Military Ghosts in Aceh

By: Yee Siong Tong

JAKARTA – The ongoing military operation against separatist rebels in Indonesia’s Aceh province seems to have more public support this time around, but pessimists abound on the prospects for peace in that troubled part of northwestern Sumatra.

Since President Megawati Soekarnoputri declared martial law in Aceh on May 19 and gave the green light to a six-month “integrated” operation, there have been growing worries over what the Indonesian military — better known by its acronym TNI — is doing there exactly, and what it will end up accomplishing. While only a few Indonesians question the necessity of the overall operation, many are concerned particularly with three issues: the operation’s objective, its duration, and the discipline of the military personnel involved.

This concern reflects a lack of confidence in TNI – which is understandable. After all, TNI had racked up a rather ruthless record during previous operations in Aceh and elsewhere in the country.

Among its most notorious armed efforts was the decade-long Kolakops Jaring Merah, which ended in 1998. Now infamously referred to as Daerah Operasi Militer (DOM), it had been intended to crush the Free Aceh Movement (otherwise known as GAM or Gerakan Aceh Merdeka). Instead, DOM resulted in exactly the opposite. By the time it was over,  thousands had been killed, many of them civilians; this fact strengthened GAM by giving it much-needed fodder in its recruitment campaign.

But TNI’s past performance in Aceh is not the only ghost following it back into the province of about three million people. During the 32-year reign of President Soeharto, the military was not shy in using force to help keep the then strongman’s grip on the country. In return, TNI was given extensive consultative and decision-making power in social and political affairs.

Aiming for a political comeback?
Since the fall of the Soeharto regime five years ago, civil-society groups and democracy-minded strategists have called for reforms within TNI. To them, the Indonesian military should stay away from politics altogether, and TNI has humored them by promising to relinquish its long-held seats in the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) in 2004 and in the House of Representatives (DPR) in 2009.

Some observers, however, are now worried that the TNI would only use the new military operation in Aceh to reassert its political influence. Ikrar Nusa Bakti, a political researcher and military observer at Indonesian Institute of Sciences, for instance insists,  “They want to remain influential and have their opinions taken into consideration even when they do not hold formal posts anymore. A military success in Aceh will help them to achieve just that. They will say, ‘Look, we were right in beginning war in Aceh’.”

Sociologist Otto Samsuddin Ishak, who had authored several books on the separatist struggle in Aceh, agrees. He says the TNI’s intention to preserve its influence is evident in the its decision to push for a military operation in Aceh, despite knowing that it is impossible to wipe out GAM within six months.

Past experience has shown that GAM members would only bury their weapons and flee the province whenever there was a military operation, he explains, adding, “The military operation will exceed its planned duration and TNI will ask for extra budget and permission to extend the operation to maintain its relevance in internal affairs.”

Sidney Jones, director of International Crisis Group (ICG) Indonesia, meanwhile says that the main problem with the operation in Aceh is that nobody can provide adequate information as to what its real objective is. She asks, “What is the purpose of the military operation? Is it to crush GAM, is it to force GAM back to the negotiating table, or is to lay the groundwork for a more concerted effort to win back the loyalty of Acehnese?”

Never-ending conflict
To think that less than a year ago, many people had been hopeful that a path to peace had finally been made in Aceh, which had also gone to war against the Dutch colonizers in the late 19th century. In 1976, GAM was founded by a descendant of the last sultan of Aceh, with the objective of gaining independence for the province. As GAM saw it, Aceh should never have been part of the Republic of Indonesia that was formed in 1949. Local support for GAM, however, came largely from a popular perception that the central government was not giving the province its fair share of the revenues from Aceh’s rich resources.

In December 2002, GAM and the Indonesian government struck a deal aimed at resolving a 26-year-old conflict that had by then cost some 10,000 lives. Among its features were free elections for Aceh, a partially autonomous government, and a pledge that the province could keep 70 percent of the revenues from its oil reserves. TNI would also begin to withdraw from Aceh while GAM would give up its arms, as well as its claim of independence for the province. But neither TNI nor GAM would budge and soon each tired of waiting for the other to do so.

Former human rights minister Hasballah Saad says the TNI is currently enjoying two advantages absent in the past. “The international community does not oppose much to (the operation),” he says. “The majority of Indonesians seem to support it, too.”

