Another Year of Living Dangerously?

Another Year of Living Dangerously?

Mini Teaser: Indonesia's crisis could cause the strategic upending of Southeast Asia. American policymakers may need to act quickly and wisely to prevent a security nightmare.

by Author(s): Rajan Menon

The Dutch gained Aceh under the 1824 Treaty of London by agreeing to
abandon their imperial dreams in India and to vacate Singapore in
exchange for Britain's acceptance of Dutch control of regions to the
south. Under the accord, Aceh, with its long history as a maritime
sultanate, was to remain independent. When the Dutch decided to put
an end to its rising power in 1873, war broke out. The Dutch did not
prevail until 1903, and resistance lingered for years thereafter. Nor
were Acehnese disposed to join Indonesia (molded into its current
shape by the conquests and cunning of Dutch colonialism) when it
became independent in 1949. For Javanese elites at the helm of
post-colonial Indonesia, territorial consolidation was part of
national liberation; to the Acehnese it was another hostile takeover.
Nor did Aceh share the secular aspirations of the Javanese elite; the
support it lent to the Dar ul-Islam ("House of Islam") rebellion
(which originated in western Java and sought an Islamic state in
Indonesia) was proof of that.

Ironically, Islam, Indonesia's greatest common denominator,
contributes to the estrangement between Aceh and Jakarta. The
Acehnese embraced Islam in the 13th century, long before the
populations in the rest of what is now Indonesia did so. Acehnese
Islam lacks the Hindu, Buddhist and animist strains of Islam
elsewhere in Indonesia; it is distinct and more central to community
and identity, and secularism's mark in Aceh is fainter. Aceh's
distinctive language and literary tradition reinforce feelings of
separateness. Although diversity can in principle be managed by
devolution, the central government did not honor a 1959 agreement
making Aceh a "special territory" with extensive cultural autonomy.
State-sponsored migration by Javanese and others into Aceh and the
belief of the Acehnese, now four million in number, that their energy
revenues are diverted to benefit outsiders, helped turned alienation
into nationalism. Independence has become a panacea of mythic
proportions for these grievances.

Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM or Free Aceh Movement), formed in 1976,
arose against this background and was quick to declare Aceh
independent. Yet proclamations require power to become reality; by
the late 1970s, Indonesian military offensives and mass arrests of
suspected members and sympathizers decimated GAM. Yet Suharto's New
Order never addressed the sources of Acehnese disaffection and, by
the late 1980s, GAM was back. Jakarta launched "Operation Red Net" to
destroy it; the armed forces received carte blanche and two thousand
people had been killed by 1992. Others disappeared or were tortured.
Red Net only increased GAM's popularity, however, and became another
milestone in the consolidation of Acehnese nationalism. Memories of
the depredation, and the conviction that the military must be held
accountable for it, remain strong.

The fall of Suharto and the subsequent independence of East Timor
boosted GAM's spirits. Many of its leaders returned from abroad and
started recruiting fighters. The number of GAM's forces is uncertain
(estimates range between 850 and 5,000) as is the source of its
weapons and training. Its arms appear to come from Cambodia through
Thai and Malay ports to Sumatra's coast, and from the Islamist
Pattani Liberation Organization (PULO) in southern Thailand. Some GAM
guerrillas were apparently trained in Libya in the 1980s.

What is clear is that GAM now controls much of Aceh. At night, Banda
Aceh, the capital, is desolate: civilians fear getting caught in the
crossfire between GAM and the security forces and interrogation and
abuse by the latter. With GAM omnipresent in the countryside,
Jakarta's government bureaucrats have joined the many non-Acehnese
escaping the region. GAM's influence has grown in southern Aceh as
well, where its roots have been weaker. Some 70,000 Acehnese have
moved north and now live in makeshift refugee shelters, their
migration prompted by a combination of loyalty to GAM, worry that
disobedience could bring retribution, and fear of Indonesian security

GAM has demonstrated its power in dramatic ways. In March it forced
Exxon-Mobil to close three gas fields in Aceh following kidnappings
of a senior employee, grenade attacks on pumping stations, sabotage
of pipelines, bombings, and gunfire directed at its buses and at a
company aircraft. The closure cut supplies to the nearby Arun
liquefied natural gas plant and halted shipments from there to Japan
and South Korea that net Indonesia over $1.2 billion a year.
Exxon-Mobil prepared to resume production in July, and Indonesia
supplied Japan and South Korea with gas from sources in Kalimantan.
But GAM had made its point.

