Nov 17, 2018 Last Updated 12:17 PM, Nov 15, 2018

Anti-insurgency logic in Aceh

Published: Jul 27, 2007


Edward Aspinall

One of the most striking features of the current 'military emergency' in Aceh is the ideological campaign accompanying it.

During the first few weeks after security operations began on 19 May, local newspapers like Serambi Indonesia and Waspada (which can be accessed on the internet) were filled with reports of 'loyalty pledges', or ikrar kesetiaan, taking place in countless localities across the province. These events involved large crowds of civil servants, school students, or ordinary villagers, assembling in small towns to promise their loyalty to the Indonesian state.

At the meetings, government officials and military officers would make long speeches condemning the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, GAM) as criminals and promise to defend Indonesian unity to the 'last drop of blood'.

These events were of course highly stage-managed, and doubtlessly involved considerable compulsion. Occasionally, Jakarta-based newspapers even interviewed participants who said they attended only to avoid being accused of supporting GAM.

An interesting aspect of these events, however, was that the speakers frequently implied they were unsure of the loyalties of those they were addressing. Instead, they cajoled or, more often, berated them. Take, for instance, comments by Major Yani, Chief of Staff of the local Military District in Tapaktuan, South Aceh: It is no longer permissible for people to act in a neutral manner when it comes to GAM, to say yes to GAM on one side and then yes to the Indonesian government on the other. Starting now it must be clear: if you are NKRI (Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia) then you must always be NKRI.

Other officers spoke at length about how public servants could no longer work for the Indonesian government but in their hearts be GAM. Some explained that citizens had to relinquish feelings of 'pity' and report relatives involved in GAM.

Often, too, the appeals contained implied threats. A common refrain was that it was GAM who was responsible for the military operations, and that violence would not end until the people worked up the 'bravery' to oppose GAM. As Aceh military commander Endang Suwarya put it to an audience in West Aceh: 'This conflict will not end if there are still those who give a place to them. Suffering will continue.'

Speeches like these provide some insight into how military officers view their task in Aceh, and the deep unease they have about the sympathies of the population. They also accord with the stated aim of the first phase of the military operation as a whole, which is to 'separate GAM from the local population'.

While there has been considerable local coverage of the 'loyalty pledges', media restrictions make it difficult to know precisely how the actual military operations are being pursued in Aceh's villages. Officers claim that they have learned the lessons of the past, and that strict standards of legality are being observed (this is another common theme in speeches by officers at ikrar kesetiaan). Some soldiers have already been punished for beatings and rape.

Yet many reports suggest that officers have good reason to express frustration about the local population. Media stories, especially those by 'embedded' Indonesian reporters accompanying troops, provide an impression of a fearful, but sullen and uncooperative, population in much of rural Aceh. And it is a population which outsiders find difficult to gauge.

As one Kompas reporter put it, 'Asking people for directions, let alone chatting with them, is not an easy thing in rural Aceh. This is partly because some of them can't speak Indonesian. But it is mostly because they are afraid if those asking the questions are outsiders. Especially if the question is put in Indonesian. Because of that, the standard response which comes out of their mouths is 'hanna tepu', which means 'don't know'.'

Many Indonesian journalists conclude from such experiences that local people are too fearful of GAM members to betray them to security authorities. This certainly may be the case in some areas; GAM openly admits to killing informers. Lack of cooperation may also, of course, mask active sympathy for the movement.

There is long-standing anecdotal evidence that TNI and brimob (police mobile brigade) troops serving in Aceh develop a kind of siege mentality. They often feel themselves to be operating in hostile territory, where they may be attacked at any moment, and where it is impossible to distinguish the enemy from ordinary villagers.

During the current military operations, most best-documented abuses so far have occurred when troops enter a village to question locals about the identity or location of GAM members. Professions of ignorance readily lead to beatings; it was for this offence that seven soldiers were disciplined in a highly publicised military tribunal early on in the campaign.

