Wednesday, January 31, 2001

A nation that refuses to succumb

The Nation [Bangkok]
January 31, 2001


THE troubles in Aceh are, to many people, just another struggle for independence. But who is behind it, how many groups are involved, and what are their political aims? Andreas Harsono gets to the core of Indonesia's most trouble territory in this exclusive three-part series beginning today.


STOCKHOLM - A thin layer of snow covered the Fittja Centrum metro station, a suburban area 40 minutes from Stockholm's downtown. Commuters hurry home from the station, many stopping at small stores to do last minute shopping.

Two figures stood out from the crowd. Malay-looking, they were well out of their usual habitat, the tropical and humid jungles of Sumatra. They were here to take me to their base, the headquarters of the Free Acheh Movement.

At the time the news was full of the pending resignation of Philippines President Joseph Estrada. One of them asked me whether Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid would face a similar fate. The difference between Jakarta and Manila, of course, was Estrada had lost the support of his vice president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, while Wahid still enjoyed backing from Megawati Sukarnoputri.

In their office on the first floor of a tall apartment building, two other Acehnese figures appeared, smiling and warmly shaking my hand.

"Welcome to our office," said the older one, introducing himself as Husaini Hasan, the chairman of the Free Acheh Movement in Europe. The younger was Yusuf Daud, the secretary general.

"Goenawan Mohamad used to sit there and Arief sat right here," said Yusuf, referring to the founding editor of the Jakarta-based Tempo magazine and Indonesia's well-known political scientist Arief Budiman of Melbourne University who used to visit the office.

We were sitting in a meeting room dominated by a huge television monitor. The red Free Acheh flag stood in a corner. "We also use this room to teach our children the Acehnese language and to conduct our Friday prayer," Yusuf said.

Aceh is an oil-and-gas-rich province on the northern tip of Sumatra, where the Free Acheh Movement guerrillas have been fighting for independence since 1978. More than 6,000 people have been killed in the past decade, especially after then Indonesian president Suharto imposed military rule in 1989.

Few people in Jakarta, not to mention Washington and Tokyo, have much knowledge of Aceh. Why did the rebellion happen? What is its historical background? Why do they want independence when other countries are forming regional groupings? How can Jakarta solve the Aceh question?

Back in the mid-1970s Husaini, an obstetrician by training, was working in a hospital in Medan, the capital of northern Sumatra. He just finished his PhD and was teaching at the Medan-based Northern Sumatra University. He saw injustice everywhere in Medan as well as in Aceh.

He shared his disquiet with Hasan di Tiro, a globetrotting Acehnese aristocrat who had just returned from a posting as an Indonesian representative to the United Nations. Husaini and di Tiro were critical of Jakarta. While Aceh produced revenue of more than US$10 billion annually, it was mainly channeled to the corrupt Suharto regime.

Research di Tiro conducted found that the once-powerful Acehnese sultanate had never legally surrendered to the Dutch colonial master, which occupied the vast Netherlands Indies archipelago since the 18th century. Aceh had always stood up boldly to the Western power. In 1873, the Dutch declared war against the Aceh sultanate and invaded the kingdom, but they never really controlled the province.

It also took them many decades to find answers to the Aceh guerrilla resistance. Between 1873 and their defeat by the Japanese in 1942, the Dutch tried many times to create the image that they had successfully defeated and annexed Aceh.

Freedom fighter Sukarno declared Indonesia independent in August 1945, but spent the next four years fighting off the Dutch before cementing the nation's freedom. That came after the United States intervened and asked the Dutch to talk with their former colonial subject.

In 1949, the Dutch signed a treaty with President Sukarno's government, transferring the colonial power of the Netherlands Indies to the newly formed Republic of Indonesia.

Di Tiro described the new nation as merely "a Javanese republic with a Greek pseudo-name".

As their relationship grew in the 70s, Husaini helped di Tiro to organize a tight-knit underground movement. It burst into the open on December 4, 1976 when di Tiro issued a declaration of independence of “Acheh-Sumatra” (he used the spelling “Acheh” rather than Aceh). He made himself the head of state and chose Husaini as secretary of state.

Indonesia, according to di Tiro, was a fraudulent state, a cloak to cover up Javanese colonialism. The Javanese are the main ethnic group of Indonesia and live mainly on the island of Java. Sukarno and General Suharto and current President Abdurrahman Wahid are Javanese.

"There never was a people, much less a nation, in our part of the world by the name of Indonesia. No such people existed in the Malay archipelago by definition of ethnology, philology, cultural anthropology, sociology or by any other scientific findings," di Tiro said in a dramatic opening shot at the Jakarta rulers.

His statement was splashed across the front page of the Medan-based Waspada daily newspaper. Husaini found his name listed alongside Hasan di Tiro's. He had begun his guerrilla war against Indonesia.

