Dirty war smoulders on in wake of disaster

January 21, 2005

Aid workers hope their presence can end years of bloodshed in Aceh but the Indonesian military has other ideas, says Damien Kingsbury.

As bodies are buried, debris is cleared and rebuilding gets under way in Indonesia's tsunami-ravaged province of Aceh, many Acehnese have begun asking about the future. More than 2,000 aid workers, whose movements were restricted by the government last week, are asking questions too - partly about the direction of the aid effort, but also about Aceh's deeper problems.

The area of Aceh is still called "Aceh bersimbah darah " (blood-soaked Aceh). The question is, will Aceh be able to use this disaster as a catalyst to break the cycle of violence that has dominated it for more than 130 years, or will this massive aid effort only amplify the province's problems?

It is a question that is of special relevance to the UK, one of the main arms suppliers to the Indonesian military. Although there has been a requirement that UK arms are not used in domestic conflicts, UK-supplied Hawk aircraft and Scorpion armoured vehicles continue to be used in Aceh against the lightly armed separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM).

It is difficult to understand Aceh without considering its history. Aceh was the area through which Islam entered archipelagic South East Asia. It is known as " serambi Mecca" (Mecca's veranda) - and the Acehnese are devout in their belief, if slightly localised in their interpretation of Sunni Islam.

Aceh was once a powerful Islamic trading state and trade has continued as a preoccupation of urban Acehnese, which, combined with an Islamic fatalism, is reflected in their often freewheeling, forthright character. Aceh was attacked by the colonial Dutch in 1873, although it took them three decades to secure their authority. Even then, raids against the colonisers did not stop. During the Second World War, there were attacks against the occupying Japanese. The Dutch never returned to Aceh, but, after the war of liberation, the sultanate was reduced to sub-provincial status, denying local claims for a high degree of autonomy within a federated state. This precipitated Aceh's involvement in the Darul Islam rebellion against the central government, which ended in 1963 with the promise of "special autonomy". This promise turned out to be hollow.

By 1976, Aceh was a major oil and natural gas producer. A small group of Acehnese called for independence. The military's repressive response to this call alienated many Acehnese, boosting support for independence. Two mass rallies in the capital, Banda Aceh, in 1999 and 2000, strongly indicated that the 4.5 million Acehnese wanted a referendum on independence, which, after the breakaway of East Timor in 1999, the Indonesian government will not allow.

While the conflict has waxed and waned, by 2003 the GAM had about 6,500 guerrillas and a much larger activist support base. In response, the Indonesian military, the TNI, has chosen a military "solution" to the Aceh problem. Until this disaster, the TNI had in effect sealed off Aceh to outsiders.

To date, the TNI's military "solution" has been counterproductive but has entrenched Aceh as a prime site for TNI revenue-raising. The TNI is about two-thirds or so self-funded. Much of this money comes from TNI-owned businesses, protection rackets, smuggling and various other illegal activities. One way of raising funds in Aceh occurred after the burning of scores of schools after the declaration of martial law in May 2003. The TNI secured the rebuilding contracts at grossly excessive fees, then sub-contracted out the work, pocketing the difference.

Now there are reports that the TNI is stockpiling food aid intended for tsunami victims, which it is in some cases selling rather than distributing freely. There are growing concerns that the TNI will profit again from reconstruction work. There are also concerns about whether calls for general debt relief to Indonesia will ever benefit Aceh. It has been a rule-of-thumb in Indonesia that after several layers of bureaucracy take their cut, about 10 per cent of aid reaches the intended recipients. To this end, a massive influx of untied aid could accelerate corruption problems.

Immediately after the tsunami, the GAM declared a unilateral ceasefire. The TNI, however, has used the opportunity to launch a series of major operations against the GAM, as well as bringing in thousands of fresh troops, although it announced last week that it had agreed to a ceasefire.

The TNI is blaming the GAM for disrupting aid efforts, even though the GAM is explicitly welcoming foreigners to Aceh as a means to secure peace.

The Indonesian government, meanwhile, has sponsored the arrival of two radical Islamist groups, the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and Laskar Mujahidin (LM). The FPI is made up of street thugs. It was initially employed by the TNI to attack pro-democracy protesters in 1998, and has since turned to extortion. The LM is the military wing of the Indonesian Mujahidin Council (MMI), established in 2000 by Abu Bakar Ba'asyir, the alleged head of the al-Qaeda-linked terrorist organisation Jema'ah Islamiyah.

Both groups were deeply involved in the recent sectarian bloodshed in the Malukus and Central Sulawesi that left many thousands dead. The FPI and the LM have already threatened foreign aid workers, demanding that they observe strict Islamic law in public. And they have said that part of their role in Aceh is to convert Acehnese to the "true" Islamic faith: their own version of the radical Wahhabism that inspires militant and terrorist Islam worldwide.

The LM leader in Aceh, Salman al-Farizi, says Aceh was hit by the tsunami because the Acehnese "betrayed Allah". The TNI, meanwhile, says that while it accepts foreign aid, it wants aid workers to leave Aceh. To this end, it is citing the deteriorating security environment it has played a key role in creating. The intention appears to be to return Aceh to being a TNI fiefdom.

If it succeeds, despite many aid workers' reluctance to leave and the belief of some that their presence could act as a catalyst to end hostilities, Aceh's long cycle of violence will continue.

Damien Kingsbury is director of the international and community development masters course at Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia, and is author of The Politics of Indonesia , third edition, to be published shortly by Oxford University Press.

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