The long-term prospects, then, are not especially favorable for winning a battle of hearts and minds. Virtually all observers agree that GAM is outgunned and that an eventual military victory of some sort is guaranteed for the TNI. An important lesson from the past, however, is that GAM can be remarkably resilient after military defeat.

About a decade after the movement was first virtually destroyed in 1977, GAM was able to resurrect itself and during the late 1980s, pull off a considerable logistical feat by recruiting several hundred young Acehnese men and smuggling them to Libya, where they received military and political training. GAM�s rapid growth in 1999, immediately after the downfall of the Suharto regime, came about after another military defeat in the early 1990s.

One key to this resilience is that GAM has considerable capacity to rejuvenate itself inter-generationally. Many journalists and others who interviewed new GAM recruits in rural Aceh in 1999 noted that many of them were motivated by a desire to exact revenge for family members who had been killed, tortured or sexually abused by security forces earlier in the decade. The local media in Aceh began to speak of a 'generation of the vengeful' (generasi pendendam). Much earlier, the first GAM members in the 1970s were themselves mostly children of an earlier generation of Darul Islam (Abode of Islam) rebels.

This pattern of regeneration suggests that GAM partly depends for its resilience on the kinship and other networks that permeate Acehnese society. Family, locality, friendship and other ties are all important. While GAM has developed quite elaborate formal organisation in recent years, in its rural heartland it also blurs imperceptibly into the traditional structures of village communities.

For instance, during 1999 when the movement rapidly expanded through rural Aceh, hundreds of hereditary village chiefs (keuchik) simply transferred their allegiance from the Indonesian state to GAM. During the current military operations, TNI commanders have expressed great frustrations about the loyalties of many of these keuchik, especially after a group of 76 resigned en masse in Bireuen in early June, claiming that they could no longer perform their duties because of the intimidation they were experiencing.

In some places, especially the traditional areas of GAM strength along the east coast, such factors mean that it is difficult to distinguish GAM from rural society as a whole. An amorphous network of sympathisers, supporters, and part-time insurgents make up a dense matrix surrounding the core of armed rebels, supplying them with logistics, information and other forms of support. Little wonder that TNI troops become frustrated. In at least some areas, it is true, GAM also overlaps with traditional networks of another kind: criminal and semi-criminal gangs who have engaged in extortion, brigandage and other violent acts. It is difficult to know when unaffiliated criminals are simply making use of the GAM moniker for their own private predatory activities, and when those responsible are formally affiliated to GAM. There are certainly some indications, especially in Central and Southern Aceh, that the military has been able to capitalise on popular hostility to GAM caused by previous criminal behaviour.

There is, however, another obvious lesson to draw from GAM's history of regeneration: military methods can be counter-productive. A few short years ago, even TNI leaders themselves acknowledged this. Immediately after the fall of President Suharto, amidst the first public revelations of past military abuses in Aceh, a string of officers admitted that local hostility toward the Indonesian state was at least partly caused by such 'excesses'. Then Commander of the Lilawangsa Military Resort (Korem), Colonel Syarifudin Tippe, explained in a book he authored on the topic, that it was 'reasonable (wajar) that the TNI encountered abuse, deep hatred and resistance from the Acehnese community'.

How times have changed. Tippe's current successor as Lilawangsa Commander, Colonel AY Nasution, has been among the most belligerent speakers during the recent 'loyalty pledges'. He makes it clear that nothing less than total obedience is now expected from the population. As he told one group of factory employees in North Aceh: 'If the community does not support the Integrated Operation [ie the military campaign and associated measures] that means they are the same as the GAM rebels'.

With this mindset, it is hard to imagine Aceh breaking its long cycle of suppression and insurrection.

Ed Aspinall (edward.aspinall@asia.usyd.edu.au) is a lecturer in the Department of Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Sydney, and chair of the IRIP Board.

Inside Indonesia 76: Oct - Dec 2003

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