ACEH: Independence sentiment a result of Suharto legacy



When Hasan de Tiro proclaimed the independent state of Aceh and launched the Aceh Sumatra National Liberation Front, also known as the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), in 1978, he attracted little support.

Contrary to the myth-making of the current leadership of GAM, and some academic commentators, political and social discontent in Aceh had previously not taken a separatist form. Previous armed rebellions in Aceh had been part of an archipelago-wide struggle for an Islamist Indonesia, not an independent Aceh.

But what was a small and basically isolated group in 1978 can now mobilise at least 5000 guerrilla fighters, which would not be possible unless GAM enjoyed some significant popular support.

How is it that a tiny group declaring an independent state with no public support and calling for the return to a medieval-era sultanate could grow so much that the current Indonesian government thinks that it now requires at least 50,000 combat troops and a state of military emergency to subdue it?

The situation reflects a new fact about Aceh — there are now at least two fundamentally opposed visions of the future of Aceh among the Acehnese population. One vision sees an independent Aceh, of one kind or another. The other sees Aceh remaining within the Indonesian state.

Aceh has not been invaded by GAM from outside nor is GAM the extension of some external political or military power. It exists because a substantial number of Acehnese want Aceh to become an independent state. This desire for independence does not automatically translate into support for the political ideology of GAM but it is the reason for the growth in GAM's political influence.

Why has support for an independent Aceh grown? To answer this question, it needs to recognised that widespread sentiment for independence did not develop until after 1998 — the year that General Suharto's dictatorship over Indonesia was toppled.

A year later, in November 1999, up to a million Acehnese participated in a mass demonstration demanding a referendum on independence.

Prior to 1998 anti-government sentiment in Aceh generally shared a similar character to that which existed in the rest of Indonesia — hostility to Suharto's New Order dictatorship and to dwifungsi, the constitutional enshrinement of the military's day-to-day involvement in Indonesian politics. There was also discontent with the widening gap between rich and poor, and with official corruption — features of popular politics throughout the Indonesian archipelago.

In Aceh, there was also resentment at the fact that little benefit flowed to the people in Aceh from the exploitation by US and Japanese companies, in collusion with Suharto's corporate cronies, of Aceh's oil and gas reserves.

But resentment at the presence of the Indonesian military (TNI) was the greatest sore-point in Aceh. The TNI was notorious for the brutality it showed toward civilians in carrying out its military operations against the GAM guerrillas.

Following Suharto's ouster, both the newly-installed president, Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie, and TNI chief General Wiranto publicly acknowledged that there had been gross human rights violations by the TNI in Aceh. Habibie and Wiranto made separate visits to Aceh to publicly apologise for these.

As the Suharto regime weakened under the impact of popular protest throughout the country during late 1997 and early 1998, an anti-Suharto reformasi movement also developed in Aceh. Many new political and NGO organisations developed. These included student, human rights, women's, farmer and other groups.

During 1997 and 1998, there was little talk within this movement of demanding independence. Of course, GAM continued to proclaim Aceh an independent state and called for this to be recognised by Jakarta and by other governments.

GAM had also grown during the 1980s, attracting support as a response to the TNI's human rights abuses. But even in 1998, the growth of GAM did not reflect mass pro-independence sentiment.

The massive 1999 pro-referendum demonstration, the consolidation of GAM's position and the growth of pro-independence sentiment occurred as a direct manifestation of disappointment with the character and policies of the post-Suharto governments in Jakarta.

Despite promises, no significant prosecutions for human rights abuses took place. Even more significantly, a high level of militarisation continued as Jakarta continued to pursue a military response to GAM. The essence of this military response, as in all guerrilla war situations, was to attempt to forcibly separate the guerrilla fighters from their civilian supporters — a policy which inevitably results in horrendous human rights violations.

Thus the growth of pro-independence sentiments in Aceh is a direct response to the economic failures of the New Order period, the economic collapse that followed the 1997 Asian "financial" crisis — which hit Indonesia hardest of all — and the brutality of the TNI's counter-insurgency operations in Aceh.

The growth of pro-independence sentiment has not arisen because of any systematic suppression of the Acehnese language, religion or culture (except in so far as the Suharto regime neglected education and cultural development throughout Indonesia as a whole).

The current TNI war against GAM may or may not succeed in forcing the GAM guerrillas back into the mountains and reducing the number of GAM fighters. But it will not, and cannot, eliminate the existence of widespread pro-independence sentiment among the Acehnese population.

To the contrary, it is likely to strengthen that sentiment.

Political groups which support the idea of a united Indonesia including Aceh will need to recognise that such unity can only be achieved if it is voluntarily supported by all the national and ethnic groups within the territory presently ruled over by the Indonesian state.

Winning voluntary support from ethnic groups across the archipelago for the establishment of a united Indonesian republic was a great achievement of the young activists of the independence movement against Dutch colonialism. It provided the optimal basis for the development of the economy, society and culture of the peoples of the archipelago.

This was a democratic achievement that GAM unjustly denigrates.

However, the anti-democratic policies of the New Order regime undermined the voluntary character of that unity, leading to the emergence of widespread sentiment in Aceh for separation from the Indonesian state.

The conflict in Aceh cannot be settled as long as Jakarta refuses to recognise that the voluntary unity of the peoples of the archipelago, which came out of the struggle against Dutch colonialism, was undermined by the New Order regime. Nor can it be settled as long as Jakarta continues to militarily repress the Acehnese people's demand for a referendum to decide whether they want to remain within Indonesia or not.

From Green Left Weekly, June 18, 2003.

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