Feb 27, 2024 Last Updated 12:52 AM, Feb 22, 2024

Why not independence?

William Nessen

It was late 2002 and I was in Banda Aceh’s best hotel talking to a US embassy official. He was preparing for an impending cease-fire between the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, GAM), and the Indonesian government. He was part of the international chorus telling the world that what the Acehnese really wanted was peace. When I countered that they wanted independence too, he responded impatiently: that may be, but they certainly don’t have good enough reason.

Provoked, I proceeded to list their reasons: several hundred years running to the 20th century as a sovereign state; the greatest resistance in the archipelago to Dutch colonial conquest; broken or empty Indonesian promises of autonomy; pillage of natural resources; de facto military occupation; the crushing of non-violent dissent; the killing, torture and rape of thousands and the absence of any justice for these crimes. All leading, I said, to a complete absence of trust in Indonesia.

The embassy man shrugged. ‘What they need is some justice, economic fairness, and peace,’ he said. ‘They just don’t have a big enough gripe.’

Foreign partisanship

The words of this embassy official sum up the dismissive attitude that the Acehnese face internationally. One of the great tragedies of the conflict in Aceh is that so few outsiders seem to know what the Acehnese want or why.

When the East Timorese struggled for independence, they eventually attracted advocates and admirers around the world. That support helped the East Timorese sustain hope during decades of Indonesian occupation.

In Aceh, despite an overwhelming desire for independence and an unending roll-call of Indonesian brutality, foreign governments, NGOs, policy analysts and others have all sought to convince the Acehnese to accept Indonesian rule.

No one - except the Acehnese themselves - proposes independence as a solution. Fearing the unraveling of the world’s fourth most populous country and hampered by a shallow view of international law and a lack of first-hand reporting and comparative analysis with other national liberation struggles, even well-meaning foreigners can’t think sensibly about the conflict. And so partisanship in favour of continued Indonesian control simply appears neutral.

During a total of a year in Aceh between 2001 and 2003, which included time spent with GAM guerillas and the Indonesian military and in jail, I discovered that much of what passes as balanced scholarship and fair commentary about the conflict perpetuates myths instead.

Caught in the middle?

It is a late afternoon in mid-June 2003, a month into the government’s biggest-ever offensive and I am travelling with a company of GAM guerrillas. We have stopped to rendezvous with other fighters in a village a dozen kilometres from a main spur road. Fighters are washing laundry, drinking coffee and relaxing with villagers, many of whom are relatives or life-long friends.

Suddenly, there are loud bursts of automatic-rifle fire. Without knowing the guerrillas are there, Indonesian soldiers have strolled out of the woods. Overconfident, guerrilla company commanders failed to post lookouts far enough afield.

Male villagers, dozens of guerrillas and I retreat in panic. Soon, however, we are moving in two long columns of a hundred men each, and the commanders have begun to organise the fighters to protect the rest of us. But for the first time since I’ve been with them, the fighters are scared; a vice-commander draws the edge of his hand across his neck — we are finished, surrounded. As the sun sets, we walk swiftly along a dirt road past small wooden houses where women are weeping and crying out for God to save us and bring harvest to Aceh’s struggle.

Before daybreak, a group of old men appears. They are the men the young fighters here turn to when they’ve reached their limits. These elders have organised a dangerous zigzag through the tightening Indonesian ring. We set out in groups of 20, ten minutes apart, each group with a guide silently steering us this way and that, pausing to listen and to send small boys ahead to make sure the route remains clear.

One of the common bits of nonsense one hears about Aceh is that most Acehnese, even those who support independence, don’t support GAM. Hapless victims, opposing violence by both sides, they are ‘caught in the middle’.

Spending time with the guerrillas and in the villages allows a clearer view. The episode above was not the first time I saw ‘ordinary’ Acehnese risk their lives to save GAM fighters. Wherever I travelled with the guerrillas, the ‘people caught in the middle’ repeatedly took sides, providing food, information and heartfelt encouragement. I had experienced the same in East Timor in 1998.

During the first weeks of the new offensive, we were often ushered into a home late at night where an older woman would grind chili paste, fry cupfuls of dried fish and boil a large pot of rice for ‘her boys.’ Even when criticising GAM, Acehnese villagers referred to the guerrillas as their army, often concluding: ‘They are our people, they are us.’

In the towns, that close identification lies beneath the surface. During the day, Indonesian military commanders pointed to their growing control. At night, I’d wander about, usually ending at a simple restaurant, where, invariably, an animated gathering of regular customers would soon be saying, ‘Of course, everyone supports the guerrillas. We just have to be careful now.’

What are you fighting for?

Another common argument against the Free Aceh guerrillas is that they are not really fighting for independence. Other factors motivate them, like power, boredom, money, local prestige, and ethnic hatred.

This view also forms part of the Indonesian military’s own armoury. I recall a meeting with General Djali Yusuf, the army’s top man in Aceh, and an Acehnese himself, in January 2003. Lifting in turn a lighter, then a pack of cigarettes and finally a trademark cigarette holder to make his point, General Djali outlined the composition of GAM: one part genuine nationalist, one part revenge-seeker and one part criminal.

