to use the peace process to intensify its own campaign, which hurt Jakarta, while Jakarta wanted but failed to seize GAM’s weapons and cut its “fiscal” sources. Clearly, these failures pushed Jakarta to prepare for war and issue an ultimatum that led both sides to turn the last-ditch peace effort in Tokyo into a purely diplomatic show.
Jakarta could win the battles, but risks a war of attrition — like in Sri Lanka and Northern Ireland in the 1980s. The more pressing problem seems to be that its army has prepared an all out war, but lacks a tradition to negotiate a deal with its enemies — with one remarkable exception when Gen. M. Jusuf sent Lt. Col. Poerwanto to meet the guerrilla leader Xanana Gusmao near Viqueque in 1983.
The Indonesian army should learn from its own experience when fighting the Dutch as guerrillas and facing the East Timorese as colonizer: Any guerrilla war inevitably risks civilian victims as the guerrilla’s can easily mix with innocent villagers — like fish with water. The recent alleged killings of civilians in Cot Raboe (Bireuen) and Jambo Keupok (South Aceh) may be bad omens.
Worse would be if the army decides to wage a “fence of legs” (pagar betis) warfare using the U.S. made OV-10F Bronco counter-insurgency warplanes, as has reportedly been prepared (Tempo Interaktif, Apr. 27).
A similar strategy had been applied in East Timor to fan out the jungles and villages and track the guerrillas. This massive onslaught, following the 1975 invasion, took place in the Matebian Mountain in the central part of East Timor from 1977 to 1978 when hundreds of thousands of villagers who joined the guerrillas, were being chased and attacked. The siege that took nine months was compounded by massacres, bad harvests, hunger and disease, and degenerated into an annihilation war that caused thousands of deaths.
Such a worst-case nightmare must be avoided