ACEH: Freedom movement demands independence referendum

May 15, 2002

Kautsar, chairperson of the Acehnese Peoples Democratic Resistance Front (FPDRA), attended the second Asia Pacific International Solidarity Conference in April to build support for the Acehnese people's struggle for self-determination. Kautsar spoke with Green Left Weekly's John Gauci.

Kautsar was the founding coordinator of Student Solidarity for the People (SMUR), the main pro-referendum student-led mass organisation in Aceh established in 1998. He helped lead the mass campaign in Aceh which, along with mass actions across Indonesia, finally toppled Suharto in May 1998.

FPDRA is an increasingly promeninent organisation struggling for independence for Aceh, operating openly in the urban centres. Unlike the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), FPDRA also advocates the fundamental democratisation of Acehnese society in the interests of the workers and peasants.

"FPDRA was formed in 2001 in Banda Aceh at a congress called to unite a number of Acehnese pro-independence organisations. These included SMUR, the Student and Youth Coalition from south Aceh and a Javanese-based student organisation. These progressive organisations share a common ideological and strategic perspective.

"All are opposed to Indonesian militarism and are united around the demand for Acehnese independence. All agree on the need for coordinated mass action and a democratic decision-making process. FPDRA is open to working alongside other organisations with a similar perspective. FPDRA has representatives throughout Aceh, as well as in Jakarta and Yogyakarta. There are also women's and student organisations affiliated to FPDRA."

Military repression

There has been a dramatic escalation of military repression in Aceh since Megawati Sukarnoputri became Indonesia's president, Kautsar told GLW. The Acehnese are not the only people to reject military intervention in politics. Democratic forces across Indonesia are also demanding an end to the military's political function.

Since Megawati took power, the number of Indonesian troops occupying Aceh has increased from 30,000 to 60,000. Military territorial command has been introduced in Aceh. This has resulted in a shrinking of the "democratic space" that opened up after Suharto was overthrown, making it increasingly difficult to campaign for a referendum on independence.

"Civilian government bodies have been replaced by military officials in Aceh. What remains of civilian government bodies are symbols with no genuine authority. They are used to spread propaganda to convince the outside world that democratic bodies continue to function in Aceh. The truth is the Indonesion military (TNI) control all economic and political activity in Aceh", Kautsar said.

"It has become extremely dangerous to organise large mobilisations in Aceh. Megawati is opposed to any dialogue around independence for Aceh. Her view is that Aceh must be integrated with Indonesia and the strategy for achieving that is to crush the independence movement through military action.

"In her address to the TNI in January, Megawati urged the military not to be distracted by human rights when it comes to matters of national unity and stability", Kautsar explained.

More than 700 Acehnese, almost entirely civilians, have been killed since January. Kautsar reported that, as part of its campaign of terror, the TNI organised a meeting of all village chiefs in Aceh and demanded that each provide details of at least six GAM activists. If a village chief refused to comply, they were told that the entire village would be punished for supporting GAM. To date, 10 village chiefs have been murdered for not complying with the TNI demand.

September 11

"The September 11 attacks in the United States and Washington's 'war on terrorism' have overshadowed the international profile of the Acehnese campaign for independence", Kautsar noted. "Human rights around the world are being ignored. International human rights organisations seem to have forgotten about abuses in Aceh."

Like governments all around the world, the Indonesian government is attempting to exploit the fear of terrorism to crush legitimate resistance to oppression.

"Megawati has been lobbying the US to label the Acehnese independence movement a terrorist movement. So far, this has been unsuccessful. In an attempt to justify the claim that is rampant in Aceh, the government and military have right-wing Islamic militias from Ambon to stir up religious and ethnic tensions in Aceh and divide our movement. These right-wing forces call for autonomy, not independence. They target Christians and migrants as 'trouble-makers'."

Kautsar told GLW that most Acehnese reject Megawati's strategy. They have repeatedly rejected the offer of Islamic law in return for independence. The majority of Acehnese want a secular democratic government.

The Indonesian government needs Aceh's abundant oil supplies to maintain International Monetary Fund (IMF) repayments. During his most recent visit to Aceh, the US ambassador stated his willingness to facilitate a political dialogue between the Acehnese people and the Indonesian government, Kautsar reported. However, the TNI reject any US involvement, as this would restrict its control of Aceh.

To strengthen their economic ties with Indonesia, the US and Australian governments have been moving to renew military ties. So far, US Congress has refused to lift its embargo on the sale of weapons to Indonesia's military. However, US President George Bush is pushing for Congress to lift the ban and allow Washington to renew its former close ties with the Indonesian regime.

"If this were to happen, the US would once again be sponsoring Indonesian state terrorism against the people of Aceh, West Papua and Indonesia. The people of Australia and the US must not allow their governments to sponsor this brutal and repressive regime", Kautsar insisted.


"There have been an abundance of new pro-independence organisations forming in Aceh", Kautsar told GLW. "These are happy to collaborate with each other. The FPDRA has been communicating with these new groups and inviting them to join the Aceh Peace Alliance (APA)."

"The APA seeks a peaceful political dialogue between GAM and the Indonesian government, mediated by the UN. The APA is not involved in raising the demand for a referendum. Its tactic is to push for a cease-fire. This is the most important task in Aceh at present. Conditions in Aceh have become so repressive that it is impossible for groups to work openly.

"A UN-mediated cease-fire would provide the democratic space needed for the pro-independence forces to organise peaceful actions and campaign. After the people of Aceh have had the opportunity to freely debate autonomy or independence, a referendum should be held. One thing we have learned from the East Timor experience is that the Indonesian military must get out of Aceh before a referendum can be conducted safely."

Kautsar concluded by emphasising that one of FPDRA's central tasks is "to form an international coalition of organisations in solidarity with the Acehnese people. FPDRA also highlights the link between the Acehnese struggle and the democratic struggle in Indonesia. Many Acehnese workers, students and peasants are clear about this link and are working alongside the democratic forces in Indonesia."

From Green Left Weekly, May 15, 2002.
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