Jul 22, 2024 Last Updated 5:22 AM, Jul 16, 2024

A different freedom

Published: Jul 30, 2007

Islamic rebellion in Aceh and Mindanao is not so irrational

Jacqueline Aquino Siapno

'Mountain goats eat the corn; village goats get hit with stones.' This Acehnese saying poignantly captures the ongoing violence there. Unable to capture Free Aceh guerrillas, the Indonesian military go after Acehnese villagers. My own work in the Southern Philippines and in Aceh tries to help dispel the negative propaganda against the Acehnese and against Bangsamoro in Mindanao as 'fundamentalists' and irrational troublemakers. It is astounding to see how easily the government, media, and 'experts' can influence the public into forming opinions about these movements without a need for critical reflection and careful investigation. This fosters a pernicious cycle of violence and ignorance.

News coverage of the rebellions in Aceh and Mindanao against the Indonesian and Philippine states respectively has much to say about the 'terrorism' conducted by Free Aceh (GAM) and by Abu Sayyaf. The latter, leader of a splinter group of the factionalised Bangsamoro rebellion, was responsible for kidnapping tourists from a Malaysian resort in April. Yet hardly anything is said, at least not in the Australian media, about what the Indonesian and Philippine governments are doing to the unarmed civilian populations there, or about the political-economic dimensions of the conflicts, or about why independence movements emerged in the first place.

Mention is rarely made of a history of more than twenty five years of armed rebellion in Mindanao, producing at least one million internal refugees, including more than 100,000 Filipino Muslims who have fled to Malaysia, and about 120,000 dead. Propaganda against the Free Aceh Movement and against Muslim 'rebels' in Mindanao as 'security disturbing gangs' (GPK), as extortionists, kidnappers, and extremists is pervasive in the media, and uncritically reproduced even by progressive intellectuals. Institutionalised, systematic state violence in Aceh and the Philippines, meanwhile, is hardly ever called 'criminal'. Only recently are observers belatedly beginning to acknowledge that members of the government and the military have behaved like no less than war criminals in these two places.

Making a state

My own interpretation places the armed rebellions in Aceh and in Mindanao within a larger context. The construction of modern nation-states and citizen-subjects in these areas is itself a new and violent historical project. This project tends to paint populist movements that are anti-occupation culture, anti-colonial, anti-secular, and anti-capitalist as a sort of 'quintessence of evil'. It dismisses acts of resistance as 'fundamentalist', 'fanatical' responses to depressed rural conditions, conditions that need to be dealt with by education and the mediation of a secular, representative government.

The state-building project justifies state terror through a judicial system that makes it impossible for its victims to seek redress or even challenge its language. It portrays whole communities who threaten to break up the nation-state and put it to shame as terrorists, kidnappers, and 'subversives'. The Philippine government and the Indonesian government have failed in Mindanao and in Aceh. They have failed because they have had to resort to extremely brutal measures to implement their goals of integrating the Acehnese and the Muslims in Mindanao into the nation-state project.

The reasons for the continuing Acehnese and Bangsamoro rebellions are complex and numerous, but certainly not irrational. More than twenty five years now of political instability and violence, class conflict, and underdevelopment have produced impoverishment. The most basic infrastructure is lacking, as is access to schools and higher education. Moreover, occupation culture has been a culture of terror. It has produced militarisation and sadism. Both areas have suffered from policies of massive transmigration of non-organic groups: from over-populated Luzon to Mindanao, and from other areas in Indonesia to the under-populated, fertile lands of Aceh. This has created conflict by dispossessing people from their land.

In Aceh, colonising power has been institutionalised through an extensive system of surveillance, torture, road checkpoints, street harassment, sexual harassment and rape, 'sweeping operations' and house-to-house searches. Aceh's oil and natural gas resources are exploited for the benefit of Jakarta. Its over-centralised administration has alienated the people. The independence movement and its sympathisers are demonised as 'enemies of the state'. Indonesian government officials constantly use a language of paranoid absolutes, for example: 'referendum is out of the question'; 'separation would be a violation of national integrity'.

