Monday, August 15, 2005

Clarity Achieved, Oppressors Still in Place: A Deal Disarms One Side in Aceh

Today (August 15, 2005) the Aceh Freedom Movement (GAM, Gerakan Aceh Merdeka) will sign a deal with the government of Indonesia under which they agree to disarm and accept amnesty, money and farmland. They will be allowed to form a local political party in exchange for a political vow of silence: under Indonesian law the party will not be allowed to stand for what GAM has always stood for -- independence for Aceh, or at least a referendum vote on independence.

The TNI - POLRI (the Indonesian national armed forces and police), which has slaughtered many thousands of Acehnese civilians (GAM has also killed some, but a fraction as many), will temporarily withdraw some of its troops, but will have the long term right to bring them back at its pleasure since Jakarta remains Aceh's sovereign.

Even now in the upcoming transition months, when a couple of hundred foreign monitors will be present, troops from some of the most notorious military and police units can remain in Aceh: Intel operatives who run the torture houses, Air Force men who have bombed villages, and BRIMOB police who abduct and rape at checkpoints can stay so long as they are technically classified as "organic" elements. And outside and above the formal terms of the deal -- activists and military people agree -- the US-trained Kopassus special forces, the most feared of all, can also stay in Aceh, working undercover and applying the "tactic and technique" of "terror" and "kidnapping," as one of their classified training manuals puts it (Buku Petunjuk tentang Sandi Yudha TNI AD, Nomor: 43-B-01).

This deal has been portrayed as a TNI withdrawal and an Aceh peace deal. It is neither -- the TNI - POLRI stay, and they get to keep their weapons and use them at will -- and it is they who have been the main peace violators, doing the vast majority of civilian killings, tortures, arsons, rapes, disappearances, thefts, extortions, and arbitrary detentions .

But the deal does change the situation in a major way in that it puts armed GAM out of business, and helpfully clarifies the situation: it is now undeniably TNI - POLRI versus civilians. That has always been the essence of political life in modern Aceh but the world has never seen it because the GAM was futilely shooting at the oppressors and drawing away all outside attention (such as it was) from the TNI - POLRI's killings of civilians.

GAM deserves credit for disarming. They should have done it a long time ago. They were only making matters worse, and now that they're gone, there are possibilities. But their act of self-abnegation should not be misconstrued as a settlement to the Aceh problem, and their de facto vow of silence should not be construed as applying to Acehnese as a whole.

In November, 1999 the Acehnese mounted what was, in proportional terms, one of the largest demonstrations in world history. Perhaps a quarter of the population turned out in Banda Aceh to peacefully call for referendum. Caught completely off guard, the TNI - POLRI moved to crush the civilian movement, knowing that though they could not lose militarily in a shooting war with the GAM, they could well lose politically if the world got to hear peaceful Aceh voices.

That didn't happen. Jafar Siddiq Hamzah, the leading international voice, who had testified before the US congress, was tortured to death upon returning home (his body was found in September, 2000) (see posting below, "Other People's Hands," of September 22, 2004). Others were assassinated, jailed or driven into exile, and the first the world heard of Aceh was when the tsunami struck in December, 2004.

In legal and military terms the Acehnese are still as subordinated as they were before. Though the deal contains two references to the UN covenants on civil and political rights and establishes local institutions like a human rights court (with no specified powers), the same repressive laws that bind all Indonesians still apply to them, and, far more importantly, the TNI - POLRI -- effectively above the law anyway -- still occupy their region.

But in cold pragmatic terms, with the GAM now out of the way there is the chance that dissident speech, though still repressed, might now become politically fruitful. Muhammad Nazar, the best known civilian activist -- who was seen as too big to kill -- was jailed for giving a speech in a village in which he advocated referendum. Word is that he will be released, but if he gives the same speech again he can be jailed -- or worse -- again, but now, post-GAM, there will be a chance for such a sacrifice to draw some meaningful outside attention.

