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The liberation struggle of the Acehnese people

29. June 2003

By Yusuf Lakaseng

The liberation struggle of the Acehnese people in the eyes of the Indonesian democratic movement

The final ultimatum [made by the Indonesian government during negotiations with] the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) on May 12 to lay down their weopons and join with the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia (KNRI) as a condition for the resumption of negotiations with the Joint Security Committee (JCM) [made impossible for negotiations to continue] guaranteed that the negotiations would fail. These conditions were different from the CoHA (Cessation of Hostilities Agreement) agreement which was originally signed by the government and GAM and made it impossible for JCM to continue to implement the CoHA agreement. Although the desire to resolve the conflict peacefully by the government of President Megawati Sukarnoputri and the Indonesian armed forces (TNI) continued to be given free reign, it represented nothing more than empty political diplomacy to disguise the their repressive face which would soon persecute a war in Aceh.

There have been various endeavors by the government and TNI to obtain public support for the implementation of the military operation in Aceh, from the politics of scapegoating [GAM as being behind] a number of recent bomb attacks to justifications on the grounds of nationalistic chauvinism, maintaining NKRI and smashing the GAM separatists.

The Acehnese conflict has been a long one, and the causes are not just because of the birth of the GAM separatist group. Rather, the birth of GAM represents a form of resistance by the Acehnese people against continued injustice by the state. It is capitalist colonialism which is the real cause. The arrival of international capital in the form of the companies like PT Arun and PT Exxon Mobil, which was facilitated by the New Order [regime of former President Suharto], completely drained the natural resources of the Acehnese, leaving behind only the foul stench of industrial waste for the people, the destruction of the environment, poverty and other forms of suffering. These acts of injustice gave rise to a struggle expressed by a particular group of people — who had previously only numbered around 150 — called GAM. But this were answered by political repression and the declaration of Aceh as an Area of Military Operation (DOM) in 1989. With this came the oppression of the Acehnese people; the people were murdered and their natural resources stolen.

At that time, DOM was implemented on the grounds of destroying GAM,. But what in fact happened was a war was launched against the Acehnese people as whole, it was the Acehnese people who became the targets, the victims, they were the ones who were murdered, abducted and raped. According to Amnesty International´s records, over the 10 years (1989-1998) in which DOM was in force, some 5000 innocent people died and 15-20,000 more experienced severe trauma.

As a result of the long history of military occupation in Aceh, it has birth to a nationalist sentiment among the Acehnese. The desire for independence is no longer just the political goal of GAM but had become the wish of the majority of the Acehnese people. Moreover, [over time] GAM began to gain the sympathy of the ordinary people. This can be seen from the total number of GAM members, which now numbers around 5000 armed soldiers. Initially GAM was limited to Pidie regency in northern Aceh, now they control a number of regencies including East Aceh, West Aceh, Bireun (North Aceh), Pidie, South Aceh and a part of Central Aceh, the capital of Aceh Besar an Naganraya.

After the fall of Suharto as a result of the people and students´ struggle, DOM was abolished. DOM presented a “bad face”, there had been too many incidents involving the slaughter of the people by the military and [in some cases] with the help of PT Exxon Mobil. A ray of hope for the future was born, after the hated dictator fell, a democratic space opened up, and with full courage, this freedom was taken up by the people, who´s collective physiology as a result of their experience of colonisation, took the form of a nationalist sentiment as a nation with the right to determine its own future. This [sentiment] was demonstrated by the mass demonstration [of 2 million people in the capital of Banda Aceh on November 8, 1999] demanding a referendum as a mechanism to resolve the conflict after the end of DOM.

This was the basis for the formation of SEGERA, the Solidarity Movement with the People of Aceh (Solidaritas Gerakan Untuk Rakyat Aceh) as a front organisation made up of the People´s Democratic Party (PRD), the National Student League for Democracy (LMND), the Indonesian National Labour Front for Struggle (FNPBI), the People´s Cultural Network (Jaker), the Popular Youth Movement (GPK) and the Indonesian Centre for Reform and Social Emancipation (INCREASE), groups which respects the Acehnese people´s right to self-determination and who supported] putting forward a referendum as a mechanism to resolve the conflict in Aceh. A referendum is the most democratic mechanism because it hands the determination of Aceh´s future over to the entire Acehnese people; it is also the most civilized mechanism because it is peaceful and bloodless. A referendum does not necessarily mean independence for Aceh. A referendum is only a mechanism, the best solution from a number of existing options. Certainly however, a referendum requires the pre-conditions of a peaceful situation and democratic space to guarantee the political participation by all layers of society.