That prompted a manhunt by the Indonesian army. Di Tiro, Husaini and their other comrades-in-arms decided to head for the jungles and fight. Yusuf, who was then in his early 20s, helped Husaini carry a heavy old-fashioned press printer and thousands of rolled-up leaflets and documents. Their purpose was to educate the people of Aceh.

They had only several rifles and pistols and were no match for the brutal force of the Indonesian army. Husaini was wounded in an ambush a couple of years later and fled in a three-night boat ride to the shores of neighboring Malaysia. Husaini, whose weigh had fallen from 143 pounds to 106, also realized in a Kuala Lumpur clinic that he had contracted malaria. He sought refugee status at the Kuala Lumpur office of the UN High Commissioner on Refugees and offered to stay in Sweden.

In 1980, he was among the first batch of Aceh immigrants to settle in Sweden. Shortly afterwards, Di Tiro arrived in Stockholm. Today, this small group of Acehnese leaders continues to fight the Jakarta regime to a standstill.


Secession Is Better

Husaini believes it is better for Aceh to secede from Indonesia. Aceh has been fighting the Dutch, the Japanese and the Indonesians since the 19th century. Jakarta's army has proved to be more brutal that of the white Dutch rulers, despite the color of their dark brown skins.

"How could you claim to be brothers when your soldiers raped our women in front of their husbands?" asked Husaini.

Husaini remembered how difficult it was in the 1970s to talk with other Acehnese about the need to separate from Jakarta. Many Acehnese believed that Aceh was a part of Indonesia and of the Malay culture; now, they say that every Acehnese man wants a gun.

In fact, some say that the Aceh freedom movement only became so popular because of the unprofessional conduct of Indonesian soldiers. If a political separation takes place, it is likely that Aceh, and other troubled areas of Indonesia like Papua and East Timor, will sit on the table with Jakarta and form a confederation. Perhaps in a loosely organized regional body like the Association of South East Asian Nations.

I asked Husaini about the lack of international support for an independent Aceh. Unlike the Mindanao cause in the Philippines, which was supported by the Organization of Islamic States, or East Timor, whose successful independence movement was supported by Portuguese, not a single country in the world supports the independence struggle of the Acehnese for a Free Acheh.

Husaini, echoing his political rhetoric, said that does not really matter as long as he has the support of the people of Aceh. He theorized that if a UN-sponsored referendum were organized in Aceh, more than 90 percent of Aceh's population of four million would vote for independence.

Many Islamic countries including Libya, which in the past has backed rebel movements in the southern Philippines, have informally demonstrated some sympathy toward the Acehnese cause. Many Aceh guerilla fighters were trained in Libya in the early 1980s.

Yusuf said that the Jakarta government had initially announced that 34 ambassadors from Islamic countries in Jakarta had agreed to accompany President Wahid to Aceh in December 2000. A government spokesman said their eagerness proved that Jakarta's diplomatic offensive against the prospective liberators of Aceh had been fruitful. Only 16 ambassadors flew with Wahid to Aceh. "Where are the remaining 18?" asked Yusuf. The incident proved, he said, that his movement is gaining more and more international support.

"What kind of state will a free Aceh be?" I asked the two men. A democratic state with Islam as its ideology, they said. It will respect the rights of minorities, such as the Chinese, Indians and Arabs, as well as those of the Javanese, and will uphold civil liberties. The native Javanese immigrants, who form the largest minority group in Aceh, will be treated as Acehnese. I asked him why Aceh should be an Islamic country. "Because in the past we had an Islamic kingdom and it was a good one, an internationally recognized sultanate. Sultan Iskandar Muda was famous because of his wisdom," said Husaini.

"Is there particular example of an Islamic country that you would like to imitate?" I asked.

“Unfortunately, no," Husaini said after a brief silence, as though he were trying to quickly scan the human rights records of prominent Muslim nations, such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Libya. Indeed, they are not good examples.

We changed the subject. "An unnatural unity will not last forever. Even without Aceh, Indonesia will break down some day," said Husaini, adding that a newly established democracy in Indonesia does not guarantee that the powerful Indonesian military is ready to lose its grip on the country.

While pouring another cup of tea, Yusuf grinned and admitted that President Wahid is a good man with a good heart. But Yusuf doubted if Wahid could have his instructions being obeyed by Indonesia's notoriously unprofessional generals.

I left Husaini's office with a feeling that Husaini really would like to leave the impression that his movement is a moderate one. While walking back to the Fittja Centrum, I remember him saying, "Indonesia will not survive another 10 years."