Indeed, a poll in Indonesia’s largest daily,  Kompas, last November showed that 79.6 percent of respondents outside Aceh and 54.6 percent of those in the province were in favor of a military operation there.

After the imposition of martial law in Aceh, U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz had remarked that the Aceh conflict should be resolved through peace talks. But he did not mention any subsequent action or pressure from the United States if the Indonesian government did not heed his words.

Australian ambassador to Indonesia David Ritchie, for his part, has said that his government “understands” Indonesia’s right to uphold its territorial integrity, although Australia still prefers a peace solution to the problems. In June, Indonesia’s neighbors in Southeast Asia also voiced their support for the military operation.

Cleaning up TNI’s act
Experts like Kirsten Schulze, senior lecturer in international history at the London School of Economics (LSE), say while the TNI can easily deal a heavy blow on GAM, this does not necessarily mean it could snuff out the movement quickly.

“There’s no doubt that TNI is technologically and militarily superior as GAM has comparatively few weapons,” says Schulze. “TNI’s success, however, depends on their ability to target GAM’s structure, communication lines, arm supplies, and funding as well as to cut GAM off from its popular support base without inflicting too much violence on the civilian population.”

Already, though, reports of alleged TNI abuses, including the torture of civilians and rape of local women, have trickled out of the province.
Still, Kusnanto Anggoro, senior researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), says that there are signs that at least the military is no longer tolerating wrongdoings by its members. He points out, “The fact that soldiers were charged and sentenced to prison for assaulting civilians is quite good. Of course it will be better if these trials were conducted by an independent tribunal instead of the military court but you cannot even imagine this five years ago.”

Since the operation started, tens of soldiers have been jailed for beating up villagers in Aceh. Several other soldiers have also been found guilty of raping Acehnese women and have received jail terms, albeit relatively short ones lasting some 2.5 to 3.5 years each.

In August, TNI chief Gen. Endriartono Sutarto apologized to the people of Aceh for the suffering the new military campaign has caused. He promised as well to punish troops committing violations, such as looting.

Nevertheless, Kusnanto stresses that it is important for the media and rights groups to monitor the conduct of the operation and report any human-rights abuse. Equally crucial, he says,  is constant public pressure on the government regarding reforms within the TNI and the continued supremacy of civilian authority over the military.

“Accountability remains a big problem within TNI,” concedes Kusnanto. “But my criticism on the slow progress in military reform goes to the civilian authorities because they should be defining rules for the military. This is not happening because politicians still rely on military support to win elections.”

Defining overall success in Aceh
Kusnanto echoes Schulze in saying that it seems likely that TNI could well weaken GAM. He says the chances for a military victory have all the more increased with a better chain of command under martial law administrator Maj. Gen. Endang Suwarya, who is familiar with Aceh’s terrain and GAM’s hideouts.

But Kusnanto says he cannot see how the military would reap any real political benefit from the operation if it succeeds. “The military sees itself as the defender of the Indonesian Republic,” he argues.” I think they (the armed forces) want to be recognized and remembered as the defender of a unitary state before they quit active politics starting 2004.”
At the same time, he says military success is not enough to ensure lasting peace in Aceh. “It is important to have proper execution of the non-military parts of the integrated operation,” he points out.

“Restoration of law and order, humanitarian aid,  as well as the implementation of special autonomy package are key to overall success.”

“If the government fails to take up on the military victory and improve the condition in Aceh,” says Kusnanto, “then the political defeat will go to Jakarta.”

He also says that the central government must also be prepared to resume negotiations with GAM if and when the opportunity arises – another view that he shares with Schulze.

“If you look more closely at peace processes around the world,” says the LSE lecturer,  “you seldom have just dialogue. In most cases there is a dynamic of negotiation and violence.”  Such was the case with the signing of the 2002 Cessation of Hostilities agreement. GAM had signed the deal shortly after the TNI surrounded one of its Aceh strongholds.

Schulze says there are two possible scenarios for peace within the next few months. “The first is to use this military operation to significantly weaken GAM on the ground with the aim of making its leadership in exile more compliant so that they will agree to autonomy at future talks,” she says. “This is based on the belief that GAM is willing and capable of compromise.”

“The second scenario,” she says, “presumes that GAM will not compromise under any circumstances and consequently this military operation will weaken GAM in order to create space for focused economic development and addressing the grievances of the population.”

“Both, if meticulously implemented, can lead to peace in Aceh,” says Schulze.