All In The Timing

Timing is everything, as they say. The day before East Timor celebrated the anniversary of its independence from Indonesia, the Jakarta government launched an all-out attack on another independence movement, this time in Aceh, a northern Sumatran province rich in oil and natural gas. The 30-50,000 Indonesian troops, covered by warships and fighter jets, constitute the largest military operation since, yes, the invasion of East Timor in 1975. Their overarching mission has been clearly defined by General Endriartono Sutarto: “You must chase and wipe out GAM [the Free Aceh Movement]…you are trained to kill, so wipe them out.” (1)

The attack on Aceh coincides not only with the independence day of East Timor, but other internal and international situations, whose influence is evident in the timing and details of the operation.

“Last Refuge of the Scoundrel”

President Megawati Sukarnoputri’s government is currently facing an internal crisis, and severe pressure from political opposition and disaffected groups, particularly over the effects of its neoliberal economic policies. These extremely unpopular policies, which included the removal of various subsidies, led to instability and diminution in the market prices for such commodities as sugar, tobacco, and rice, and widespread suffering among farmers and ordinary Indonesians. Privatisation was also a feature of government policy, a factor that led to extensive job-losses, particularly in the manufacturing sector. Just this year, in January 2003, massive opposition to neoliberal policies forced the government to do a U-turn and partially restore subsidies for fuel, electricity, and phone tariffs. (2)

More recently, on May 20th 2003, thousands across the country participated in demonstrations to mark the anniversary of former dictator Suharto’s downfall in 1998 (3). The demonstrations explicitly targeted the current government, demanding that Megawati resign, and that the political reform promised after Suharto’s reign be instituted. According to some reports, polls have recorded some 80% of people expressing general discontent with the government and political parties. Max Lane, writing in Australia’s Green Left Weekly notes that the demonstrations “have involved the broadest political support of any wave of demonstrations since 1997-98.”(4)

The Aceh attack, which early indications show has enjoyed a high level of popular support in Indonesia, could certainly give a nationalist boost to a government in crisis. Though the success of this move is yet to be seen, with the May 20 popular protests coming after attack on Aceh began, the Megawati government may have attempted to find some refuge in the “fog of war”.

“Right time for war”

Internationally, one can clearly see the influence of the recent US invasion of Iraq, in having provided both legitimacy and even specific planning ideas for the Aceh attack.

In terms of legitimacy, cracking down on insurgencies, internal dissent, and political opposition by governments across the world had already become increasingly popular with the declaration of Bush’s ‘war on terror’.

As Dr. Andrew Tan, an expert on regional insurgencies at Singapore’s Institute for Defense and Strategic Studies told the Christian Science Monitor recently: “This is the right time to go back to war. In the context of the war against terrorism, there are few, if any, diplomatic costs to seeking a military solution.” (5)

For an all-out military assault rather than low-intensity ‘counter-insurgency’ warfare, however, there could be no better provider of legitimacy than the US ‘war’ in Iraq: an illegal act of aggression carried out despite massive international civil & political outcry. The fact that the US government was able to successfully initiate and conclude such a blatant display of unprovoked force against significantly weaker opposition, with few political or military consequences, seems to have been taken by governments in Asia and around the world as a carte blanche, a chance to finally settle their problems of insurgencies and independence movements.

The Philippine government of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, for example, has taken the opportunity to redouble its attacks against the insurgency in the southern region of Mindanao. Much has also been written about the Israeli government’s escalation of violence against the Palestinians during and after the war on Iraq.

Similarly, the Indonesian government seems to have taken the opportunity to annihilate the insurgency in Aceh. Recent media reports have certainly cited Indonesian generals’ references to the US ‘war’ on Iraq as justification for the operation. Moreover, the Indonesian government’s offer at the last minute peace talks held in Tokyo prior to the attack was a non-starter, with a core condition being the rejection of independence as a demand- clearly something the Free Aceh Movement would never accept. Dan Murphy of the Christian Science Monitor compared the offer to “Israel demanding the Palestinian Liberation Organization renounce designs on statehood as a precondition for peace talks.” (5) A ‘military solution’ was always the desired outcome.

