Separatist Movement Destabilizes Indonesian Government

In October, a new Indonesian government was installed in an attempt to put a democratic face on continued neocolonialist rule. Now the stability of the new government is already being threatened by a powerful rise of movements for self-government among various peoples of the diverse island country.

These areas were pockets of chronic discontent compressed by military repression. Now, the breakdown of the dictatorship has opened up the way for an active and massive expression of alienation from the Indonesian state.

On Nov. 8, around a million people demonstrated in the capital of Aceh province on Sumatra demanding a referendum on independence. That is nearly one fourth of the entire population of the small nation.

In the Indonesian capital of Jakarta itself students and people of Acehnese origin have staged the largest demonstrations in front of government buildings since the installation of the “democratic government,” demanding justice in Aceh and punishment of the military officers guilty of violating the human rights of Acehnese rebels.

Kompas, Indonesia’s largest daily, wrote in its Nov. 26 issue that the rise of national conflicts in Aceh and other areas was responsible for a fall of 17 points in the stock market and a growing uneasiness on the part of foreign investors, who were “shifting their capital to Hongkong and Singapore.”

Aceh has a historically distinct character. It was the bridgehead of Islam in the Indonesian archipelago and remains a stronghold of the orthodox faith. It was a bastion of resistance to the Dutch occupation of the islands.

The movement for Acehnese independence has been identified with Islam and thus poses a special problem for the new regime in Indonesia.

Before becoming president, Abdul Rahman Wahid was the leader of Nahdatul Islam, the largest of the Islamic associations. The conservative Islamics are the neocolonialist rulers’ main base for reconsolidating their dominance in a new form.

But the Suharto dictatorship’s brutal repression of the movement for Acehnese independence was seen as part of its generally repressive attitude to Islamic organizations, a policy that among other things led to the Tanjuk Priok massacre in 1984 in the Jakarta area.

Thus, Wahid’s first response to the rise of the demand for a referendum in Aceh was conciliatory. In the Nov. 10 issue of Kompas, Abdul Rahman Wahid was quoted as saying: “If the people of East Timor were given an opportunity to determine their own fate, why can’t the people of Aceh also?”

Wahid immediately went on to say that he was sure that the people of Aceh would opt for remaining in Indonesia. But his support for a referendum immediately drew fire from representatives of the military and from Golkar, the party of the military dictatorship.

In its Nov. 12 issue, Kompas reported a press conference in the Magelang military academy in central Java by a group of generals, including the army chief of staff, General Subagyo Hadisiswoyo, and former Vice President Tri Sutrisno, also a former military ruler of Aceh.

They rejected the precedent of East Timor for Aceh, and proposed that the question of Aceh be handled “within the framework of national unity” by an all-Indonesian referendum, rather than a referendum in the rebel area itself.

On Nov. 18, Wahid responded to an unprecedented summons from the parliament to explain his policy on Aceh. It was a stormy session. On the same day, Agence France-Presse reported that Akbar Tanjung, speaker of parliament and member of Golkar, had told Wahid that the parliament was opposed to a referendum.

On Nov. 17, the head of the national police, Gen. Roesmanhadi, announced that he wanted to impose martial law on some parts of Aceh. But this proposal was opposed even by liberal Golkar leaders such as Akbar Tanjung and Marzuki Darusman, Wahid’s new attorney general. The army chief of staff, Subagyo Hadisiswoyo, also touted martial law, but it was opposed by the commander of the Indonesian military, Admiral Widodo.

The central government is obviously in a dilemma. The massive support for self-government shown by the Nov. 8 demonstration, in the context of general instability throughout the archipelago, indicates that any attempt at a crackdown in Aceh could touch off a chain reaction of trouble. But at the same time, for the same reasons, the state’s repressive apparatus in Aceh is crumbling.

“All cases being heard by 18 district courts [pengadilan negeri] have had to be canceled because of the flight of prosecutors and judges from the land of Serambi Mekah [Aceh],” Kompas reported Nov. 27. It went on to quote a statement by the Aceh chief prosecutor, Soekarno Yusuf, at a press conference in the provincial capital of Banda Aceh. “The flight of scores of judges and prosecutors is intimately connected with the uncertain situation that has prevailed in Aceh lately.”

The “uncertain situation” apparently is that the ground is getting pretty hot under the feet of the representatives of the state repressive system. Moreover, Yusuf complained that even if the spines of judicial agents of the state could be stiffened, they could not do much: “How can we conduct trials when the prisons cannot keep prisoners any more?” According to Kompas, most of the prisoners have escaped.

The Aceh question has thus opened up a rift within both the government and the military. The former military commander, General Wiranto, is deeply implicated in the human rights violations in the province that are now under investigation. And this is after he was disgraced by the role of the military under his command in the massive pogroms in East Timor and in the repression of student demonstrations in Jakarta.

Wiranto was too discredited to succeed as a vice presidential candidate for the Golkar party. But he has been included in the Wahid regime, supposedly in a post that does not involve direct command of military forces. However, according to Far Eastern Economic Review Jakarta correspondent John McBeth, Wiranto remains the central figure in the military establishment:

“As the tension mounts over Aceh, it’s clear the military hasn’t been completely sidelined by the election of President Wahid. Indeed, all signs suggest that former armed-forces commander Gen. Wiranto, in his new post as coordinating minister for defense and security, has not only positioned himself at the heart of the Wahid government, but also retains effective leadership of the armed forces.”

Wahid is in a tight spot also because he refuses to offer the Acehnese anything more than a limited local autonomy, which seems to be too little, too late. The Sydney Morning Herald reported Nov. 25:

“Mr. Wahid said during a visit to the Middle East that the referendum he had earlier promised would cover only the introduction of sharia, or Islamic law, and not independence.

“Asked about demands in Aceh for a vote on self-rule, Mr. Wahid said: ‘No, no, never, because all countries, including the United States, back Indonesia’s sovereignty over all areas of the country.'”

The Australian newspaper went on to quote the response to Wahid by a “leading Acehnese human rights activist,” Abdul Gani Nurdin:

“This is totally wrong. Independence is non-negotiable. Aceh is already following Islamic law.” Nurdin warned that unless the people were granted an independence vote, “it could end up in war.”

About 300 people have been killed in Aceh this year alone as a result of the political conflict, including 88 Indonesian soldiers. It seems clear that the “democratic” neocolonialist government of Wahid and Megawati is unable to meet demands for the right of self-determination.

Struggles for this right are becoming a key part of the continuing radicalization in Indonesia. This is a problem that only the rising revolutionary forces can solve by integrating recognition of the right of self-determination into policies that can unite all of the working and oppressed people in a struggle against the neocolonialist capitalist system.

-GERRY FOLEY