Aug 05, 2020 Last Updated 3:52 AM, Jul 28, 2020

Where did we go wrong?


After the fall of Suharto in 1998, an energetic civil society movement emerged in Aceh. Human rights groups, women’s organisations, student activist coalitions and many others were established. It was an exciting and inspiring time. Many groups condemned the military directly, some campaigned for self-determination. Others worked at the grass-roots level, mobilising volunteers to collect information about human rights abuses and strengthening local community awareness.

I was an activist in the movement at that time. Now, however, I see a lot of problems and feel it’s time to speak out. I don’t want to embarrass my Acehnese activist friends, but I think we should begin a debate among us. Conditions are difficult in Aceh now, and we need more self-criticism and reflection.

Elitism and democracy

One problem is the elitism of many civil society leaders. In the first place, most members of Acehnese civil society groups are middle class. Many of them were university students who lived in Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, or other large towns. Adding to the problem, some members of these groups have become ‘an elite within an elite.’

Most civil society leaders assumed their positions between two and five years ago, when civil society groups were mushrooming. Most (though not all) were never elected via democratic processes. Yet they still dominate decision-making and the public face of civil society activism. Most ordinary members have become a ‘silent majority.’ They lack the skills and confidence to question their leaders.

So now, not only do the civil society elites no longer represent broader Acehnese society, they often don’t even represent their own members. Instead, they make decisions without broad consultation. Internal democracy is seen as a taboo issue. But how can we campaign for democracy when our own groups are undemocratic?

The problem is compounded because many groups are getting smaller. Even well-known groups like SIRA, the Aceh Referendum Information Centre, which organised the huge pro-referendum rallies of 1999, now has membership below double figures. The same goes for many other groups, like LNDRA, KARMA, Farmidia, PDRM, ORPAD, Perempuan Merdeka and Forum Kutaraja. However, we Acehnese lack the confidence to say that such groups do not represent all Acehnese.

Cooperating with GAM

These internal problems have led to a second problem: several civil society leaders have taken it upon themselves to adopt a policy of close cooperation with the Free Aceh Movement or GAM. There is now an attempt to bring all Acehnese activists under the GAM umbrella. In this new trend, I see dangers. Associating so closely with GAM will harm our campaign for freedom of expression and association in Aceh.

Many activists now seem unable to see the value of civil society standing alone as a separate force. In recent months, several meetings have taken place between elite civil society activists and GAM members. Several points of cooperation have been agreed upon. One was to produce a joint information bulletin (Duta Acheh).

I do not blame GAM for this misjudgement. They are simply trying to promote their political cause. I do blame the civil society elite who agree to such things with no mandate. More than that, I blame the silent majority for not objecting.

Why are the silent majority silent? A clear example came at the end of August 2004. The GAM Prime Minister, Malik Mahmud, issued a statement entitled ‘Monkeys see Monkeys do’ to condemn the transfer of Acehnese prisoners to jails in Java. In it, he implied the ‘Indonesian colonial government’ was like a monkey, blindly imitating its Dutch colonial predecessor.

An activist located overseas sent a criticism to an Acehnese mailing list suggesting that using the word ‘monkeys’ was inappropriate. Some ordinary activists agreed, adding that GAM needed to use more moderate language in its statements. They worried that the word ‘monkeys’ suggested an ethnic and anti-Javanese outlook. However, most of the civil society elite said nothing.

Several GAM members responded. They took an aggressive tone. One of them wrote that GAM had no need for criticisms by people who had achieved ‘absolutely nothing’ themselves. Moreover, he added, ‘whenever the Prime Minister makes a statement, he is sure to have thought it through 300 times.’ When this happened, all civil society members of the list fell silent.

We tend to claim that all the problems experienced by civil society in Aceh are caused by state repression. Most are, but some of them come from ourselves. We need to speak more strongly in favour of internal democracy and against our often unrepresentative leaders. We also need to learn the courage to resist pressures from GAM. It is with this hope that I write this article. I hope my fellow Acehnese activists can discuss these issues positively and in solidarity.

The author of this article is an Acehnese civil society activist located outside Aceh.

Inside Indonesia 81: Jan-Mar 2005

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