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JAKARTA - The Indonesian government currently finds itself at a major crossroads over its policy towards Aceh, the province on the northern tip of Sumatra where separatists have been waging an armed struggle for independence since 1976, driven on by decades of broken promises of greater autonomy from successive regimes in Jakarta. On the surface the options are relatively simple. Plan A would be to cancel the intermittent negotiations, impose a formal state of emergency and let the armed forces (with the elite Kopassus special forces very much in the vanguard) do whatever is necessary to crush the Free Aceh Movement (Gam).
The alternative is to press ahead with more intensive talks while simultaneously maintaining security and rebuilding the shattered infrastructure, government institutions and economy in the resource-rich province. The fact that the government even finds itself facing such a dilemma speaks volumes about the failure of previous policies to restore order in the restive region. For the last 17 months Jakarta has theoretically been pursuing a six-point multipronged approach involving military, economic, social and cultural aspects to win over the hearts and minds of the 4 million Acehnese.
Practically speaking, however, the Acehnese have seen little change except the firmer imprint of the army's jackboot on their lives as the civilian administrators, both local and national, have shown virtually no inclination to tackle the thornier issues. Public trust of Jakarta is therefore at an all-time low. Officials would refute this by saying the government granted the province special autonomy last year which should see it receive a much larger allocation of the area's enormous wealth (predominantly oil and gas) than has hitherto been the case. But unlike in Papua, the secessionist-wracked province at the eastern end of the archipelago, the autonomy was imposed with virtually no consideration given to the Acehnese people's views on the form the legislation should take. So there is no sense of ownership or control among the Acehnese over the pace and direction events are taking.
Two positive things can be said about the military operation. It is infinitely better disciplined than the police's efforts to maintain the peace and it has certainly put Gam on the back foot and pushed it up into the jungle-covered mountainous interior. But at what cost? A massive escalation in the number of people, particularly innocent civilians, killed and livelihoods destroyed. Last year the death toll was about 1,500, and this year it is likely to significantly exceed that. And as for getting anywhere closer to a final resolution of the conflict: not a chance.
Gam is certainly not free of blame. It vehemently denies it is a terrorist organisation yet it has no compunction about kidnapping innocent people, destroying school buildings and terrorising civilians. The separatists, whose leader, Hasan di Tiro, is based in Sweden, say their demand for independence is non-negotiable, especially in light of the last 12 months' events, while Indonesia's president, Megawati Sukarnoputri, refuses to budge on creating even a federal state, let alone allowing Aceh to follow East Timor's example and break away.
The international community is firmly on the government's side as far as the nation's territorial integrity is concerned but is openly apprehensive about the escalating death toll and overreliance on a military approach to resolving the conflict. A senior American official even said yesterday that a ham-fisted and ill-thought out imposition of martial law could negatively affect military ties between Washington and Jakarta, something the Indonesians are desperate to avoid. In other words, the world is not just watching and taking note but impressing upon ministers the need to keep the talks going. Hence the current dilemma. To be fair to the government it is not rushing into the decision but allowing a frank and open, perhaps too open, debate on the subject.
The army chief of staff, General Ryamizard Ryarcudu, has made it very clear he wants to go in with guns blazing; the interior minister (a retired three-star general) believes martial law is preferable to civilian emergency on account of the local politicians' incompetence, and the local assembly wants the status quo to continue. The senior security minister, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (another retired three-star general), is currently on a week-long fact-finding tour of the region and is taking care not to express his opinions but wait to discuss the matter in cabinet.
Ms Megawati is the swing voter. She is unquestionably close to the military, which is helping to prop up her majority in parliament; she is irate abut Gam's activities and is terrified of national disintegration. However, she is also aware that nine years of martial law in the 1990s under the dictator Suharto achieved nothing except deepening the mistrust and hatred of Jakarta by the Acehnese. It is by no means certain which way she will jump but whatever she decides it will be a significant indication of how she intends to run the country until the 2004 general election.

Posted in Aceh conflict @ 11 July 2002 by Jeroen · 'Blog' RSS feed · permalink

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