I’d heard it before and it was half-true. Many GAM fighters I knew had lost a father or brother to Indonesian guns. I’d heard their desire to strike back. I’d met GAM commanders who’d been small-time gangsters. Their search for excitement and quick money took them to Malaysia, then on to guerilla training in Libya in the late 1980s.

But political involvement transformed the well-travelled ex-gangsters and the village-bound revenge-seekers into men of broader horizons with a fierce commitment to their land.

None of this should surprise us. Aceh, despite what experts say, is a lot like anywhere else. Sociologists, political scientists and historians have long recognised that movements attract people for a variety of reasons in addition to their stated goals.

Indonesia’s independence struggle in 1945–49 was no different. Robert Cribb, in his book Gangsters and Revolutionaries, shows that criminal gangs played a key role in the struggle against the Dutch. The historian Geoffrey Robinson observed in his book about Bali, The Dark Side of Paradise, that the nationalist struggle there was initially ‘a guise for other struggles’, with nobles and peasants lining up (and changing sides) depending on pre-existing political rivalries.

No one contends that Indonesia’s independence struggle was illegitimate because participants often had multiple motivations, or because some people sided with the enemy, or because opium became the most important trading commodity of the Republic-to-be. Yet some commentators try to delegitimise the entire Acehnese independence cause because some of its supporters don’t have ‘pure’ motives and because, yes, some of them commit crimes.

How bad is GAM?

For some years, human rights organisations have criticised abuses committed by insurgent non-state actors, as well as those by states. With good reason. During the past two decades, numerous guerrilla insurgencies committed two sins together: they used brutal means for selfish ends.

In Aceh, human rights groups and journalists refer to abuses on both sides. Yet what’s striking is how few serious abuses GAM has actually committed, resulting in what some disappointed critics say is a tendency to ‘romanticise’ them.

Unlike a dozen guerrilla groups that come to mind, GAM has conducted no massacres, nor killed many non-combatants. They have not raped or mutilated prisoners or unleashed suicide bombers. Nor have they forced people into military service, unlike many insurgencies. Terror ain’t GAM’s weapon. It has an arguably reasonable goal and goes about it as cleanly as almost anyone has.

The catalogue of Indonesian abuses is vast and rich in detail. Numerous reports by human rights organisations specify time and place, and sometimes the preceding sequences of events. The charges against GAM are few and often vague.

Even the Indonesian military has preferred not to inventory GAM’s crimes, perhaps fearing the comparison. GAM urges no restriction on access for journalists to the territory and comprehensive investigation of violations by all parties. Indonesia has long opposed any such scrutiny. Indonesia shut the province to journalists during the 1990s and closed it again in June 2003.

Some things GAM doesn’t deny. Asserting that they are a more legitimate government than Jakarta, GAM claims the right to impose a tax on anyone running a business in Aceh. Contractors are supposed to be taxed 10 per cent of their profits; small shops, 2.5 per cent. Critics call this extortion. As with any tax, people would prefer not to pay. Yet GAM must depend entirely on fellow Acehnese, and so far the best evidence suggests most people have willingly given what they could.

Other charges leveled at GAM — such as the killing of teachers for teaching the Indonesian curriculum — are not, or not yet, substantiated. Investigating two alleged instances, I discovered that the mobile police had shot the teachers because they were strong GAM supporters regularly donating money. In another case, according to a GAM commander, GAM killed a teacher because, despite many warnings, he kept giving information about GAM personnel to the TNI (Indonesian National Military).

During its battle for the countryside, GAM has killed scores of informers and military intelligence agents. However, some informers are held just a few months. In western Aceh, I met several itinerant pedlars arrested by GAM. They admitted to helping the Indonesians. One told the authorities about the location of several unarmed GAM fighters. The mobile police killed two of them. Angry GAM fighters beat this man badly when they captured him. After that, he told me, the fighters had not harmed him.

Though never saying so, GAM also probably assassinated one well-known academic. Their rumoured excuse: GAM central command didn’t know and wouldn’t have approved what the district unit chief decided to do.

Again, we can compare Aceh with Indonesia’s independence movement, despite changing times and rising moral standards. In 1945-49, all around the country, there were indiscriminate attacks against people working for the Dutch, not just informers. Whole villages were laid waste. Revolutionary groups killed people for wearing Dutch-style clothing or for carrying items in the colours of the Dutch flag. Extortion, robbery, kidnapping, ethnic attacks and terror were the stock-in-trade of Indonesia’s nationalist struggle.

Ethnic cleansing?

The most inflammatory charge against GAM is that it has engaged in ethnic cleansing. With its image of bloodied families heaped and scattered across the ground, this charge is intended to set off alarm bells. Here it rings hollow.

