Search Wednesday December 31, 2003

Philip Bowring: The forgotten war in Aceh
By Philip Bowring (IHT)
Saturday, December 20, 2003

JAKARTA: The news, such as there is, from the Indonesian province of Aceh — where the government is waging a brutal and escalating war with secessionist guerrillas — [need to write in sepratist rebellion etc etc] is grim. But do not expect the death toll or Western criticism to have much impact either on the government or Indonesia’s population at large. Indonesia is plural, open and democratic, but ruthless in responding to suggestions it could or should break up.

The death toll since last May, when President Megawati Sukarnoputri declared martial law, is officially put at 1,600. Most of these are said to be fighters for the Free Aceh Movement, though others say the toll is higher, and many of the victims noncombatants. Perhaps 100,000 people have been displaced and dozens of schools destroyed. Foreigners have been kept out, Indonesian journalists restricted and local media harassed.

The Free Aceh Movement is as guilty of ruthless tactics as is the military. But the bottom line is that since the government abandoned a cease-fire mediated by the Geneva-based Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, the army has been on an indiscriminate offensive. It aims to force the movement, weakened by internal dissent and external pressures, to settle for the limited autonomy on offer.

Whether that is good strategy is, for now, beside the point. The military was itching for action to boost its reputation as the unifier of the nation. For Megawati, almost any measures were justified to suppress secessionism. The good will of the military was an additional benefit in the run-up to elections.

Aid-giving foreign governments that had backed the Humanitarian Dialogue initiative have been grumbling, but are unlikely to put real pressure on Jakarta. For the West, the ‘‘war against terror’’ is rather more important and Jakarta’s cooperation is deemed vital. Western talk of human rights in Aceh makes scant impact when the same governments are trying to persuade Indonesians to limit the human rights of Islamists. That the Acehnese are tarred with the Islamist brush is a further mark against them, and neighbors that had once been willing to keep Indonesia off balance by tolerating Free Aceh Movement money-raising and arms-buying are now more vigilant.

But the main reason the offensive will proceed for as long as the president and military want is that it is not a major issue in Jakarta. The media and human rights organizations grumble, but Aceh is unlikely to feature as a significant issue either in the parliamentary election in April or the presidential one in July.

For foreigners, Aceh secessionism often seems a central issue for Indonesia. For most Indonesians, including the Jakarta élite, the war is a peripheral issue, affecting two percent or so of Indonesia’s 200 million people and best forgotten other than as an expression of national unity.

At a recent high-powered forum in Bali entitled ‘‘United in Diversity’’ and attended by a wide spectrum of local and foreign opinion makers, Aceh was barely mentioned. Held to underline the national motto, it showed off Indonesia’s ethnic and religious diversity but with the implicit message that nothing should be done to threaten unity. Particularism, whether religious or regional, was a danger to all.

It is quite possible that after the elections, and especially if Megawati is defeated, Jakarta will revert to a more flexible stance on Aceh, aware that brutality is alienating those — probably the majority — willing to settle for less than independence.

For now, Aceh is encouraging similar strong-arm tactics in Indonesia’s other separatist trouble spot, West Papua (Irian). This will prove a bigger threat to unity than Aceh. It is Melanesian, more Christian than Muslim, and has similarities to East Timor in the way that separatism enjoys unofficial foreign support, notably in Australia. It was joined to Indonesia by the United Nations following a flawed ‘‘act of free choice’’ in 1969. Might the United Nations one day question that decision, just as Australia reversed its acceptance of the integration of East Timor?

Such long-range thinking cuts little ice in a democratic Indonesia determined to show that the end, unity, justifies the means.