Feb 23, 2024 Last Updated 12:52 AM, Feb 22, 2024

Bitter taste of victory

In Aceh and Timor, violence remains an attractive option for men even after the peace

Jacqueline A Siapno

On a recent visit to Aceh, I was struck by the many similarities between its current situation and East Timor, the country where I have been living for the past seven years. Aceh, of course, is not becoming independent of Indonesia. But some broadly comparable changes are afoot: peace is replacing war, a new law providing autonomy is coming into effect, former guerillas are being reintegrated into society, and exiles are returning. It struck me that Aceh’s future may have striking parallels with East Timor today.

Then, when I returned home to East Timor, the country became enveloped in the worst crisis since independence. The crisis began with an internal army problem: 591 soldiers abandoned their barracks claiming severe discrimination from their Lorosae (Eastern) commanders and rejecting accusations that Loromonu (Western) people ‘did not struggle for independence’. After one week of peaceful demonstrations from 24-28 April, during which the government of Prime Minister Alkatiri did not respond, the petisionarios began targeting government buildings. The prime minister and army responded by hunting them down. The petisionarios and others regrouped in the mountains. Along with thousands of others who became internally displaced, I too was forced to leave for the mountains.

In East Timor, recent events show that much of the military, composed of former independence fighters, became independent from Indonesia and its military only geographically. Their mentality, attitudes, processes, and procedures remain largely unchanged. Militarisation was so successful in East Timor that even after independence, violence and war is still an attractive option for most men.

Independence from what?

One root of the current conflict is marginalisation in peace and reconstruction. Many ex-guerillas from the western districts of Loromonu, whose demonstration sparked the crisis, feel bitter about the outcome of the independence struggle. They say that they also struggled, spent long years in prison, and fought in the jungles, but are now not included in building the nation, face discrimination when they look for jobs, and are not valued or acknowledged by the government as having been important in the struggle. They complain, for instance, about unwritten policies to make sure no one from Loromonu is promoted or gets to higher decision-making positions in the military.

Another political division is centered on resentment of former members of the East Timorese diaspora. A so-called ‘Mozambique clique’ dominates the government. Individuals who benefited from the Indonesian occupation and were able to obtain higher degrees abroad, or who were exiled for decades, came back to rule. They have the bilingual skills to act as translators and intermediaries between local people and the all-powerful international agencies and donors. Many ordinary peasants and workers feel that these former exiles do not really know the East Timorese people well and yet are in charge of shaping and determining the nation’s future.

As in Timor, there are signs in Aceh of conflict over who sacrificed most and should therefore be entitled to benefit.

One can foresee a similar scenario in Aceh. There are already signs of conflict over who struggled, suffered, and sacrificed most and who should therefore be entitled to more resources and opportunities from the peace. When I visited Aceh, many people already seemed wary of exiled leaders of GAM, the Free Aceh Movement, from Sweden and Malaysia coming back to take control. Under new arrangements, GAM is likely to form a political party and run candidates for governor. What concerns me most is that Acehnese women may lose out in the new rules of the game.

Women and democracy

On 8 March 2006 more than 2000 women gathered in Banda Aceh in a peaceful public demonstration against new and not-so-new mechanisms of subordination being put in place to control women’s mobility and power. They aimed to break down the walls that prevent women from articulating their aspirations, and which prevent them from actively participating in the peace process and post-tsunami reconstruction. They feared that women are being marginalised in peace, just as they were marginalised during war.

The story of hard-line, male-dominated nationalist armed struggles betraying women’s aspirations is nothing new. In fact, it has constantly repeated itself, from Palestine and South Africa to Sri Lanka. In East Timor, some women who played a courageous and committed role in the struggle for independence have been pushed aside, their critical ideas and contributions under-valued. While the current ruling party is lauded for having a good percentage of women in parliament, critics also note that most of these women are passive ‘quota-fillers’ who are easily controlled and can be relied upon not to rock the boat.

In retrospect, it has been painful in both East Timor and Aceh to see men, from both sides of the conflict, shooting at each other, then negotiating with each other and finally planning future strategies to resolve things, with very little consultation with or involvement of critical women.

During my visit to Aceh, several highly respected, influential, and intellectually subtle women activists, scholars, and lawyers in Aceh spoke to me about their fears. One commented: ‘If GAM is in power one day and rules this land, which is now highly likely - we’d like to create another country, or at least move to another country.’ When asked why she thought that, she replied: ‘We do not want to be ruled by orang-orang pesakitan (wounded people), who have only known pain, torture, and war, and whose ways of solving problems is primarily through militarised, masculinist, violent means - without consulting women.’

I also interviewed several GAM people, asking them if there was a space to discuss such critical perspectives. Some of them responded in the affirmative, others said: ‘No - not at the moment - because we don’t really have any power to do much. So it is not fair for Acehnese women and scholars to criticise us now.’

Another prominent Acehnese woman humanitarian aid worker said that male GAM leaders even do not value the contribution of the former women GAM members: ‘They are not included in the peace-building processes, nor reconstruction and rehabilitation. They do not have any power to be involved in decision-making processes. They are like low level corporals - who are told to go there, come here - but have never been allowed to choose and determine for themselves or for GAM. In all of these processes - from peace-building, transition, reconstruction and rehabilitation, institution building - none of them have been included. Maybe one token [woman], but not enough.’

