Subject: JP: Past conflicts trouble Indonesia

Jakarta Post


July 17, 2007

Past conflicts trouble Indonesia

Aboeprijadi Santoso, Jakarta

Few issues have shaken the nation as the conflicts in East Timor and Aceh. Both have been resolved, yet their impact on our nationhood lingers on.

The two issues, East Timor and Aceh, basically differ only in terms of political genesis and constitutional status; the one was invaded, occupied and acquired independence through a UN-held vote; the other, a betrayed, rebel province, with the Helsinki pact remains part of Indonesia.

Both have allowed both change and continuity for the course of the nation. On East Timor, the revolutionary spirit which shaped the political climate of Indonesia in the 1960s turned out to be relevant, as it was subsequently manipulated by the New Order.

While evoking the myth of Fretilin "communist" threats, the military actually capitalized on Sukarno's rhetoric to "get rid of the last vestiges of imperialism and colonialism" to justify the occupation. Soldiers were told of the need "to emancipate (East Timor) from the yoke of Western colonialism".

Popular perception of the far-flung archipelago as one state, whole and intact, was reinforced as Soeharto proclaimed the archipelagic concept (Wawasan Nusantara) to consolidate the new law of the sea in the 1980s.

As the media was suppressed, this idea led us for decades to consider East Timor a non-issue despite the tragedy that was occurring and the fact that Indonesia, contrary to its Constitution, became a colonial power.

It is this kind of besieged nationalism that has gained strength in particular because the military -- thanks to the Aceh war -- has restored its self-confidence. The Army, at its lowest point during the reformasi, was allowed and able to regain political ground as the Aceh crisis heightened.

If the experience with Timor is seen as a conflict with alien forces ("we" versus "they") allowing us to blame the outside world, the Aceh conflict was the opposite. It affected our national psyche as the Aceh war broke. The public supported the military's determination to crush the rebels. As a result, if East Timor questioned the concept and limit of our nation-state, the Aceh case put the idea of our nationhood itself in doubt.

Our nationalism, once defined by our founding fathers as one that should be nurtured in the garden of humanity, had turned aggressive, emphasizing centralism and particularistic rather than universalistic values. In the name of the unitary state, similar modes of retaliation and torture were used in Timor and Aceh, our war victims were kept out of sight (even activists do not ask about them) and true reconciliation out of question. Neither the state nor society likes to be reminded of them.

Although East Timor has parted ways as Aceh remains with us, both shook the nation because they affected our pride and state sovereignty in a way the nation never experienced before. Indonesia's unity and nationhood were at their height when the regional rebellions (late 1950s) were crushed, West Irian (Papua) regained and people mobilized in the name of an ongoing revolution (1960s).

Now, quite the opposite has been the case as the country "lost" one province (East Timor) and was seriously challenged by another (Aceh) while being burdened by crises -- they all hurt our imagined might and greatness.

"We" become hypersensitive and quickly saw things as infringing on our sovereignty.

The recent flag incidents in Maluku and Papua and the row over the former rebel flag in Aceh remind us that even in the post-conflict era we haven't been able to restore confidence in our nationhood. Neither are our leaders creative enough to build new instruments of collective imagining necessary to nurture the sense of belonging.

It's not just a matter of (lack of) "nation building". Tension grows between the center and periphery as old-style nationalism is at odds with the increasing demands for greater democracy. With self-government, local chief elections and local parties, Aceh, if successful, could provide a new model for Indonesia.

As we, as it turned out, badly needed external help to keep our nation-state intact, the security apparatuses need no longer be the sole guardian of the nation. Not the military, but diplomacy and good governance should be at the forefront of maintaining the nation-state by managing justice and welfare.

Finally, both the Timor and Aceh atrocities and impunity will remain blind spots for the nation. While Aceh and other conflicts areas provided paths to rehabilitation and promotion for alleged Timor war criminals, this war also tainted many ex-generals and, as the row over Sutiyoso's recent visit to Australia showed, will continue to do so. Like a curse, the legacy of human right matters, too, will continue to trouble the nation.

The writer, a journalist with Radio Netherlands, is writing a book on East Timor and Aceh.

Back to July menu
World Leaders Contact List
Main Postings Menu