Ripples from the War in Aceh

An elderly Acehnese woman after having narrowly escaped a battle in Aceh
An elderly Acehnese woman sits outside a mosque after fleeing fighting in Lhokseumawe, Indonesia, May 25, 2003 (Photo: AFP).

Jakarta Kompas (independent), May 22: We cannot build a life and a future without peace and security. The violence in Aceh only wounds us and splits us as Indonesians. We have seen that in the two days that martial law has been in effect. We have seen the grief of the families who lost their loved ones. It was such a blow for the parents of Marine Sgt. Maj. Ramli to have their son returned to them stiff and cold. Ramli was killed in an amphibious landing. Similar losses are being felt by the families whose sons and daughters were with [the Free Aceh Movement, or] GAM. Several GAM members were shot dead in the first two days of fighting. Although martial law is said to be in force for six months, it is possible that the enforcement period will be shortened. This can happen only if all sides keep cool heads and realize that the problems among us cannot be settled with violence.

Jakarta The Jakarta Post (independent, English-language), June 3: By definition, the Aceh crisis is a case of conflict in its purest form: It is one in which the interests of the parties involved are completely incompatible and mutually exclusive. The are a number of other conflicts of a similar nature: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Indian-Pakistani conflict over Kashmir, and the conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil ethnic group. There are only two alternatives for resolving such conflicts: a mutually agreed compromise or force, whereby one party wins and the other loses….A fair and just compromise would be an Acehnese referendum on independence.…One can note the experience of Quebec, which remained a province of Canada after a majority of Quebecois voted to remain part of the Canadian federation in a referendum….The question now is, how sacred is the unitary state? Is Indonesia’s territorial integrity more sacrosanct than human lives?
—J. Soedjati Djiwandono

Jakarta Republika (Islamist), May 22: The Indonesian military (TNI) accuses Free Aceh Movement (GAM) of torching schools...but GAM has denied this....Eventually it is no longer important to know who really was behind those actions. In a war, information spreads and the warring parties will fabricate information to keep the spread of information in line with their respective interests. Just look at what the United States did when it attacked Iraq: U.S. military spokesmen held a press conference almost every hour to report the latest developments. The objective was to win the public opinion because winning a war depends not only on battles, but also on diplomatic victories.

Kuala Lumpur The New Straits Times (conservative, English-language), June 2: Journalists covering the military operations in Aceh solely from the provincial capital here could mistakenly think that the whole affair is a humanitarian exercise conducted by benign, smiling, and ever-helpful soldiers. The media management campaign mounted by the TNI from their provincial headquarters here is proving to be a slick and sophisticated public-relations effort. The truth, of course, is that the TNI are on all-out campaign to wipe out the armed GAM insurgents….Journalists who arrived in Aceh without several official permits and fearing the worst are assisted by friendly TNI media department personnel who provide them with the documentation required with few questions asked. A media center established at the provincial TNI headquarters in Banda Aceh enables accredited local and foreign journalists to attend daily media briefings chaired by Indonesia’s military commander in Aceh, Maj. Gen. Endang Suwarya. Well-briefed officials make polished presentations and take great pains to emphasize the humanitarian aid and food supplies being channeled to residents affected by the operations….Taking a leaf from the U.S.-led invasion forces in Iraq, TNI has also “embedded” more than 50 print, radio, television, and Internet journalists with its forces in Aceh.
—Abdul Razak Ahmad

Tokyo Nihon Kezai (financial), May 20: We are concerned that Jakarta’s sudden military offensive into Aceh following the unsuccessful conclusion of the Tokyo peace conference could victimize innocent Aceh civilians and nullify the peace accord reached last December. There are also concerns that if the Indonesian military takes tough measures under martial law, GAM fighters will intensify acts of terrorism, threatening Indonesia’s stability and obstructing foreign capital investment. The international community should urge Jarkata to lift its martial law in Aceh and resume peace talks as soon as possible.

