Crackdown in Aceh

Published : Jun 20, 2003 00:00 IST

Indonesian soldiers boarding an aircraft to Aceh on May 24. - SUSILO HADI/AFP

Indonesian soldiers boarding an aircraft to Aceh on May 24. - SUSILO HADI/AFP

The ceasefire between the Indonesian government and the insurgent Free Aceh Movement breaks down and the government launches its largest military operation after the invasion of East Timor.

THE breakdown of the fragile ceasefire between the government in Jakarta and the Acehnese rebels in the third week of May has led to the resumption of widespread fighting in the Indonesian province. The dispatch of more than 35,000 troops to Aceh on May 18 marked the launch of one of Indonesia's biggest military operations since the invasion of East Timor in 1975. The decisive move came after talks between the government and the Free Aceh Movement, known by its Indonesian acronym GAM, broke down in Tokyo.

The international community did not expect such an abrupt end to the ceasefire agreement, which the two sides signed on December 8, 2002, in Geneva. Aceh, a province on the northern tip of the Sumatra island, has been witnessing a bloody guerilla war for the past 26 years. In recent months, there were discernible signs of the Indonesian military flexing its muscles behind the scenes. The growing Islamist movement in Aceh and the rise of separatist forces in other parts of the country after the introduction of genuine multi-party democracy have alarmed the once-all-powerful military leadership. From the outset, the Indonesian military has been opposed to the sweeping concessions given to the rebels in Aceh. According to a recent opinion poll, more than 70 per cent of Indonesians support the military action in Aceh. They fear that if the rebels are allowed to have their way, it could lead to the unravelling of the Republic. Indonesia goes to the polls next year and some observers believe that the military action in Aceh will boost President Meghawati Sukarnoputri's prospects of being re-elected.

The 2002 agreement called for a ceasefire, followed by legislative elections within two years. The accord was signed after more than two years of negotiations. "Both sides have thus agreed that, from now on, enmity between them should be considered a thing of the past," it stated. According to the agreement, GAM members had to lay down their arms within seven months. A team comprising Indonesian officials, Acehnese rebels and foreign representatives was monitoring the ceasefire until recently.

Two months after taking over as President, Meghawati Sukarnoputri travelled to the restive province to express her "greatest apologies'' for the long-drawn-out conflict. She told a gathering at the provincial capital Banda Aceh that the central government had made "many mistakes'' in its fight against GAM. Violence, she said, was not the solution to the problems and Aceh could be rebuilt "only by peaceful means".

The `Cessation of Hostilities Agreement' between the government and GAM was brokered by the Geneva-based Henry Dunant Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue. However, even before the accord was signed, exiled rebel leader Hasan Tiro said that Indonesia could not be trusted and that if the need arose, the Achenese would fight until independence was achieved.

Aceh, with a population of around 4.5 million, is richly endowed by nature. The Acehnese people feel that their wealth has been misappropriated by outsiders. When Indonesia achieved independence, it was neighbouring Java, the most populous island of the Republic, that monopolised power. During military rule, which started after President Sukarno was sidelined in a coup in 1965, mass migration into Aceh and other regions was encouraged. During the Suharto era, known for its brutality and corruption, President Suharto's business cronies and foreign companies moved into Aceh in a big way to exploit its virgin forests and mineral wealth. In the 1980s and the 1990s, the Indonesian Army launched large-scale operations against the rebels.

Aceh has always had the reputation of being a rebellious region. Its people are devout Muslims. Islam came to these parts through traders from the Gujarat coast. It soon struck strong roots. The colonial powers found it difficult to subdue Aceh. It was the last kingdom to be subdued by the Dutch, in the beginning of the 20th century, but pockets of resistance remained. It is said that the Acehnese struggle, which began more than 130 years ago, is the longest-running war of independence. More than 12,000 people have been killed over the past decade alone.

The rebels should have realised that their insistence on total independence would never be conceded by Jakarta. Even as Indonesia begins to recover from the trauma of losing East Timor, other restive provinces such as Irian Jaya are clamouring for secession. Many Indonesians fear that their nation will disintegrate if another province is allowed to break free. Jakarta is suspicious of the motives of some of its neighbours. Indonesians have not forgotten the role played by Australia in the events that led to East Timor's independence.

Under the ceasefire agreement, the government had pledged to give the Acehnese substantial autonomy along with control of around 80 per cent of the revenues generated from the province's natural resources. Aceh was also given the right to promulgate Islamic laws though Indonesia adheres to a secular Constitution. However, instead of beginning to disarm, the rebels started replenishing their stockpile of arms.

Apparently, the GAM leadership was not satisfied with the "special autonomy''. The leadership, based in Sweden, stuck to the demand for independence. The leaders insisted that the rebels would start disarming only after the Army stopped its operations in the province. Despite a warning from Jakarta that it would use overwhelming military force, the GAM leadership did not relent. Mohammad Mallik, the self-styled `Prime Minister of Aceh', said in Stockholm that the rebels were not overawed by Jakarta's military might. "We will fight. We are ready. We have been fighting for 27 years,'' he said.

DESPITE appeals from the international community for more time, President Sukarnoputri ordered a full-scale attack on the guerillas on May 18. Japan, Indonesia's biggest aid donor, had requested the latter to desist from using military force. Tokyo has been playing an unusually high-profile diplomatic role in the Aceh crisis. The last round of negotiations between the Indonesian government and the rebels was held in Tokyo. After the fighting started, Japan said that it was willing to host more peace talks but acknowledged that it was too early to bring the two "emotional'' sides back to the negotiating table. A joint statement issued by the European Union, the World Bank, Japan and the United States after the collapse of the peace talks "deeply regretted that the two sides failed to seize the unique opportunity before them''.

Indonesian troops are now being deployed all over Aceh and martial law has been clamped over the province. This is the second time that martial law has been imposed on Aceh; it was done for the first time by President Suharto. Since the early 1990s, Suharto had initiated a ruthless crackdown on the rebels by designating the province a special military operations area. This time, Jakarta has pledged to avoid the excesses that characterised Suharto's military operations. The Indonesian government says that the "integrated operation'' that is currently on in Aceh has humanitarian components too. The government estimates that as the fighting escalates, the number of refugees will rise from the present 5,000 to around 1,00,000. According to government officials, arrangements for providing them food and shelter are already in place. The new military force in Aceh consists of engineering and civic action teams, which hope to win control of small towns and villages, depriving GAM a free run of the hinterland.

An estimated 30,000 Indonesian troops are confronting a rebel army of around 5,000 battle-hardened guerillas. The Indonesian Army has said that it will "ambush and paralyse" the rebels. For the first time, the Army has started using air-to-surface missiles against guerilla targets. Many school buildings in the eastern part of Aceh have gone up in flames. The Army blames the separatists for these acts, which it says are aimed at preventing students from appearing for their Board examinations, scheduled to be held soon.

The rebels have threatened to strike at commercial targets such as ExxonMobil's huge facilities for natural gas operations in Aceh. GAM is said to have obtained rocket-propelled grenades and mortar in recent months. A local GAM commander described targets such as ExxonMobil as "legitimate''. The Indonesian Army is confident that this time it will take less than six months to complete the mopping up operations and that civilian casualties will be kept to the minimum. However, many Indonesian observers are less optimistic. They feel that unless the military wins the hearts and minds of the Acehnese, the war could be a long and bloody one.

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