Hope For Change

When President Suharto was forced to leave office in May 1998, many Acehnese hoped that his successor, B.J. Habibie, would bring radical change to Aceh. The mood went higher about two months later, when General Wiranto, Habibie's military man, went to Banda Aceh, its capital, and officially ended military rule of Aceh. Wiranto promised soldiers who committed human rights abuses in Aceh would be tried, and called on Aceh's leaders in exile, like Hasan di Tiro and Husaini Hasan, to freely return home.

But the elation did not last long. Wiranto was occupied with another military operation in East Timor in a bid to win back the heart and soul of East Timorese people to vote for Indonesia in a U.N.-sponsored referendum. Wiranto lost and his men ran amok; thousands of East Timorese were killed and buildings were burned down. President Habibie was forced to leave office.

His successor was President Wahid, a blind and sickly Muslim cleric who became Indonesia's first democratically elected president, who along with Indonesian generals failed to maintain the momentum and win back the hearts and minds of the Acehnese. Wahid, while offering peace amid a series of major local military crises, has done little to bring the officers guilty of past atrocities in Aceh to justice.

In the interim, state violence and violations of human rights in Aceh continue. There are arbitrary arrests, disappearances, extra-judicial executions, and village sweeps to search for suspected guerillas have become the order of the day. The simple fact is that, in a militarized and corrupt society such as Indonesia, humanitarian aid, at least in terms of money, will only benefit the bureaucrats and create even more problems, while the suffering people of Aceh receive nothing except bullets and rifle-butts from the Indonesian soldiers.

A couple of days after meeting Husaini and Yusuf, I had the opportunity to meet four other Acheh leaders of the main Aceh freedom movement who speak very negatively about the first two men.

Minister of Health Zaini Abdullah, information officers Bakhtiar Abdullah and Muzakkir A. Hamid, as well as Djamil M. Amin, a personal aide to Hasan di Tiro, came to meet me at the Hotel Esplanade in downtown Stockholm. The weather was not friendly and we preferred not go out, but to speak in the hotel dining room.

I got the impression that the Aceh movement is basically splintered into three different factions. Interestingly, when they speak Bahasa Indonesia, the common language of Indonesia, all of the factions use the name "Gerakan Acheh Merdeka," which they shorten to GAM, but they use different names in English. The biggest one is the Acheh/Sumatra National Liberation Front (ASNLF), which is led by Hasan di Tiro himself and is based in Stockholm.

Husaini Hasan, who used to be the number two man when di Tiro declared Aceh independent in December 1978, leads the second faction, whose official name is the Free Acheh Movement in Europe. But their united front broke down in 1997 when di Tiro was hospitalized due to a stroke.

By the time he had recovered from it, di Tiro had lost his balanced temperament, and due to his age also became senile. "It was a coup. He organized a coup when Tengku Hasan was seriously ill," said Zaini. Another difference is that Husaini's camp would like to set up a democracy in Aceh. Hasan di Tiro, Zaini and his friends would like to have what they call a "successor state" -a government which manages the transfer of power as if representing the now-defunct Aceh sultanate.

It would be a temporary period while preparing the people of Aceh to decide whether they want to have a republic or a monarchy. "Independence first," said Muzakkir, adding that secondary matters, such as the formation of the government or the future of the Javanese immigrants, will be solved after the Achehnese gain independence.

To Zaini and his colleagues, it is better not to talk about the friction; they believe it is a matter that can be settled after independence. They believe that Indonesia is actually a “Javanese state,” dominating other islands and other ethnic groups, and it is a part of the Javanese strategy to exaggerate frictions in Aceh.

The third faction, which is much smaller, is based in Kuala Lumpur and led by Teuku Don Zulfahri, who calls himself the secretary general of the Free Acheh Movement. This faction suffered a blow in June 2000 when Zulfahri was shot at point blank range in the head while eating lunch with three friends in a restaurant in the town of Ampang on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur.

Many of his friends in Kuala Lumpur believe that the motive for his killing was political. Two men reportedly entered the restaurant and shot Zulfahri three times. The two were said to be hit men. Kuala Lumpur diplomats speculated that the murder stemmed from the split within the movement. "This was probably due to intra-GAM rivalries," one diplomat said.

A few weeks prior to his assassination, Zulfahri sent several Internet postings in which he deplored a group he called "bandits led by a Singaporean" –obviously a reference to Malik Mahmud, a Hasan di Tiro adviser who is a Singapore citizen. But Kuala Lumpur police say that the Singaporean of Aceh descent is not on their wanted list.

I asked Zaini about the ongoing talks in Geneva between his faction and Jakarta. A Jakarta negotiator said both sides have agreed to a cease-fire. But Zaini told me Indonesian soldiers did not go along with the guidelines Jakarta proposed. "We are just defending ourselves. If they keep on doing that, there is no way we could negotiate. It is war," said Zaini.

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