Embedded in Aceh

More specifically, certain features of the Indonesian operation in Aceh seem to have been designed directly from blueprints of the US attack on Iraq. The Jakarta Post, for example, reported that the Indonesian military was to use its own ‘embedded journalists’ as an experiment for possible wider use in future missions. The newspaper reported that 60 journalists were to be given “training” by the TNI, after which they would receive a “license” to report on military operations. Moreover, the training was closed to non-Indonesian journalists.

Quoted in the Post, TNI spokesperson Major-General Sjafrie Sjamsoeddin talked about refusal to allow foreign journalists to cover military operations: “I don’t know whether there are any political considerations from the Foreign Ministry, but for me it is clear that we do not want any disturbance during the operation.” (6)

Guarding against internal media “disturbances” also seems to have been a consideration, as overt repression of independent press reporting within Aceh has also been documented in the wake of the attack. In its 2003 survey, Reporters Without Borders labeled Asia as possibly the worst region of the world in terms of censorship and threats against journalists. Unfortunately true to form, then, was the recent statement by Major General Endang Suwarya, Indonesia’s military governor of Aceh, in which he explicitly outlined his intention to silence the “spokesmen of GAM”.

“I want all news published to uphold the spirit of nationalism,” he said. “Put the interests of the unitary state of Indonesia first. Don’t give statements from GAM any credence.” (7)

The targets of Suwarya’s criticisms have included Aceh based private TV stations and newspapers, such as Serambi Indonesia and Metro TV. The Jakarta Post recently quoted a Metro TV reporter describing an encounter with the TNI after the station aired footage that military central command considered to be ‘subversive’.

“The officer spent almost two hours laying into us and threatened to expel us from Aceh if we continued airing such footage,” the reporter explained. Of course, preventing “disturbances” is one side of information control: presenting the desired ‘message’ of military operations is the other.

In the case of Aceh, the desired message of the first day’s military maneuvers was well-interpreted by Sidney Jones of the International Crisis Group: “I can’t imagine any reason they’d be bringing this type of force to bear other than trying to generate a ‘shock and awe’ effect.” (5)

The military seemed to concur: “We just wanted to give some shock therapy to GAM, to make them mentally and psychologically afraid of what the future holds,” explained the TNI’s Lieutenant Colonel Firdaus Kormano. (8)

Embedded journalists were certainly on hand to record the beginning of the massive operation, and properly convey its message of ‘shock and awe’. On May 20, the front pages of many Indonesian and Asian newspapers carried action shots of hundreds of Indonesian paratroopers descending on Aceh, or landing on the coast line in boats.

If one lesson from Iraq employed in Aceh has been the use of overwhelming force to deliver ‘shock and awe’ to the ‘enemy population’, another has been effective marshalling of journalists as prominent tools in the creation of this effect.

Hawks with a capital ‘H’

The more direct military and political links between the governments that carried out the invasion of Iraq and the Indonesian state, a relationship made infamous during the genocide in East Timor were also fairly evident during the attack on Aceh. Though the US, UK, and Australian governments have voiced their “concerns” at the possibility of human rights violations, the operation itself has not been openly criticized. Neighbouring regional power Australia has even confirmed its commitment to the “territorial integrity of Indonesia” (9), affirming, albeit cautiously, the right of the Indonesian state to mount the operation.

Concrete Western links to Aceh include investment in the region, most prominently by Exxon-Mobil. Moreover, American OV-10F Bronco and British Hawk fighter jets, used by the Indonesian military in the invasion and occupation of East Timor were in action again last week, flying missions into Aceh, with reports of airstrikes in areas of the province. The British government took the revelation “extremely seriously”, the UK’s ambassador to Indonesia telling the Guardian: “The [Indonesian] Defence Minister confirmed that the Hawks would not be used in a ground-attack role.” (10)

This “extremely serious” concern is based on the continued (and ridiculous) public assertion by the UK government that Hawk aircraft are ‘training’ jets, sold with the understanding that they are not to be used for offensive purposes. It is somewhat curious that this claim continues to be thrown about, as leading figures in the British government have themselves highlighted its emptiness in no uncertain terms. John Pilger, for example, brought up the issue of Hawk jets during his classic interview with former British Minister of Defence Alan Clark.