The prospects for a settlement in Aceh are poor for several reasons.
Talks in Geneva between Indonesian and GAM representatives since June
2000 have produced only ineffectual ceasefires. War rages; 2,000
people have died since 1998. Sensing victory, GAM insists on
independence. From his Stockholm exile, its leader, Hasan di Toro,
condemns the Javanese as "barbarians", while Abdullah Syafie, its
military commander, sniffs that Indonesia "no longer exists." Each
side accuses the other of manipulating ceasefires to infiltrate
forces into Aceh. GAM is divided among militant fight-to-the-finish
nationalists, those who see war as a means to a negotiated agreement,
and others who use it for extortion and protection rackets. Nor can
its political leaders count on field commanders accepting an
agreement that falls short of total independence.

Separatism has also advanced in West Papua, a vast expanse with two
million inhabitants, 2,000 miles east of Jakarta. West Papua's
indigenous people, Melanesian and predominantly Christian or animist,
have been reduced to 50 percent of the population by the influx of
mainly Muslim immigrants from elsewhere in Indonesia, with 700,000
arriving from Java and Sulawesi during the first 25 years of the New
Order alone. West Papua has stronger ethnic and cultural ties with
neighboring Papua New Guinea (where there ismuch support for West
Papuan independence) and the other Melanesian islands of the South
Pacific than with other Indonesians. The demographic transformation,
therefore, has fed Papuan nationalism, the more so because of the
Javanese elite's tendency to regard Papuans as an inferior lot to be
governed from afar. Like the Acehnese, Papuans want control over
their resources: gold, copper, oil, land and forests. These
resources, they believe, are exploited by American, British,
Australian, European and South African companies and their Javanese
partners in ways that provide little employment but disrupt Papua's
tribal societies and despoil its landscape. As in Aceh, these
grievances have generated a robust nationalism, albeit one that is
less cohesive and organized. Its symbol is the Organisasi Papua
Merdeka (OPM or Free Papua Organization), which has fought for a West
Papuan state since 1965.

Like many Papuans, OPM regards the 1963 Dutch transfer of West Papua
to Indonesia as invalid, insisting that Papua declared independence
in 1961 while under Dutch rule. It also deems illegitimate West
Papua's formal incorporation into Indonesia in 1969, following a
referendum whose terms--local leaders were handpicked by the central
government to cast the vote--produced the outcome sought by the
Suharto regime. This path to incorporation and Jakarta's heavy-handed
rule in West Papua ensured OPM a ready supply of recruits. During the
military's counterinsurgency campaigns (which involved forays into
Papua New Guinea) suspected OPM sympathizers were arrested, with some
dying in custody, and civilians suffered various forms of abuse. As
in Aceh, the political disarray in Indonesia after 1997 enabled OPM
and other groups, such as Satgas Papua, to intensify the struggle,
and battle lines are being drawn. A Papuan nationalist conclave
declared the territory independent in June 2000. Jakarta then
increased the number of military and police personnel in West Papua
from 8,000 to 12,000, and hard-liners among them set about organizing
militias opposed to independence. East Timor's past could be West
Papua's prologue.

Other sites of instability in Indonesia often differ from Aceh and
West Papua in that they display communal violence born of a more
inchoate nationalism. Maluku, the archipelago comprising the fabled
Spice Islands, is an example. Unlike Indonesia as a whole, Maluku,
with a population of two million, has a roughly equal proportion of
Christians and Muslims. (This, as in West Papua, reflects
colonial-era missionary zeal, but also the prior legacy of Arab,
Portuguese, British, and Dutch traders.) The demographic balance is
the result of immigration, which has taken on deadly consequences.
Maluku's Christians resent Muslims who have streamed in from
elsewhere in Indonesia under the state-directed resettlement policy.
An economic and social divide has emerged and increased discontent:
the Muslims, more prosperous, worked in commerce and favored the
north; Christians, farmers and fishermen, tended to concentrate in
the south.

Unrest erupted in early 1999 and Maluku is now awash in clashes and
bombings. Christians have attacked Muslims, local Muslim militias
have formed, and others, such as the Laskar Jihad, have arrived from
Java to defend their co-religionists, adding to the mayhem. The
military and local police are unable to suppress the paramilitary
groups; worse, the army appears partial to Muslims, the police
sympathetic to Christians. Consequently, no neutral force exists to
bring order. The melée of sectarian carnage has been particularly
gruesome in Ambon (the capital) and on Halmahera and Seram islands.
As many as 10,000 have died, and some 500,000 others have been chased
from their homes, many becoming refugees in north Sulawesi (where the
local population is growing resentful). Maluku's Muslims and
Christians now conduct life's quotidian routines in segregation;
those from one faith who venture into areas inhabited by the other
risk death. Mundane arguments spark rampages in which confessional
affiliation becomes the sole distinction between friend and foe.

Essay Types: Essay