It was such attention that made it possible for East Timor to win independence in different circumstances, but for Aceh that is more difficult since it is historically part of Indonesia, and indeed predates it, while Timor was a foreign land that was invaded by Indonesia, with US backing, in 1975. The loss of a third of their population to TNI - POLRI slaughter gained nothing for the Timorese until the Dili massacre of 1991 drew some outside attention and the acknowledgment that this was an unjustified case of a military killing civilians.

Aceh is also such a case, and the Acehnese have also been dying in vain. If they continue to speak for referendum they will likely continue to die, but they may now get something for it, since the fog of two-sided combat will presumably no longer obscure the one-sided repression by TNI - POLRI.

What they might get is publicity that weakens the TNI/POLRI, and the repressive Indonesian state apparatus generally, and such weakening is the only hope for any substantial democracy, freedom, or justice in Aceh, and in Indonesia as a whole. But those harmful institutions will only be weakened on balance if the US, Europe, Australia and other outside powers can be stopped from using this deal as yet another excuse to try to push through a restoration and/or increase of foreign military and police aid. It was after all the cutting of that aid, in response to grassroots pressure, that cleared the way for the ending of the Timor occupation and, prior to that, the downfall of the US-backed dictator, Gen. Suharto.

So whether this deal helps or hurts will in important part depend on the behavior of outside parties, and it is just such risks and complexities that have made some TNI - POLRI generals reluctant to accept it. Much press coverage and grassroots speculation in Aceh has centered on whether TNI - POLRI and, for that matter, the GAM field fighters, will follow the deal. For many GAM people it is a bitter pill. It is they, and not the big-time killers who will have to lay down their arms, renounce their goal, and prostrate themselves before the enemy state. But at the same time they will get amnesty and will be ostensibly free to return to their homes. For the TNI - POLRI it looks like victory: they get the guns and the right to rule, while Aceh gets a local flag. But this sparring with GAM has been very good to the Jakarta generals. It has helped to justify their dominance of Indonesia and it has made many of them millionaires. It is easy to see why many of them will be sorry to see the armed GAM go.

But Indonesia's President, Gen. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono -- who supervised the Aceh repression and martial law under the previous President, Megawati Sukarnoputri -- takes a more strategic view. He seems to recognize that though TNI needs a two-sided shooting war for self-justification to Indonesians, it doesn't necessarily need two or three of them (The military recently sent 15,000 new Kostrad troops and Kopassus into harshly-repressed Papua in Indonesia's east, which has a lightly-armed rebel movement, and continues to stage violent Christian vs. Muslim provocations in the country's north - central islands), and that the loss of surplus money to be stolen from from a combat-zone Aceh can be more than compensated for by the money to be stolen from increased tsunami aid flows, and the power to be regained by the TNI - POLRI as a whole from new foreign military and police aid. (The military and police can also expect to continue running their rackets in Aceh and nearby North Sumatra, which have included illegal timber, marijuana, prostitution, hijacking, extortion, protection and offshore fishing platforms staffed by press-ganged under-aged boys). It was Gen. Susilo who said that "to demand a referendum" in Aceh "is considered a crime against the state" (Jakarta Post, December 24, 2003), and that principle will still be imposed by force, but he evidently hopes that this deal will now enable Jakarta to be seen from overseas as having somehow changed its stripes.

If Gen. Susilo proves to be right, and the deal brings fresh resources and strength for TNI - POLRI, then his generals' grumbling will have been groundless, and it will be a catastrophe for Indonesia and Aceh. But the officers do have at least one secondary reason for concern: An adviser to Indonesia's businessman vice president, Yusuf Kalla, a principal broker of the Aceh deal, says privately that Kalla will also now become the personal financial broker for newly opened-up international arms deals (the adviser says post-Aceh-deal deals are in sight with Europe, China, and Israel, among others), a lucrative role traditionally played by retired TNI and POLRI generals.

As this is being written -- a couple of hours before the deal signing in Helsinki, Finland -- people are gathering in Aceh's mosques and churches and praying publicly for peace, and perhaps privately for freedom and justice. This deal will deliver none of those things. They are still condemned to live under their oppressors. But it does scramble the situation and open up the outside chance that if they are still brave enough to speak, this time when they are shot down or put in chains, someone on the outside might hear the rattle.