INDONESIA: TNI's vicious little war in Aceh - what's really at stake?



JAKARTA — The Indonesian military's (TNI) vicious little war against the people in its northern-most province of Aceh is reaching new heights, and new regulations to restrict the media and limit aid groups' and human rights workers' access are making it almost impossible to monitor the situation.

The TNI has launched a campaign of terror and intimidation against human rights activists, more than 4 million civil servants across the country will have to undergo a special screening process to test their loyalty to the so-called Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia (KNRI) and scores of civilians and government officials (including members of the Aceh parliament) have been arrested for alleged links to the Free Aceh Movement (GAM).

This is the TNI's largest military offensive since the invasion of East Timor in 1975 and is being championed by the government of Megawati Sukarnoputri and the TNI as necessary to "safeguard the nation".

But there is much more at stake in Aceh than the stated aim of "destroying GAM", "restoring security" or defending KNRI. This is the TNI's most ambitious attempt to reassert its political role and to wind back the reforms it was forced to accede to after the overthrow of dictatorship of President Suharto in 1998.

Only a year ago, the military and police had reluctantly agreed to give up their allotment of parliamentary seats, 11 officers were being tried for atrocities committed in East Timor and there were moves to begin dismantling the TNI's territorial command structure.

But during the last few months, these reforms have largely stalled. Diplomats and analysts say the military is holding sway over sensitive policy issues and that there is much less talk about military reform.

A new boldness

This reflects the fact that the political elite — which is facing a crisis of legitimacy — is trying to garner military support ahead of the 2004 elections. "No political party wants to risk confrontation with the military by pushing for military reform", Rizal Sukma from the Center for Strategic and International Studies told the June 26 Washington Post.

The TNI has forged a common front with the political elite, Megawati and the parties in parliament, that pivots around preserving KNRI and preventing another "East Timor". Military leaders such as TNI chief General Endriartono Sutarto and army chief General Ryacudu Ryamizard assert that KNRI can only be secured by giving the TNI a greater role in fighting separatism, the "scourge" which they claim will lead to the "Balkanisation" of Indonesia.

The first public sign of this new boldness followed a late February Jakarta "social gathering" of more than 200 serving and retired generals. The main topic at the meeting was "the threats to national unity".

Addressing the media after the meeting, Ryamizard suggested that the TNI's security role should be reinstated because of the threats of separatism and other security disturbances. He went on to say that the TNI would not be withdrawing from its domestic security role.

"When people talk about military professionalism by asking us to return to barracks I don't think they understand what the Indonesian army is about", he said, adding that the concept of a professional army in countries such as the US could not be applied to Indonesia. "We are still dealing with disintegration problems, whereas the US is beyond that", he said.

This was followed in March by an unprecedented meeting of the military's top brass in North Aceh — a move seen by observers as a nothing less than a show of force. Wearing jungle camouflage uniforms and separated from the rebellious villages beyond by 2000 soldiers, police and barbed wire, this was the army's first annual review outside of Java island in 38 years.

At the time, Aceh was enjoying a rare respite from decades of violence, thanks to a cease-fire agreement (CoHA) signed by the government and GAM in December. An agreement concluded over the military's objections.

"It was a deliberate move by the army commander to show the wishy-washy politicians in Jakarta that the army is the one that would protect the territorial integrity of Indonesia", Juwono Sudarsono, a former defence minister, told the Washington Post. "It was open defiance."

White paper

This was followed by the launch of a white paper on defence strategy in March. Authored by the defence ministry, it describes various threats facing the country including separatist movements, terrorism, piracy, illegal logging and people trafficking, and argues throughout that it is TNI task to "safeguard the nation".

It also included a proposal that would allow the military to carry out emergency operations without the prior approval of the president.

It asserts that as long as such threats remain at a "low-intensity level", they can be handled by the police but the more serious they become, the more incumbent it is on the TNI to deal with them.

In August 2000, the government passed a series of laws giving the police the job of maintaining internal security and restricting the TNI to national defence.

Guardian of the nation

The TNI is determined to maintain its role as the guardian of the nation, not just because it entrenches its political and social role, but because of the financial benefits it reaps through a network of patronage and private enterprises. These networks function best if a level of conflict can be maintained.

The military has a huge range of "business opportunities" including extortion, protection rackets, monopolies on commodity distribution, regulating the massive "informal sector", gambling and prostitution. Military officers control patronage networks that can deliver electoral support or undermine civilian politicians; or they can refuse to act against anti-government protests.

Since their separation, competition between the military and police has at times broken out into open warfare. In one incident on September 29 for example, at least seven officers were killed when hundreds of soldiers laid siege to a police station in North Sumatra after a drug deal went sour.

The white paper says that instead of dismantling the system, it should be retained and extended. Two new military commands were recently established in Aceh and North Maluku, and they are being mooted for West Papua. Some analysts say that regardless of the outcome of the elections, this will ensure that the military remains the most powerful and best organised political institution in the country.

The paper laments the fact that the Acehnese and West Papuan independence struggles have intensified over the last decade and "even won sympathy and support for their causes in other countries". While welcoming CoHA, it stated that the government will pursue that accord by "persuading GAM to return to the fold of the motherland and accepting the framework of KNRI". But should this approach fail, "the government will consider using more effective methods".

The release of the paper coincided with growing criticism of the prospect of a military solution to the Aceh situation by politicians and media commentators, who argue that military repression fuels support for independence, so the growth of GAM in the 1980s was a direct result of TNI operations.

The TNI's desperation to prove that it is needed meant it need to derail CoHA. The top brass ran an all-out open campaign in the media to get support for a war in Aceh, accusing GAM of using the cease-fire to reorganise, recruit and raise funds. It refused to pull troops back to agreed defensive positions and used TNI-backed militia to intimidate and attack the Joint Security Committee overseeing the agreement.

In late April, Jakarta seized on a request by GAM for a two-day postponement of negotiations to call off talks altogether. When negotiations did resume, Jakarta simply sabotaged the process by demanding that GAM renounce its goal of independence and disband. On May 19, Megawati signed the decree declaring Aceh to be under marshal law.

No dissent

This is a future the generals would wish upon other parts of Indonesia — and that may happen, given the lack of protest or debate. Senior government and military officials are already saying that Papua will be the target of a massive campaign after Aceh.

This lack of dissent is not surprising given the mainstream media. Editorial after editorial has framed its "concerns" in terms of the "unavoidable" or "regrettable" consequence of a necessary and unavoidable war. Compounded with a series of draconian regulations restricting media access and human rights organisations, the officially sanctioned government-TNI view of the war reigns supreme.

There was some initial public dissent. The Justice Party has organised one or two demonstrations and leaders of the two largest Islamic mass organisations and the church have opposed the military operation, but it has mostly been couched in terms of avoiding civilian casualties or urging the government to seek a peaceful solution.

The only organisations that have continued to explicitly challenge the government's policy on Aceh has been the People's Democratic Party and the umbrella organisation SEGERA (People's Solidarity Movement for Aceh). They are also the only groups who have called for a referendum, as the only democratic and peaceful means for the Acehnese people to determine their future.

It is not that a "military coup" is imminent, but there is a very real threat to the political space that has been won by the democratic movement over the last five years. If the military operation in Aceh begins to falter (which it may already be) or fails to achieve its publicly stated goals, their blood-soaked little adventure in may yet trigger a new political crisis around the role of the TNI and the very legitimacy of the Megawati government itself.

[To follow the struggle in Aceh and Indonesia, visit <>.]

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