Because a referendum may not necessarily result in independence for Aceh, the choice of remaining part of NKRI, as a democratic vision, must again be offered to the Acehnese people. The unity which is offered however must be one which is able to fulfill their hopes for a future, one which is more just, democratic and prosperous. This vision of unity is one of unity in resisting imperialist colonialism and militarism, resisting the colonialism of the International Monetary Fund though the Letter of Intent [signed between the Indonesian government and the IMF], where the people are forced to sell off their assets, where the livelihood of farmers is destroyed because of being forced to open up domestic markets though the abolition of tariffs and the exploitation of workers though low wages. Unity against militarism represents serious efforts to provide peace and justice for the Acehnese people by ending the military operation and bringing the perpetrators of human rights violations before to justice.

But a referendum as a solution to the conflict in Aceh is yet to be put forward by other democratic groups in Indonesia. Although resistance against the re-implementation the military operation in Aceh has been demonstrated by the actions of groups in the opposition movement who are campaigning under the banner of POSRA, the United Opposition in Solidarity with the Acehnese People (Persatuan Oposisi untuk solidaritas rakyat Aceh), and although the involvement of democratic groups and political parties from a range of sectors has been seen, this struggle is still limited to demanding an end to the military operation and calling for the resumption of a peaceful solution as set out in CoHA. This is only just the embryo of the reemergence of the struggle inherited from the anti-military sentiment of the student and people´s movement in 1998. At the same time these groups are also aware of the weaknesses of CoHA, that it failed to bring peace to Aceh, and was not able to involve the participation of civil society or be supplemented by a peace keeping force which could safeguard the peace process. But the majority of the non-government organisations which have been consistent in the struggle against militarism still maintain [the limited] demands for the trial of those who have perpetrated human rights violations and for the continuation of the CoHA process as a solution to the conflict in Aceh.

It is impossible to have genuine peace if it only depends on an agreement like CoHA, even if the weakness of CoHA are adequately addressed. The reason is because it is not possible for two armed political forces to be at peace while they have different political interests. The conflict could be ended and enduring peace can become a reality, if the two armed political forces in Aceh (the TNI and GAM) are forced to submit to the democratic requirement that they will respect the desires of the majority of the Acehnese people, as the holders of national sovereignty who have the right to determine the future of Aceh.

The failure of the democratic movement in Indonesia to put forward a referendum [as the solution to the conflict in Aceh] indicates the ideological weakness of the movement, it is still shackled by the hegemony of narrow nationalism. Moreover, the Greater Jakarta Student Executive Bodies (BEM) and the Indonesian Muslim Students Front (KAMMI) are still shackled by the hegemony of empty nationalism which has no perspective what-so-ever about the future of the Acehnese people. The nationalistic chauvinism of the military, if it spreads, has the potential to become a fascist threat [to the entire movement]. The limitations of this view was proven by the betrayal of agreements for joint actions with POSRA, when they refused to join in on the day of the planned action. This weakness is because of their failure to understand the historical process [of the Indonesian independence struggle against the Dutch] and the sentiment for Indonesian unity which was based on voluntarism and the people´s desires to struggle against colonialism, to collectively create a just and prosperous independent nation.

The re-implementation of the military operation in Aceh — with the more vicious legal status of marshal law — is a political victory by the military. The Megawati government has again enslaving itself for the sake of its military allies, it shows that that this government it is no different from the New Order regime. It is just as oppressive, and because of this it cannot possibly find a just and democratic solution for the people of Aceh. Only by replacing them with a government of the poor which has a program which serves the interests of the poor, can a solution which is peaceful, just and democratic be found for the Acehnese people.

The military operation is a black cloud which has returned to shut off the last ray of hope for the future of the Acehnese people. The chorus of music which accompanies the dances of the people has been replaced by the sound of machine guns and artillery which accompanies the steps of the refugees abandoning their home lands.

Struggle the people of Aceh, you are all fighters, [a people] who have never been conquered by the colonialist´s rifles. Hey there, the people of Indonesia, where is your sense of justice for the Achenese people, where is your solidarity for your sisters and brothers in Aceh, the solidarity you displayed for the people of Iraq, unite and struggle to overthrow the Megawati government to put an end to their suffering and to bring justice to the Acehnese and all oppressed people.

[Yusuf Lakaseng is the presidium chairperson of SEGERA (Solidarity Movement with the People of Aceh) and head the military affairs office of the Central Leadership of the People´s Democratic Party. Translated by James Balowski.]


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