Jun 21, 2024 Last Updated 1:20 AM, Jun 20, 2024

Building solidarity

Lesley McCulloch

I responded enthusiastically when the editor asked me to write an article for this edition of Inside Indonesia. But my enthusiasm dwindled when he assigned my topic: ‘international activism and solidarity for Aceh, compared to that for East Timor.’ Nothing came immediately to mind. I needed some time to think.

The simple fact is that international solidarity for Aceh is much weaker than that for East Timor. The turning point for East Timor was the November 1991 Santa Cruz massacre. It was really only after this that the issue was taken up seriously by the United Nations. Suddenly, there was a plethora of international conferences on the issue. The international attention radar had been activated. Activist networks and demonstrators seemed to emerge from nowhere.

In fact, East Timorese activists had dogged the paths of Indonesian dignitaries around the globe for years. They had also nurtured the foundations of a solidarity network, waiting for the time when it could be most effectively mobilised: Santa Cruz was it. However, no such network exists for Aceh. A few international solidarity activists struggle to raise awareness about Aceh, but there is nothing on the scale of the East Timor days.

Three distinct reasons explain why the solidarity movement on Aceh is relatively weak. First is the failure of the Acehnese themselves to see the value of fostering international networks. Second is the challenge of grounding the movement in international law. Finally, the international political environment is less supportive today of the idea of violent struggle.

Vicious circles

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to building an international campaign on Aceh is simply a general lack of awareness. Most people don’t know much about Aceh. It is hard-going to mobilise people about an issue that is not already part of their crowded ‘priority map.’

But of course, this is a circular argument: once people do start to engage with an issue then a media debate begins, and mainstream interest increases. In other words, one reason why Aceh is not on the ‘priority map’ is that there hasn’t yet been enough solidarity campaigning.

All is not gloomy: a few solidarity groups do exist. The first is the Support Committee for Human Rights in Aceh (SCHRA). This was established by the late Jafar Siddiq Hamzah. Jafar was an Acehnese lawyer studying in the United States. He was murdered in Medan in North Sumatra in 2000, allegedly by Indonesian security forces. SCHRA is a loose coalition of groups, many of which are quite active. But they don’t identify as members of a broader coalition, leaving many with the impression that SCHRA is ineffective and exists in name only.

Giving cause for optimism on the Aceh solidarity horizon is APCET (the Asia Pacific Consultation on East Timor). In May this year APCET 5 met in Dili and voted to broaden its mandate to include Aceh (as well as several other areas of conflict). APCET was a very effective vehicle for consolidating East Timor campaigning. Many Acehnese activists hope that this same mechanism can encourage solidarity for their cause.

There are also diffuse but committed groups that receive little exposure in Australia and New Zealand, the United States, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, UK, Sweden and other countries. They have organised workshops on the Aceh issue, trying to build and maintain a fledgling network.

We should not forget that the East Timor campaign waxed and waned over many years before anyone really took notice. For almost two decades, the people of East Timor fought a lonely struggle with support from only a few international friends. The November 1991 Santa Cruz massacre, filmed by a Western journalist and seen on television screens around the world, catapulted the issue of East Timor into the consciousness of millions of people, and it was out of this awareness that solidarity groups emerged.

The Acehnese role

A discussion of the international solidarity movement for Aceh is impossible without mentioning the Acehnese themselves. The Acehnese must be held to account for their lack of a grand strategy, and weak networking.

ýupport for the East Timorese didn’t come from nowhere. The East Timorese themselves were extremely skilful at building and maintaining links with potential sympathisers in Indonesia and internationally. In contrast, the Acehnese tend to be closed and close-knit. Often, Acehnese communities overseas don’t invest time and energy fostering relationships with local activists.

The East Timorese campaign benefited from the support of other Indonesian activists. For example, the establishment of the Jakarta-based group, Solidamor (Timor Solidarity) was the result of quiet encouragement by the East Timorese. When Indonesians like those in Solidamor condemned the actions of their own government, it was much more powerful than criticism by ‘foreigners’.

In Jakarta and elsewhere, the East Timorese worked with Indonesian activists on issues unrelated to Timor. For example, on issues like workers’ rights, the economy and corruption they showed a sense of solidarity and political awareness beyond simply ‘Timor Merdeka’. In this way, they promoted themselves and their own issue to a broader constituency. Many Acehnese are unable to see where Aceh fits into the larger picture. They question the value of engaging with issues ‘not obviously’ related to Aceh.

Internal cohesion is another challenge. As one prominent East Timorese campaigner said recently in a private discussion: ‘From what I can see of the Aceh campaign, the one big weakness is that there seems to be little sense of solidarity among the Acehnese themselves. Whereas we were always sure of that, and our diaspora was supportive of the campaign in terms of giving money and time.’

In East Timor’s favour

Few people internationally ever questioned that Indonesia’s annexation of East Timor was illegal. The East Timorese right to self determination was recognised in international law. Since governments usually retreat to international law when seeking to avoid a moral obligation, this legal status was a central pillar for East Timor campaigners. In contrast, the Acehnese, who argue that Aceh was never part of Indonesia and it should therefore be allowed decolonisation, have failed to convince their international friends. The international solidarity movement has not adopted this argument.

The East Timorese also enjoyed strong support from Catholic church communities. The church used its global network to disseminate news and support people on the inside. The Acehnese do not have the luxury of international Muslim solidarity. Even groups like the big British aid organisation Islamic Relief shy away from working on Aceh, replying to requests for assistance with: ‘We are sorry, we cannot help with Aceh right now. It is too political. We must protect our presence elsewhere in Indonesia.’

And of course, as the former coloniser, Portugal eventually acknowledged its responsibility by taking up East Timor’s cause. A state openly sympathetic to their arguments gave great confidence to people in East Timor, and to international groups who supported their cause.


Today, the international political environment is less conducive to a campaign based around human rights, justice, democracy and peace than even a few years ago. Fear and suspicion of unknown — even non-existent — threats inform the psyche and analysis of many in the Western world. Since 9/11, many Western governments view Indonesia almost exclusively through the prism of the ‘war on terror’. The Indonesian government has exploited this to portray the Acehnese as violent extremists. The Acehnese themselves must counter such misinformation and promote their own vision of peace.

In East Timor, the military campaign took place in the shadow of politics and diplomacy. In Aceh, it’s the opposite. GAM is widely viewed as being more violent that Falintil ever was. Fretilin appealed to the international community by speaking the language of diplomacy and realpolitik. GAM has been slow to employ diplomacy to achieve its political ambitions. It has not separated its military and political wings to appeal to the world in the way the East Timorese did.

International solidarity for Aceh must rest on an agenda and strategy conceived and driven by the Acehnese themselves. International friends cannot (nor should they) be in the business of manufacturing a struggle that doesn’t exist. In 1977 information slowed to a trickle from East Timor. The result was that international solidarity began to drop away. The same is happening in Aceh today. We in the solidarity movement are looking to the Acehnese to provide us with the necessary tools and information to strengthen our movement.

Lesley McCulloch (lesleymcculloch@yahoo.com)is an independent researcher.

Inside Indonesia 81: Jan-Mar 2005

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