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The Tsunami, Aceh and the national liberation struggle in South East Asia

22. February 2005

by Lars Akerhaug, Int´l officer of the Red Electoral Alliance, Norway

The Aceh province was heavily struck on the day of the tsunami. Not only did the waves wipe away families, lives, houses and entire villages, but also Aceh was the epicenter of the quake itself, and struck buildings and societies to the ground. However, TV cameras and media attention all focused on the more popular tourist areas, and the high profiled conflict between Sri Lanka and the Tamil liberation movement. Not before some days news started to slip and people realize the catastrophe that had so heavily struck Aceh in the North-West of the Indonesian islands. For many it was the first time to hear about a historical conflict with roots back to the anti-colonization movement against the Dutch expansion into today´s Indonesia. And as soon as the reports about the tsunami striking the poor peasants and fishermen, almost as soon came the expected stories on how the Indonesian government attempted to capitalize on the tragedy by strengthening their military position in the area.

The formerly independent sultanate was thrown under the Dutch regime of the area that was to become today´s Indonesia, a state that covers many nationalities and religions. This factor is important to understand the three decades of fierce struggle waged by GAM, the military wing of the Achenese liberation struggle against the military dictatorship. The struggle in Aceh is not, like many other national liberation struggles seen in the 20th century, dubbed by modernization, but rooted in long periods of political self-governance.

Although the Aceh conflict has roots back already to the military coup of 1965, replacing a push among leftist and communist groups with a military dictatorship, the emergency laws passed on the island in 1989 remains fundamental. Since that time, access for foreigners has been restricted. At the same time, the Indonesian state has attempted to wipe away traditional Achenese culture. The night curfew has laid severe restrictions on social life, and traditional folk-dance has been outlawed. At the same time the armed forces has pushed the tactic of collective punishment, like burning villages in reaction to armed attacks on government forces . Reports of torture, abuse is not uncommon. There is many historical parallels between today´s Achenese freedom struggle and the struggle for independent East Timor resolved in 1999. However it is easy enough to point as well to the obvious differences. While the struggle in East Timor was chaired by pastors and Christians, the people of Aceh are Muslims. Neither especially known for “extremism” (generally Indonesian Muslims belong to the more moderate Hanafi school of Sunni Islam) or Islamic militancy, the sympathy raised in western quarters is considerably less. Neither does the Achenese people have imperialist sponsors like the relationship with East Timor to Australia (also fuelled by Australian wishes to avoid refugees). To the contrary, the US, Norway and other western states have been reaching out to form relationships with the post-military dictatorship on the islands. Although sometimes hard pushed not to accept weapons´ trade, this remains a fig to cover the excellent relationship between the pro-American regime in Indonesia (supported from the coup in ´65) and the western states.

However, after the East Timor liberation, the screw was tightened once again on the people of Aceh, resulting in the reinforcement of martial law in 2000, together with a general push of Indonesian chauvinism. While Australian forces were landed in East Timor, the Acehnese were left to their own. This followed by a major government offensive in 2003 against the national freedom struggle.

Today, the government in Jakarta does not even attempt to hide their political abuses. Soon after the tsunami stroke, the minister of finance declared that the nation´s economic growth would not be seriously affected, because Aceh is at the outskirt of Indonesia. He also noted that reconstruction efforts would be financed mainly from abroad. Together with this came the first reports of clashes between GAM and the armed forces. Only thirty percent of the aid received to Aceh came from Jakarta, and this among heavy allegations of corruption and thieving from the military. Here, also, the “international community” has shown its lack of regard towards how the Indonesian army deals with the aid received from donor countries.

Even more serious is the attempt to dislocate the refugees of the tsunami. Media reports are now streaming in that the government is obstructing the return of citizens to the wasted shorelines, and humanitarian efforts to rebuild houses at the property size. This is a final proof that the occupation government wants to rebuild Aceh “Indonesian style”, media reports have even hinted that there is ideas of building vacation resorts in the sunny, but war-plagued beach lines (!).

Peace negotiations and US bases

The GAM has entered historical peace negotiations with the Indonesian government. However, there is no reason to believe that these negotiations will go further than to try to set accords for how to deal with humanitarian issues. In line with the above, the occupation government has proposed “autonomy” as a way to deal with the liberation struggle. In opposition to this the demand from the Free Aceh Movement is to hold a referendum, in the same framework as in East Timor, which the rebels are sure to win. As Bakthiar Abdullah was quoted they “insist on demanding an independence referendum for Aceh instead of accepting the special autonomy status. But it must be the aspirations of the majority of people in Aceh”.

Amidst the struggle with the government the US is pursuing its own strategy of buying off the liberation struggle with foreign aid, and at the same time building bases in the pacific ocean. However there are few signs that the Free Aceh movement or GAM would let themselves be convinced to turn down weapons for better relations with the US. There is as mentioned above no secret that the relations are much better with the oppressive Indonesian state. The liberation struggle in Aceh is abandoned, it is up to the anti-imperialist movement to build bridges and show solidarity.

February 2005