International Socialist Review Issue 32, NovemberDecember 2003
ACEH: Unitary state, centrifugal forces
THE INDONESIAN nationalist movement, culminating in revolution after the Second World War, succeeded in pulling the archipelago together into a nation state. While control from Jakarta is sometimes irksome, and different regions resent the siphoning of wealth to Java, most provinces still share the national identity. Contrary to whats often claimed, most of the islands outside Java dont see themselves as victims of "Javanese imperialism.
But some do. The centralist and anti-centralist tendencies compete and interact.
When they realized they couldnt prevent Indonesian independence, the Dutch colonialists negotiated a settlement making the new nation a loose federation, with Dutch interests able to keep a foothold because the central government was weak. Sukarno had to fight several wars to consolidate whats often called the "Unitary State of the Indonesian Republic." This is an ideological pillar for both the military and for the nationalist current which his daughter Megawati now leads. Today, this centralism is part of the glue uniting the president with the generals. Much of the left is prey to it as well.
The first challenge to it was East Timor. Indonesian troops had forcibly integrated the former Portuguese colony into the "unitary state" in the 1970s, an event so recent that East Timor had an obvious claim to be "different." Yet when Suhartos immediate successor began floating the possibility of Timorese independence, Megawati was outraged.
She has a similar view of West Papua (Irian Jaya). The Papuans have a strong claim to independence too, having been forced into the Unitary State in a rigged 1969 "Act of Free Choice" exercise brokered by Australia and the U.S. (Exactly 1,025 West Papuans voted in this, while the U.S. embassy in Jakarta secretly reported that "95 percent of Irianese support the independence movement.") But after a brief lull in the aftermath of Suhartos fall, the military has againruthlessly repressed the West Papuan independence struggle.
These two conflicts have been intense owing to the oil in the Timor Sea and the mineral wealth of West Papua. The cruelest conflict of all, however, has opened up in Aceh at Sumatras northern tip.
When Suharto fell, relatively few Acehnese actually wanted to separate from Indonesia. Most just hoped for a better deal. President Wahid promised them a referendum within seven months, and it might have yielded a compromise of some kindbut he broke his promise. For her part, Megawati, during her campaign for president, had the arrogance to call herself "Cut Nyah"an Acehnese title for an honored woman. "When Cut Nyah governs," she promised, "Aceh would be peaceful and prosperous." Now we see what Megawatis promises are worth.
Faced with continuing abuse at the hands of the Jakarta government, its not surprising more and more Acehnese want independence. And they have a distinct national tradition to draw on. The first Islamic kingdom in the arealocated on the northwestern tip of Sumatraarose in 804 AD. For centuries Aceh was a distinct and influential political entity, and a major controller of trade through the Malacca Straits. The British claimed Aceh for a while, then traded to the Dutch all their claims in the area; the Dutch agreed to an independent Aceh, but later invaded it. This led to running battles, in which the Dutch suffered major defeats, and only achieved tenuous control in the run-up to the Second World War.
When Indonesia won its independence, the Acehnese supported the new state, but did not forget their distinctive history, and some considered that Aceh had never ceded its sovereignty. Moreover, they soon learned that Jakarta was a new colonizer.
In 1953 many rallied to the Darul Islam ("House of Islam") rebellion. Six years later, the government responded by making Aceh a "special territory" with a kind of autonomy. But discontent simmered. Hasan di Tiro formed the armed Free Aceh Movement (GAM) in 1976. In the late 1970s, Indonesian authorities conducted mass arrests of GAM members and shut down their activities. But in 1989 the group resumed operations. When the Acehnese saw that the new "democratic" governments of Wahid and Megawati treated them much the same, GAMs influence began to grow.
When the troops went in earlier this year, two Australian ministers immediately backed Jakarta. What matters to Canberra is Indonesias "territorial integrity," because $30 billion in Australian trade goes through Indonesian waters so they want to keep the region "stable." The American government calls for talks, but American-brokered negotiations arent going to solve Acehs problems, any more than theyve brought peace to Palestinebecause mineral wealth is at stake.
Aceh has rich oil and gas deposits, but Mobil Oil Indonesia and the PT Arun refinery are controlled from outside, and channel wealth out of the province. They have seized land from local people, and they pollute the environment. Jakarta will not let go without a fight, and neither will Mobil Oil.
GAMs politics are dubious. There is a royalist strand, they call for an Islamic state, and their rise goes hand in hand with demands to enforce Islamic Syariat Law. They would probably deal harshly with the left if they came to power. But what are the alternatives? Three years ago there was a vibrant secular and democratic political current calling for an end to injustice. These forces mobilized a million people to rally in the provincial capital, Banda Aceh. Obviously we would prefer them to lead the struggle, but its harder for them to assert themselves amid escalating civil war.
So the first thing is to demand the military get out of Aceh. After that, a referendum can determine what the people themselves want. This demand isnt just a matter of democracy for Aceh. The government has used the war to undermine freedom of expression around the archipelago and muster support for the military. For the Indonesian left, solidarity with Aceh is also self-defense.