The Indonesian government has an almost "pathological hostility to separatism", Dr Ed Aspinall, lecturer in South-East Asian Studies at Sydney University, told a forum on July 2.
Organised by the Young Lawyers of NSW and the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), Aspinall was joined on a panel by Keith Suter, chair of the NSW ICJ, Nurdin Abdul Rachman, a human rights volunteer in Aceh, and Trini Sualang from the Indonesian embassy.
Aspinall argued that it was the downfall of Suharto that ignited the drive for political reform, which formed the backdrop to President Abdurrahman Wahid's attempts to establish dialogue with the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and to reform the military (TNI), including the dismantling of the territorial command structure.
But by 2000, and with large parts of Aceh under GAM control, the TNI reform campaign had begun to slow. In 2002, GAM agreed to the special autonomy law and Jakarta wrongly believed this would end the struggle for independence.
Currently, the TNI is trying to reconsolidate its position in society, hold on to security policy and, in the process, "scotch any ideas about reform", Aspinall said.
While there's an underlying misgiving across Indonesia about the military operation in Aceh, he continued, there's also a fear of challenging the TNI.
The TNI's high command has declared that their mission is to "exterminate" not only GAM, but anyone suspected of sympathising with the independence movement, including human rights organisations.
But this will be difficult, Aspinall believes, if not futile. After three decades of fighting, when GAM was declared to be finished a number of times, it has always resurfaced, each time with more support.
Sualang, described the military operation in Aceh as a "humanitarian law and order" campaign. She ascribed all the violence in Aceh to GAM, and said that the TNI had changed, as now "soldiers were being briefed on human rights" and "provided with a pocket book" on the subject.
Asked why journalists and human rights workers were being denied access to the province, Sualang denied this was the case. A parting comment from her embassy colleague seemed to sum up the Indonesian government's attitude: "Of course, we have to have a strong military. If we didn't, we would be a 'failed state'."