Subject: Aceh: A Special Case

The Straits Times
Friday, Sept. 9, 2005


Aceh: A Special Case

By John McBeth
Senior Writer

JAKARTA - WHAT is it about the enduring fear of national disintegration that dominates the Indonesian debate over the future of Aceh? Born out of regional rebellions 60 years ago, when central government control was hardly what it is today, it lives on through military hardliners and nationalist politicians and officials who fear that any small concession could create a domino affect that will ripple across the country.

The fact is, Aceh is special. It was made that way by the 2001 Special Autonomy Law, which many of those same politicians supported. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his designated point man, Vice-President Jusuf Kalla, now have to convince the sceptics that the peace accord the government signed with the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM) last month was negotiated with that thought firmly in mind.

However, it does not mean that, because Aceh is being treated differently, other provinces should get preferential treatment as well. They should be told so in no uncertain terms. Like Papua, at the opposite end of the sprawling Indonesian archipelago, Aceh is different by virtue of its history and long years of neglect that spawned the separatist conflict in the first place.

Successive Indonesian governments have never been good at selling their policies. Although Dr Yudhoyono is well placed to do just that, in the year he has been in power, he has spent too much time skirmishing with Parliament instead of playing to his strength - using television to reach the 60 per cent of the Indonesian electorate who voted for him in last year's historic direct election.

Doing an end run around nationalist critics was clearly a big factor in the Aceh talks. Right from the outset, Foreign Ministry officials were excluded from the negotiating team to avoid the impression that the government was involved in a diplomatic exchange requiring parliamentary approval.

Now, the administration is employing a strategy of piecemeal legislation and presidential regulation to legitimise a document the Constitutional Court has declared illegal.

'Most Indonesians want to give the agreement a chance even if they have some reservations about some aspects of the MOU,' says Mr Wiryono Sastrohandoyo, the lead government negotiator in the failed Aceh peace talks of 2003.

Mr Sastrohandoyo has reservations about the fact that nowhere in the accord does GAM clearly renounce its demands for independence or accept the government's concept of special autonomy. He also notes that Dr Yudhoyono has made some major concessions, including the establishment of local political parties, something he vetoed out of hand when he was political coordinating minister during the 2003 peace negotiations.

In fact, Mr Sastrohandoyo recalls being told in no uncertain terms by Dr Yudhoyono and his then-senior aide, now Cabinet Secretary Sudi Silalahi, not to talk about political representation for GAM - something the retired senior diplomat and former ambassador to Australia had always felt to be a necessary ingredient of any peace settlement.

There is no doubt that the loss of the former East Timor in 1999 revived all the old memories of the 1950s when the government had to take on rebellions in Sumatra, Sulawesi and Maluku. But, in many ways, the fear of disintegration is irrational. The main building blocks of Indonesia, including Sumatra's other eight provinces, remain very much part of the unitary state - held in place by inter-marriage, a multicultural bureaucracy and other less visible bonds.

Strangely enough, for all the international furore over then-East Timor's annexation in 1976 and the military abuses that followed, Indonesians paid scant attention to the Catholic enclave of 800,000 people. It was a rare occasion indeed when someone would raise the subject in a public forum. It was even rarer to hear it discussed over the dinner table. Yet when the East Timorese voted for independence in 1999, the country reacted as if it was being dismembered.

Most analysts agree that disintegration may have been on the cards if the government of then-president B. J. Habibie had not moved hastily to introduce regional autonomy after president Suharto's downfall in mid-1998. That is because genuine nation building was never high on the agenda of the former army general, whose 32 year-rule was characterised by over-centralisation and use of the military to smother ethnic and religious conflicts.

After independence 60 years ago, Indonesia's ruling elite essentially became the coloniser of its own people, running the country in much the same way the Dutch colonial administration had. Even today, a raft of old Dutch laws is still on the books, one of which is used frequently even during this so-called reform era to prosecute people accused of insulting the president.

Mr Sastrohandoyo points out that sovereignty continues to be looked on purely in territorial terms and not something that should be accorded to the people.

'A mindset has been established that all rebels are to be crushed,' he notes.

'It's the nationalistic view. Independence is not about liberty and a freedom. It is viewed in the context of a coloniser. We don't really recognise the concept of a government as the protector of its own people.'

Still, despite all the misgivings and the grandstanding by former president Megawati Sukarnoputri's Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P), most Indonesians overwhelmingly want to give peace a chance in Aceh. For the Acehnese themselves, the help given by fellow Indonesians in the aftermath of last December's tsunami disaster was an eye-opener, providing them, for the first time, with a sense of belonging that has been missing for decades.

It is that sense of belonging that Dr Yudhoyono wants to foster by connecting Aceh more closely to the rest of the country. This is why the government approved a private company's US$30 million (S$50 million) plan to string fibre optic cables in a giant arc between Medan and the Acehnese towns of Lhokseumawe, Banda Aceh and Meulaboh. The president's ideas clearly go far beyond simply physical reconstruction.

But should the nationalists fear that GAM may seize political power through the ballot box and, little by little, nudge Aceh away from the union? Probably not. After all, practical politics and its inherent temptations have a way of breaking down the most rigid ideals.

It is also by no means a given that GAM will do as well in next April's local elections as many expect. Like the military, it has made life-long enemies too.

Mr Sastrohandoyo says: 'My hope is that this time, if GAM works for peace and seeks to get to power through democratic means, the agreement will be implemented and people will forget the past.'

It has been too long in coming.

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