Dec 01, 2023 Last Updated 8:29 PM, Nov 27, 2023

In Indonesian eyes

Published: Jul 25, 2007

Usman Hamid

In 2003, thousands of Indonesians mobilised in mass ‘anti-violence’ rallies against the US invasion of Iraq. Around the same time, the Indonesian government imposed martial law in Aceh and launched a massive military operation to crush the Free Aceh Movement. This time, there were almost no protests.

Yet the results of the two military operations were similar: civilian casualties or ‘collateral damage’. Most Indonesians, however, seem willing to ignore Acehnese casualties. They pretend nothing is amiss in Aceh.

Can it really be true that the Indonesian people are more concerned about Iraqis than the Acehnese? Aren’t the Acehnese not only our fellow human beings, like the Iraqis, but also our fellow Indonesians? Moreover, like most Indonesians, the majority of Acehnese are Muslims. The religious factor helped build Indonesian solidarity for Iraq. Many of the largest protests were organised by Muslim groups. Why didn’t the same happen for Aceh?

Let me make one thing clear: not all Indonesians are unconcerned. The group of which I am a member, KontraS, and some others, have long worked hard to promote human rights and peace in Aceh. Even some prominent Muslim leaders criticised martial law. But if we are honest, we have to admit that we are still in the minority.

There are several explanations. First, the public has little access to information about what is really happening in Aceh. Since martial law began, it has become harder for journalists to cover the conflict, especially the impact on civilians. Much of the information which does come out originates with the martial law administrators and their media centre.

But this can’t be the only reason. After all, before martial law began, there was a lot of press coverage of human rights violations in Aceh. Immediately after the fall of Suharto in 1998, there was a flood of reporting about the terror, violence and abuses the Acehnese had experienced at the hands of the army.

Now, looking back at that time, I wonder if the press coverage really reflected the national mood. Were we deceiving ourselves when we thought that the public really viewed Acehnese suffering as a humanitarian problem of national significance? Maybe the real explanation was simply that the military was hurting politically and wasn’t able to stem the flow of negative publicity from courageous journalists.

A second answer might be more structural, and more fundamental. From this perspective, Indonesian nationalism still hasn’t given rise to real social solidarity. The post-Suharto period shocked many Indonesians. Suddenly, communal antagonisms that had long been concealed by Suharto’s regime reignited.

This is a hard thing for many Indonesians to accept. Although Suharto’s repressive rule was often to blame, many Indonesians looked only to the post-Suharto disorder, without trying to undersand the roots of the problem. For instance, many Indonesians don’t understand that Acehnese disillusionment is the result of a long historical experience of mistreatment by the centre, that dates back to the 1950s. Instead, they just fall back on ethnic stereotypes, explaining away ‘trouble’ in Aceh by reference to the ‘rebellious’ nature of the Acehnese.

The third answer, and the one I find most convincing, is that today’s apathy is a legacy of military rule. During the long years of Suharto’s rule, the authorities were free to promote their version of Indonesian nationalism. They equated nationalism with the defence of ‘territorial integrity’. In the military mindset, the Aceh problem is all about separatism and rebellion. It’s not primarily about human rights or democracy.

This is still the dominant way of looking at the Aceh problem. Human rights, for many people, is a Western idea. People who hold this view sympathise with the military as the guardian of the nation. The extreme example is the civilian or paramilitary groups that use intimidation and physical attacks against human rights groups. KontraS has been attacked several times.

Just before the latest attack in May 2003, I tried to talk with some of the demonstrators who accused us of being ‘foreign agents’, ‘anti-nationalist’, and ‘defenders of rebellion’. I explained that we raised concerns about human rights abuses in Aceh simply because we rejected violence, whoever committed it. I said we were really interested in upholding human dignity in Aceh.

They didn’t care. For them, all that mattered was one thing: Aceh must remain part of the Republic. It seemed that whatever happens to the Acehnese, national unity is what counts. Unthinking nationalism like this is one of the poisonous legacies of the Suharto years.

Usman Hamid is the Coordinator of KontraS, the Commission for the Disappeared and Victims of Violence.

Inside Indonesia 81: Jan-Mar 2005

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A selection of stories from the Indonesian classics and modern writers, periodically published free for Inside Indonesia readers, courtesy of Lontar

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