She argued that the women involved in GAM were also victims, but that ‘always the priority is on the men. Most of the people receiving monthly compensation payments, land, and other benefits as a result of the peace process are men. A few women who were previously imprisoned have been assisted, but most have not - apparently because they are just ‘wives’, not GAM members. But it is these women who felt the severe consequences of this armed conflict. Why aren’t their names included in the lists of people who deserve support?’

Outsiders are already familiar with the the conflict between GAM and the Indonesian military in Aceh. But the war within, between women’s agency and masculinist nationalism, is little known.

International honeymoon

Another lesson for Aceh from East Timor concerns the role of the international community. After being closed to the outside world for a long time, the local population in East Timor initially went through a honeymoon period when a huge number of ‘internationals’ suddenly descended upon them.

Nationals of various countries flooded into East Timor to serve as ‘advisers’, ‘experts’, and ‘consultants’ on every imaginable topic, ranging from microfinance, public sector reform, reconstruction and development, to justice, trauma recovery, and agriculture. The honeymoon romance was short-lived, however. Locals quickly began to see the unequal power dynamics behind the international presence, and the negative unintended consequences.

Many of the foreign experts assumed that after the war, most aspects of Timorese life would be destroyed. From extensive traveling in rural districts since 1999, however, I observed that indigenous belief systems were resilient. Foreign experts either didn’t know about indigenous beliefs, or disparaged them as superstition and myths.

They thought they had all the answers, and didn’t hesitate to tell the Timorese what to do. One Filipino local governance expert commented: ‘Of course, if this were in the Philippines - I wouldn’t do the things I do here. Give advice when I can’t even speak the language, and don’t know the history. We despise those kinds of consultants in the Philippines. But here in Timor - ironically, I am doing exactly the same thing.’

The end result was that ordinary local people in East Timor tended to be at the receiving end of international assistance, with little meaningful participation or ownership of reconstruction and development programs.

Sadly, but predictably, the same experts who've finished playing god in Dili, have now moved to Aceh.

Sadly, but predictably, the same experts who have finished playing god in Dili, have now moved to Aceh. Banda Aceh has become Dili. Several international consultants and advisers whom I knew in Dili - working in the justice sector, micro-finance, health, gender and development, psycho-social counseling and domestic violence - have now moved to Banda Aceh. Acehnese complain about the high cost of renting houses and offices because international organisations can pay much more than locals can afford. Local lecturers in universities and NGO workers have abandoned their posts to work for higher-paying international institutions. Instead of building strong local institutions, many talented locals are strengthening global ones. A kind of ‘dependency mentality’ is developing. International experts are somehow perceived as the ‘solution’ to every problem. There is little space for asking whether these experts might be part of the problem, or even for recognising that they are not necessarily always ‘neutral’, but have their own interests.

There has been much criticism of the reconstruction and rehabilitation process, in particular from outspoken women, including Wardah Hafidz, Acehnese civil society and women’s organisations (such as LBH APIK-Lhokseumawe, RPUK, Flower Aceh, and Mispi). They complain that displaced persons are not allowed to participate actively in determining the rehabilitation of their own houses, lives and livelihoods. They note that many of those making policies lack understanding of Aceh’s complex history and society, or are not very concerned. The Aceh Monitoring Mission, the chief international body overseeing the peace process, apparently only expressed interest in women’s participation as their mission began to be wound up.

Facing fatigue

The general impression I had in Aceh was that many women activists were trying their best to be optimistic, but in fact saw the situation as quite depressing. Many of those I spoke to for this article expressed extreme fatigue, having worked in an armed conflict situation non-stop, some of them for more than ten years. Post-traumatic stress disorder, as a result of layers of accumulated trauma, with the latest being the tsunami, has taken a huge toll. It is hard even to care for oneself, let alone to work in an organisation supporting victims of conflict or natural disaster in such circumstances.

As exhausted as these Acehnese women activists now feel, the experiences of East Timor suggest that their struggle is far from over. Unfortunately, for societies coming out of years of conflict and trauma, the legacies of violence and inequality do not disappear quickly. This challenge is especially severe for women. They face not only an array of international experts who ignore the voices and experiences found in local societies. They also confront their ‘own’ leaders in masculinist national liberation organisations, who do not value women’s role in leading and healing their own society.

Jacqueline (Joy) Siapno (jsiapno@unimelb.edu.au) lectures at the University of Melbourne. She has lived in East Timor since 1999, and is currently researching conflict, displacement and reconstruction in Aceh.


Jacqueline Siapno wrote this article in East Timor as the recent wave of violence began to sweep across the country. Fleeing to the mountains with her child, Hadomi, and husband, Fernando de Araujo (leader of the Democratic Party (PD) in Timor-Leste) she later learned that their house in Dili was burned to the ground. Eventually, she was evacuated to Australia with Hadomi, though Fernando remains in East Timor. Read Jacqueline’s story, and her analysis of the East Timor crisis in her article, ‘We had a house in Dili’, published by the Nautilus Institute at: http://nautilus.rmit.edu.au/forum-reports/0617a-siapno.html

Inside Indonesia 88: Oct-Dec 2006

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