Pilger asked Clark if the Hawks did indeed live up to the reputation of being “merely training jets” as was being claimed at the time. Clark’s reply was that Hawks were “dual use with a capital ‘D’”.

When asked whether the guarantees on the part of the Indonesian regime were worth anything, Clark was surprisingly blunt: “A guarantee is worthless from any government as far as I’m concerned!” (11)

Nightmare Scenario

The TNI has been wary of international scrutiny, and the importance of paying lip-service to human rights, having tried to present the attack as a clean, surgical operation. The Jakarta Post quoted General Sutarto telling his troops, “What you are doing here now is being broadcast all over the world… If there are soldiers who do violate (the order) and cause suffering to people in the field, then just shoot them in the head.”

Human Rights Watch, however, warned that the Indonesian attack “sets the stage for gross human rights violations”(12) among the people of Aceh, particularly given the TNI’s history of abuses in the region. A recent statement from the Asian Students’ Association reported that “while armed skirmishes between the TNI and GAM are being reported daily, with casualties on both sides, there have been far more casualties in civil society.” (13) Indeed, even from the first day of the attack, journalists such as Orlando de Guzman of the BBC reported on the aftermath of the TNI’s missions, describing the targeting of civilians, summary executions, and general climate of fear. (14) Roundups of activists and NGO staff have also been reported. Another critical issue is that of internal refugees, or Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), of which Health Minister Achmad Sujudi estimates there will be 300,000. Camps have been set up by the Indonesian state around Aceh, North Sumatra and Medan, to hold around 100,000 refugees of the attack.

The current situation is a nightmare for people in Aceh and all over Indonesia.

May 22nd, the fourth day of the attack, was also the day that the 11th defendant in the trial of Indonesian generals– for crimes against humanity in East Timor in 1999– was acquitted. Brigadier General Tono Suratman thanked the Jakarta court for a “fair trial”, and the Chief Judge proclaimed that the General’s “dignity and position… should be restored to him” after the decision (15). The timing of this verdict, coinciding with the assault on Aceh, gives a frightening cumulative picture of the continuing power and impunity enjoyed by the military in Indonesia, and the symbiotic relationship it still shares with other state & civil institutions.

(1) ‘Indonesian troops told to “exterminate” Aceh rebels, spare civilians’ AFP. May 20, 2003

(2) ‘Dangerous political football’ Bloomberg. January 28, 2003

(3)‘Celebrations of 1998 reform turn violent’ Jakarta Post. May 20, 2003.

(4)‘Protests call for ousting of Megawati’ Green Left Weekly. Jan 22, 2003.

(5) Murphy, Dan. ‘SE Asia tries ‘Shock and Awe’’ Christian Science Monitor.

(6)‘Embedded journalists to cover military operations’ Jakarta Post. May 11, 2003

(7) ‘Truth becomes casualty of war as military restricts media’ Jakarta Post

(8)‘Indonesia uses UK jets in Aceh offensive’ The Guardian. May 20, 2003

(9)‘Australia defends use of force in Aceh’ Asia Pacific Programs. May 21, 2003

(10)‘Military chief defends use of Hawk jets’ The Guardian. May 22, 2003

(11) Pilger, John. ‘Death of a Nation: The Timor Conspiracy’ 1994. (View clips at

(12)‘Indonesia: Martial Law, Bombing in Aceh’ Human Rights Watch May 20, 2003

(13)‘The situation in Aceh, Indonesia’ Asian Students Association. May 26, 2003.

(14)‘”They killed them one by one”’ BBC News Online. May 21, 2003

(15)‘Indonesian army chief acquitted’ BBC News Online. May 22, 2003

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