Of the many ethnic groups in Aceh, GAM has had conflict with one only, the Javanese. The several hundred thousand Javanese differ from the other minority groups in three ways. First, they are not indigenous to the region, having all come in the last hundred years, most as part of Suharto’s transmigration program, many during Dutch colonisation. Second, they are from the country’s dominant ethnic group. Third, and most critically, for years thousands of Javanese men have acted alongside government soldiers as village militia forces and anti-GAM combatants.

As proof of the deep-seated enmity toward the Javanese, critics point to GAM’s view (widely shared in much of Indonesia) that Java merely replaced Holland as the ruler of the archipelago, to the anti-Javanese invectives of GAM founder Hasan di Tiro and to GAM’s conception of a sovereign Aceh, which critics say is backward-looking and even racist.

GAM’s nationalism does look back - but only to a past sovereignty. And it looks forward not to a purified ethnic nation-state, but to a multi-ethnic country. GAM includes many members of minority groups, including at the highest levels. The top commander in Central Aceh is a Gayo, and in Tamiang, two of the four district GAM chiefs are Javanese, with numerous Javanese fighters under them.

Still, it helps to hear the critics. A 2002 report of the International Crisis Group states that in Central Aceh, where the bulk of long-term Javanese settlers live, ‘there were raids by GAM guerrillas and local sympathisers on Javanese communities in which people were killed, houses looted and burned.’ In fact, the situation was far more complicated.

Coordinated by the TNI, armed Javanese ‘self-defence’ groups gathered intelligence on GAM, manned checkpoints, patrolled roads, and participated in offensive actions against Acehnese villages. Army units and Javanese militias reportedly killed at least several hundred Acehnese civilians during the first months of 2001. Tens of thousands of Acehnese fled northward, their valuables looted and homes razed.

No one has accused GAM of violence against Javanese women, children and the elderly. Honestly or not, GAM has said that Javanese are welcome back after independence.

A right to secede?

Many people think Aceh doesn’t have a right to separate from Indonesia because the Acehnese were part of the Indonesian independence struggle against the Dutch in 1945–49. Once having agreed to join, they are forbidden to leave. Foreign governments and observers insist this is a basic principle of international law.

But there’s another view of international law that has the backing of a solid body of scholarly literature. In this view, peoples do have a right to secede from an existing state, so long as they are persistent, the crimes against them are great, and they meet certain criteria.

Those criteria boil down to two sets of points. First, secession can’t make the original country more vulnerable to external aggression, leave it in disconnected pieces, block its access to the sea, or remove its economic base. None of these apply to Aceh.

Second, the future country must be a viable entity, in which the majority of people support separation. They must share a strong sense of identity (based on language, religion, traditions, or history) and have exhausted other courses of resolving their problems. International recognition of the secession of four Yugoslav republics was contingent on additional criteria: a democratic government and protection of minorities.

In addition to the ex-Yugoslav republics, there have been several notable instances of secession, including Bangladesh and Eritrea. Most suggestively, the Papua New Guinea government and the people of Bougainville agreed in 2001 to allow the province progressively greater autonomy during a ten-year period, culminating in an independence referendum.

Independence was the ultimate solution for people suffering under European colonial domination. Why shouldn’t it be available for people, like the Acehnese, experiencing a similar lack of political control, economic exploitation and intolerable human rights abuses?

My guess is that after a few years, it won’t matter much to anyone but the Acehnese that Aceh is independent.

Beyond partisanship

Concerned outsiders shouldn’t simply accept Indonesia’s right to rule in Aceh. Instead, we ought to look more deeply at the facts and more widely at all possible solutions.

History, including Indonesia’s, tells us that independence struggles are often painful and scarring. Yet in writing about Aceh, many outsiders impose a mythic model that the Acehnese can never hope to match. But raising the bar on Aceh’s already uphill challenge seems exactly these writers’ intention.

The effect — and the greatest tragedy here — is to leave the fate of Aceh in the hands of Indonesia’s military.

William Nessen (wanessen@yahoo.com) is a freelance photojournalist who was detained for 39 days in 2003 for covering the latest military offensive from the company of GAM guerrillas. He is currently working on a film and book on the Aceh conflict.

Inside Indonesia 81: Jan-Mar 2005

Latest Articles

Essay: Local tradition in a global religious community in modern day Java

Feb 20, 2024 - LEO BARRY

Ghosts and spirits often come up in conversation but attitudes are changing

Review: Netflix’s ‘Cigarette Girl’ promotes Big Tobacco interests in Indonesia

Feb 08, 2024 - MARINA WELKER

Netflix’s series Gadis Kretek (Cigarette Girl) romanticises an industry that kills around 290,000 Indonesians each year

Book review: I am that unicorn

Feb 06, 2024 - HELEN PAUSACKER

Essay: A movement to remember

Feb 01, 2024 - GHINA TSABITAH

This essay is the first in a new series featuring the writing of and edited by young people.

Obituary: Soni Farid Maulana (1962-2022)

Jan 23, 2024 - IAN CAMPBELL

Lontar Modern Indonesia



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

Subscribe to Inside Indonesia

Receive Inside Indonesia's latest articles and quarterly editions in your inbox.