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An Acehnese in New York

Published: Jul 25, 2007

Eddy L Suheri

Panga is a small village in West Aceh surrounded by mountains and wild forest. At night, you can hear clearly the waves of the Indian Ocean. This is the village where I was born in 1975, in my grandparents’ home.

At that time, there were no modern medical facilities nearby, or even electricity. Most of the villagers were traditional farmers and some worked as small-scale loggers. Electricity arrived in my village only in the 1990s.

A few years after I was born, my family built a house in my father’s village in Lamno, a sub-district with a small town in West Aceh, about 150 kilometres from Panga. Lamno is closer to Banda Aceh, the capital of Aceh. It is about two hours ride by road, or about 80 kilometers away.

I loved both of these villages so much that when I was in elementary and junior high school, I used to live in both of them. I would live in Panga with my grandparents for one year, and then move to Lamno the next. At that time, the roads in Aceh were very poor and all five rivers in west Aceh had no bridges, so I had to use rafts to cross the river.

I moved to Banda Aceh for my final year of junior high school. It was in Banda Aceh that I first experienced a sense of inequality which I now realise was a result of Indonesia’s policies. As a boy from a village, I often felt that I was being treated with disrespect. Most of the people in Banda Aceh felt that they were superior because they were more ‘Indonesian’ than we were. This was especially true of the children of the military and police.

There was an obvious ‘class gap’ in Acehnese society in the city. Political power was concentrated in the city and city people were materially better off than those in the villages. Most city people thus felt a certain sense of gratitude towards Indonesia.

Being a journalist

By 1996, I had become a journalist. I witnessed first hand the impact of Suharto and his family’s rule. I also saw the military’s brutality and arrogance, and its abuses against my homeland and its people. Their repression not only resulted in the deaths of so many Acehnese over the years, but they also destroyed our natural environment. Our forests, and even the Leuser National Park with its unique ecosystem (which is funded by the international community), have been ravaged at the hands of the military and the authorities for the sole purpose of profit-making. These powers are behind the massive logging in Aceh, especially in the west, south and southwest, where I have seen for myself the scale of the devastation.

From 1998 through 2000, I worked in Jakarta as the correspondent in the Indonesian parliament for an Acehnese newspaper called Aceh Ekspres. At that time, I believed that a federal system of government would be the best option for bringing prosperity and equality to the country. This idea, which was part of the spirit of change and reform that followed the fall of Suharto in May 1998, was supported by many members of the non-Javanese elite.

However, it proved to be unpopular with the Javanese elite because they worried that the end of a centralised system would create difficulties for them, especially given Java’s depleting resources and overpopulation. Hence, the Javanese political elite mobilised ultranationalist sentiments to defend Indonesia’s centralised ‘unitary state.’ That was the end of the federal solution.

It was for this reason that I disagreed with Acehnese members of Indonesia’s national parliament, like Ahmad Farhan Hamid and Saiful Ahmad. Within a couple of hours of Abdurrahman Wahid being elected president in 1999, they began to discuss a proposal for a law offering ‘special autonomy’ for Aceh. They were certain that the government would approve their proposal. Their idea was that Indonesia would only be responsible for external defence, monetary and foreign policy; everything else would be left to the government of Aceh.

As I had predicted, however, Indonesia only accommodated about 20 per cent of the original proposal when the special autonomy law was eventually passed in 2001. Most of the ideas that would have made Aceh truly autonomous were left out.

I went back to Aceh at the end of 2000 to publish Seulawah, an independent newspaper which incorporated Acehnese culture in its content. My aim was to popularise a form of ‘cultural journalism’ that was typically Acehnese, as opposed to the mainstream newspapers which influenced people with Javanese culture and used a style of Indonesian language that contained a lot of Javanese words.

I was inspired by Suara Timor Timur, a newspaper in East Timor, which had succeeded in bringing independent news to its homeland during the conflict there. Unfortunately, unlike our East Timorese counterparts, we did not have a ‘security net’ like that provided by the church. Nor did we have much international support for our cause, or the financial strength to continue. Sadly, that project folded after only a couple of months.

Pressure from the military also began to take its toll on me. When I was working for Aceh Ekspres, the military chief in Banda Aceh would call me into his office when I went back home. He warned me against writing articles which the military considered to be too ‘critical’.

I felt that it was too risky to continue working as a journalist under such conditions. The reason I left Aceh, however, was not because I wanted to avoid trouble with the military. It was because I felt that press freedom in Aceh had died after the military took control. I believed that the only way to present my ideas about Aceh independently was by developing alternative media from the outside.

Exile in Malaysia

I spent two and a half years in Malaysia while waiting to be resettled in the US. But there is no real refuge for Acehnese in Malaysia. In the past, several bloody incidents involving Acehnese refugees have taken place. In one, a riot in the Semenyih detention camp in 1997, many refugees died after they protested against maltreatment.

I was arrested and sent to jail twice in Malaysia. The first time was because the police suspected me of being a member of GAM (Free Aceh Movement). The second time was for simply being a refugee. My refugee status, although granted by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, was not recognised by the Malaysian government.

Despite all the difficulties I had to face in Malaysia, I managed to publish a bulletin called Acheh Report which was widely circulated among the Acehnese community there. Through the Acheh Independent Refugees Service (AIRES), which I co-founded with a few friends in Kuala Lumpur, I helped to organise and assist Acehnese refugees.

Living in the USA

I was finally resettled to the US in August 2003. I felt that I had found my freedom once again. After four months living in Houston, Texas, I decided to move to New York City. It has not been easy trying to settle down here. Applying for jobs requires job experience in the US. Trying to rent an apartment requires a credit history in the US. Building a credit history, in turn, requires a credit card. But to get a credit card we need to prove that we have an address, which we cannot get without a credit history. Some of the administrative problems that I have to face here seem pretty ridiculous.

In the US, and in New York City in particular, I have again had to deal with forms of discrimination. The funny thing is that I find discriminatory behaviour most widespread among immigrants, especially those who have recently become American citizens and now work in the public service. Sometimes their treatment of non-citizen immigrants is impolite and unfair. I find this attitude difficult to understand. Maybe it is because they think that we do not understand our rights so they can do whatever they want to us.

It has not all been a negative experience, though. I am particularly grateful because I now have the opportunity to further my studies. It is not a problem for me that I have to start college all over again. I am now working towards a degree in Media Studies and hope to return to journalism after I graduate. I also hope that when my command of English improves, I will be able to continue campaigning for the Acehnese cause at a more meaningful level.

With some Acehnese friends in the northern US, I help to publish a tri-lingual bulletin called The Achehnese. The circulation is limited to the Acehnese community and others in our network. Perhaps in the future we will have a website and other media which can help us report what is happening in Aceh to the international community.

I hope more Acehnese activists will come and stay in New York City, so that more work can be done here to build an organisation that can help publicise our cause. The global situation today, especially the ‘War on Terror’, has not really helped us gain international support for peace and justice in Aceh. However, I firmly believe that the opportunity is always there as long as we are willing to struggle.

Eddy L Suheri (eddy@journalist.com) is an Acehnese journalist living in New York.

Inside Indonesia 81: Jan-Mar 2005

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