May 27, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

Combat zone

Published: Jul 29, 2007

David Bourchier

In the years since Suharto, Acehnese resolve has done much to push forward the national agenda on human rights and regional autonomy. Decades of military repression gave Acehnese demands for reparation of past wrongs a special legitimacy and intensity.

Yet the Indonesian military has consistently opposed concessions to the Acehnese and is now using the ongoing resistance there as a stepping stone back to power. There is no more tangible symbol of this process than the establishment in February 2002 of the Aceh regional military command, known as Kodam Iskandar Muda.

On one level, the new regional military command (Kodam) changes little. After all, there is no territory in Indonesia that is not covered by one or another Kodam. Kodam Iskandar Muda had itself existed prior to 1985 when it was absorbed into the larger Kodam Bukit Barisan, a Medan-based command that covered most of northern and western Sumatra.

But a closer look at the dynamics behind the formation of Kodam Iskandar Muda reveals a worrying picture.

Kodams are the key units in the military's so-called territorial apparatus, an intricate hierarchy that shadows the government's civilian administration from the national to the village level. Following the fall of Suharto, when anti-military sentiment was at its height, several pro-democracy groups called for this entire apparatus to be disbanded. Their calls had some support among reformers within the military who saw the involvement of territorial officers in local politics, business and criminal activities as detrimental to the military's image.

Expansion plans

Hardliners in the mainstream military, however, scoffed at the idea of abolishing the territorial apparatus. They used the outbreak of communal violence in several parts of Indonesia in 1999 and 2000 to argue instead for its expansion.

Away from the gaze of Indonesia's newly empowered parliamentarians, planners in armed forces headquarters hatched a scheme in 1999 to increase the number of Kodams from the existing ten to seventeen. The idea here was to resurrect the system of smaller Kodams that armed forces commander General Benny Murdani had rationalised in 1985.

The first move came on 15 May 1999 with the creation of the Pattimura Kodam in strife-torn Ambon, splitting the large Trikora military command that had covered West Papua and the Moluccas. The Pattimura Kodam was named Kodam XVI while the shrunken West Papua command began to be referred to as Kodam XVII. The use of this pre-1985 numbering system left observers in little doubt that the military intended to push ahead with its controversial expansion plan. This was confirmed when armed forces commander Wiranto announced to a bemused parliamentary commission in June 1999 a ten-year schedule for increasing the number of Kodams to seventeen, starting with the Moluccas, Aceh, West Kalimantan and Central/ South Kalimantan.

If Wiranto encountered little opposition to his plan from parliament, the same was not true of the Acehnese. From the moment they got wind of the plan in late 1998, there was strong opposition from student, human rights and community groups. Arguments put by Aceh's then governor, Syamsuddin Mahmud, that the resurrection of our own Banda Aceh-based Kodam would lead to a more culturally sensitive military were quickly howled down. The military was deeply unpopular in Aceh. Intense local opposition appears to have been a crucial factor in delaying the plan.

Presidents Habibie and Abdurrahman Wahid both understood that the deep resentment against the military in Aceh could easily translate into support for independence. In August 1999 Habibie announced an end to Aceh's status as a so-called military operations zone (DOM) and ordered Wiranto to apologise for past abuses by the security forces there. Abdurrahman Wahid went further, engaging representatives of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) in negotiations aimed at a peaceful resolution of the long-running conflict.

On the ground, however, military actions went on regardless. Local commanders viewed Wahid's negotiated humanitarian pause with contempt. By April 2001 the central command had succeeded in pressuring Wahid into allowing a formal resumption of hostilities. This led immediately to the formation of a new combat command for Aceh called Kolakops, under the effective command of Brigadier-General Zamroni, former deputy chief of the feared Special Forces (Kopassus).

Zamroni brought with him an elite force of about 2,000 troops trained by Kopassus. He was also put in command of all territorial troops in the province as well as all other outside forces including Kopassus and Strategic Reserve (Kostrad) troops, giving him control over at least 12,000 troops. Kolakops coordinated its actions at least in theory with the 20,000 police stationed in Aceh.

Kolakops forces launched a major offensive against AGAM, the armed wing of the liberation movement. Given the extent of support for GAM in the towns and villages of Aceh, however, troops under Zamroni's command frequently targeted civilians and only succeeded in further alienating the population. According to the Legal Aid Foundation, an average of seven people was killed every day in 2001.