Bangkok The Nation (liberal, English-language), May 27: By backing the attack on Aceh rebels, Bangkok may have given up on hopes for peace in the strife-torn province. For a country that doesn’t like to make its foreign policy stance known, Thailand managed to surprise the international community when it threw its support behind the Indonesian government in their all-out war against the separatist Acehnese....Megawati has asked the Thai government to curb arms smuggling from Thailand to the war-torn province and ensure that no GAM rebels seek asylum there....Although the sticky topic of arms smuggling has not resulted in any souring of relations between Thailand and Indonesia, nevertheless it is an ongoing issue....With the launch of the military operation in Aceh at midnight of Monday last week, which is aimed at “crushing” the separatists once and for all, Jakarta has increased its efforts to prevent the smuggling of more weapons to the province....

Hong Kong Asia Times (online, English-language), May 28: While GAM may be small, it can continue to draw on large support, even if not all Acehnese are in favor of independence or the imposition of Islamic law. GAM’s goal is not necessarily to evict the Indonesian army as it is to draw Acehnese into hating the forces sent by Jakarta.
—Phar Kim Beng

Sydney The Australian (conservative), May 24: Aceh is set to become Indonesia's latest nightmare.... The chief victims, as always, will be Acehnese civilians. But this tragedy holds profound implications for Indonesia, for Australia, and for the tenuous, rocky, difficult relationship between the two nations. Aceh threatens to re-create one corrosive pattern of Australia-Indonesia relations....The governments in Jakarta and Canberra try to improve the relationship, not least by working on vitally important common interests such as the fight against terrorism, only to have this blighted by Australian public opinion turning sour as a result of TNI misbehavior. This Australian reaction then produces its own response in Indonesian public opinion and a vicious cycle sets in. However, there are reasons for thinking this time things may play out differently. For a start, Indonesia is a different society from the Indonesia of the 1980s and '90s. It is a democracy with a growing civil society and a free media. Indonesia’s President Megawati Sukarnoputri is in tune with Indonesian public opinion in pursuing a military operation in Aceh....But public opinion can change....Should the military operation turn catastrophic...public opinion could swing dramatically....
—Greg Sheridan

Melbourne The Age (centrist), May 28: Memo to all independence supporters: Aceh is not Kosovo. Why? The easy answer is that Aceh is an integral part of a country slowly moving toward democracy, whereas Kosovo was an ethnically distinct part of a country (Yugoslavia) that was disintegrating, and whose continued survival served neither political nor humane interests. Since its inception as a state, Indonesia has been constantly faced with separatist movements, often supported from outside…. It is hard to defend the apparent tactics of the Indonesian military in Aceh, but lip service to Acehnese independence will only reinforce Jakarta’s determination and strengthen hard-line nationalism. Supporters of the GAM risk causing death and suffering for no likely gain by the people they claim to support. Indonesians fought for independence 50 years ago on the basis of old colonial boundaries. As a leader in the international anti-colonial movement, Indonesia has a deep attachment to national sovereignty and an equal fear of disintegration, a fear that unites Indonesians irrespective of other divisions….Yet while its neighbors were willing, in some cases reluctantly, to accept the independence of East Timor, further attacks on Indonesian sovereignty would be deeply destabilizing for other [archipelago] countries in Southeast Asia.
—Dennis Altman

Auckland The New Zealand Herald (conservative), May 27: When Indonesia launched an offensive against separatist guerrillas in the remote province of Aceh, it insisted it had learned from the mistakes of the past. There would be none of the military abuses witnessed in East Timor, in restive Papua province or in Aceh itself. The welfare of civilians would be given the highest priority. Excesses would not be tolerated. One week later, it is clear little has changed. Summary executions of men—and, in some cases, boys as young as 12—have become routine as the military moves from village to village, searching for GAM members. The “international community” has already given its blessing to the crackdown, with the United States, Japan, Australia, and the EU all declaring that Indonesia’s territorial integrity is paramount. Their fear is that if Aceh breaks away, Papua and other regions may follow—and the world’s largest Muslim country could collapse like a house of cards.
—Kathy Marks