Not long ago it was impossible to discuss human rights and democracy in Indonesia without talking about East Timor. Although Inside Indonesia supported East Timorese rights, we sometimes received abusive letters from people for whom the very word Indonesia was indelibly associated with atrocities there.
Today we are faced with an independence struggle that is no less bitter at the opposite end of the archipelago, in the province of Aceh. A long-running self-determination movement flared up dramatically there after the downfall of the Suharto regime in 1998. Part of the Indonesian government’s response was to launch a military offensive against the armed rebels of the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, GAM). Many thousands of people, most of them civilians, have been killed. Countless others have been afflicted with all the other forms of suffering that arise during civil war.
Yet most people in the outside world know very little about this conflict. Aceh is not the household name that East Timor once was. Why should this be so? And even more importantly, what attitude should outsiders take? Should the international community rally to the cause of Acehnese self-determination, as it (eventually) did in the case of East Timor? Or should we view with suspicion those who wish to break away from Indonesia’s multi-ethnic society at the very time it is developing greater democracy?
This edition provides a forum for that debate. Lead articles by William Nessen and Kirsten E. Schulze take widely differing views on the nature of GAM. We also highlight the plight of refugees, analyse the state of solidarity for the Acehnese in Indonesia and the wider international community, and provide a window into Aceh’s own civil society movement.
Inside Indonesia doesn’t take a position on whether Aceh should remain part of Indonesia or leave it. That is for the Acehnese and others in Indonesia to decide. But as always we strive to support those who are struggling to develop greater democracy and to defend human rights. All residents of Aceh who want Aceh to leave Indonesia, and those who want it to stay, should have the right to express their views peacefully and without fear.
Edward Aspinall (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Guest editor of Inside Indonesia. He teaches Southeast Asian politics and history at the University of Sydney.