Megawati's ascension further cemented the military's political power. Sukarno's daughter was far more simplistic in her approach to regional problems than Wahid had been, and far more friendly to the military. She made her attitude quite clear in December 2001 when she told her military audience: 'Suddenly we are aware of the need for a force to protect our beloved nation and motherland from breaking up. Guided by the soldier's oath and existing laws, carry out your duties and responsibilities in the best possible manner without worrying about being involved in human rights abuses. Do your job without hesitation.'

Soon the plans for a new Kodam were on again. This time the opposition was even more widespread, triggered in part by the killing of guerrilla leader Abdullah Syafi'ie by Indonesian forces on 22 January. A range of academics, NGOs and public figures spoke against the plans, warning of an escalation of conflict and an increase in predatory activities by territorial soldiers. In mid-January a three-day strike against the new Kodam reportedly succeeded in crippling two-thirds of businesses in Aceh.

There was also muted opposition from within Megawati's government. Speaking to reporters last January, Indonesian Foreign Affairs Minister Hassan Wirayuda expressed his scepticism about the plan, stressing the need for dialogue with GAM. This reflected the long-standing frustration in Indonesia's foreign affairs establishment with the military's repeated undermining of its attempts to negotiate a peaceful solution.

Local parliamentarians, however, had an interest in promoting the idea, with the new governor, Abdullah Puteh, one of its strongest supporters. By this time the position of Kolakops commander had been taken over by Brigadier-General Muhammad Djali Yusuf.

New faces

On 5 February Kodam Iskandar Muda was officially reinstated, with Djali Yusuf becoming Kodam commander. Much was made of the fact that he was Acehnese. Like most Kodam commanders across Indonesia today, Yusuf graduated from the military academy in Magelang, Central Java, in 1972. Between 1996 and 1997 he was responsible for operations in the Udayana military command that included East Timor. After serving for two years in East Kalimantan he became Zamroni's deputy in Kolakops in Aceh. He has repeatedly indicated that he endorses a hard-line solution to the Aceh conflict.

Yusuf's chief of staff is Colonel Syarifudin Tippe, the Buginese combat engineer who until April 2001 commanded Korem 012, the Banda Aceh-based military district that covers the northern and western half of Aceh. When Tippe was first appointed to his position as Korem commander he spoke of 'slaughtering enemies of the state.' After a time, however, he began to make conciliatory statements and even recommended negotiating with GAM. He wrote at least two books on Aceh that tackle the question of Acehnese nationalism and the reasons for the military's unpopularity. At the same time, he opposed the humanitarian pause and now appears committed to follow the same path as his new commander.

For military purposes, Aceh is divided into two district commands (Korem) and eight smaller military districts (Kodim). The latter correspond to civilian regencies (kabupaten). The current commander of Korem 012 is Colonel Gerhan Lentara, who had a long history of combat in East Timor. In Dili in November 1991 as deputy commander of Battalion 700, he was the officer whose slashing was followed by the Santa Cruz massacre. Meanwhile Colonel Azmyn Yusri Nasution, a 48-year old Kostrad officer with experience in many areas including Aceh, now commands Korem 011 covering eastern and southern Aceh. His most recent appointment was Operations Assistant at Kostrad headquarters in Jakarta.

Whether the new Kodam will replace the Kolakops structure is as yet unclear. If East Timor is any guide, the combat command will continue to exist alongside the territorial apparatus. This would leave ample scope for confused lines of command and friction between territorial and non-territorial forces. But as we saw in East Timor, such confusion is useful because it allows maximum deniability when things go wrong.

The formation of the Aceh Kodam bodes ill for peace in Aceh and for reform in Indonesia. It suggests that Jakarta is now fully committed to a military solution. Aceh is already reliving the nightmare of being a bloody combat zone. It is also a sign of growing military assertiveness at the national level. Weak resistance from national parliamentarians is another nail in the coffin of reformasi. With this success under their belt, the military is likely to push ahead with its plan to increase its influence by establishing more military commands throughout the country.

David Bourchier ( teaches at the University of Western Australia

Inside Indonesia 71: Jul - Sep 2002

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