I do not wish to be misunderstood as an apologist for independence and/ or Islamist movements, nor for predominantly male nationalist movements which claim to represent their entire nation while keeping the female half of the population invisible. But unless the structural roots of the conflicts are genuinely addressed, any short-term measures will serve merely as band-aid solutions. That could include the humanitarian assistance and 'confidence-building measures' recommended these past few months by 'conflict resolution' consultants to the Indonesian and Philippine governments.

In both cases, armed rebellion has a history which spans several decades, if not centuries if we incorporate their anti-colonial struggles against the Dutch in Aceh, and against Spanish and American colonialism in Mindanao. Given these long histories, it would be fatal to bludgeon them from the arrogant centre with a quick-fix, ahistorical, militaristic solution.

In the Philippines, the historic peace agreement known as the Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao, signed with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) led by its founder Nur Misuari in 1996, did not end the armed rebellion. A different faction, namely the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), rejected the agreement. Less than a year after the historic 'peace' agreement was signed, on 16 March 1997, the Philippine armed forces shelled the MILF's main Camp Abubakar and hit a religious school (madrasah), resulting in the deaths of ten female students and their male teacher. In June and July of 1997, armed clashes occurred between the MILF and the Philippine military that involved the aerial bombardment of the MILF's Camp Rajamuda. This produced more civilian and combatant casualties and evacuations, much like the present situation in Aceh.

This may be a useful comparative study for Acehnese who want to understand the lasting effect of 'ceasefires' and 'peace negotiations' that neglect to include all important groups. In a glaring omission, women's groups that have been at the forefront of political organising, among them the Duek Pakat Inong Aceh Congress participants of last March, were not included in the Joint Understanding on Humanitarian Pause for Aceh signed in Switzerland in mid-May. A genuinely democratic negotiation with any hope of lasting should include the women's groups, however ideologically diverse they may be.

There is too much emphasis on the role of the Free Aceh Movement GAM. The independence movement in Aceh today is much larger than GAM. Any genuine solution to the conflict ought to include all the other groups outside GAM. These also want independence, but talk about it in very different terms - in some cases extremely critical of GAM's policies.


The dominant myth that needs to be dispelled is that the conflicts in Aceh and Mindanao are religious conflicts aimed at setting up an Islamic state. Most analysts like to portray the Mindanao conflict as one between a dominant Catholic majority and a Muslim minority. This argument is seriously problematic. It says nothing about the just redistribution of economic capital or the problem of underdevelopment. And it is certainly not applicable in Aceh, where a Muslim majority is oppressing a Muslim community. In reality, the conflicts in Aceh and Mindanao are about natural resources, about land and capital, and about social justice for the victims of state terror. At bottom, they are about the structural re-organisation of the nation-state - much like the struggle for justice in West Papua and East Timor.

In any case, contrary to popular phobias against Islamic law as being somehow more oppressive of women than secular law, in some cases it is actually more egalitarian and in favour of women's rights, particularly in the fields of inheritance and divorce. The ongoing debate about gender and Islamic law in Aceh and in the Muslim world generally is complex, but it would serve us well not to assume that secular law is somehow more liberating for women.

Perhaps we should ask why it is that Islam in both these places has become such a powerful expression of cultural identity and mobilisation. Conceptions of social justice in resistance Islam are in fundamental opposition to the bureaucratic values of the secular state, which emphasise integration into the national economy and global capital rather than political community. The earlier idealisms of 'Islamic socialism', Third World nationalism, the 1955 Bandung Conference, and Sukarno's 'Go to hell with your aid!' have faded. But the vision of Islam as a form of community that demands social and economic justice remains very much alive.

Jacqui Siapno (j.siapno@politics.unimelb.edu.au) lectures in political science at the University of Melbourne.

Inside Indonesia 64: Oct - Dec 2000

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