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Wednesday, 29 March 2023
Democratisation, The Indonesian Army (TNI) and the Separatist Movement in Aceh PDF Print E-mail
Written by Rizal Darmaputra   
Thursday, 31 January 2008 19:52

The Indonesian Army (TNI) and the Separatist Movement in Aceh

By Dr Aleksius Jemadu


Throughout the Indonesian post-independence history the process of nation-building has always been characterised by the dominant role of the state in mobilizing the people towards national integration. After independence the Indonesian leaders especially Soekarno and Mohammad Hatta managed to unite the Indonesian people behind the national resistance against the Dutch colonial rule who wanted re-establish their power. In 1950s and early 1960s former President Soekarno capitalized on his personal charisma to maintain the unity of the country. The New Order government under President Soeharto relied heavily on the military repression in an effort to maintain national integration. What effects, if any, does the current process of democratic consolidation have on the handling of the national identity issue especially with regard to the conflict in Aceh today? How can we understand the re-emergence of militarism in Aceh from the perspective of the progress (or setbacks) of democratisation process?

With the collapse of Soeharto's authoritarian regime and the coming of the era of democratisation, people wonder whether or not the democratisation of the Indonesian state could help to bring new approaches and strategies in dealing with the issue of nation-building. Such an expectation is quite understandable because democracy normally leads to the dispersion of political power among different social and political groups in society. In his article titled "Democratization and the National Identity Question in East Asia" Baogang He explains the effect of democratisation on the resolution of the identity question. He argues that 'democratisation processes make independence or secession movements more likely to succeed'. If we contrast He's observation with the way the Indonesian government is dealing with the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) today, we are tempted to ask: what happens to Indonesian democratisation that it eventually leads to the denial of democratic principles in dealing with the issue of national identity in Aceh? What factors are responsible for this policy choice? How can we explain the recurring pattern of state-sponsored military repression in a democratising Indonesia? The main argument used in this paper is that a good knowledge of the nature and the dynamics of democratic consolidation in Indonesia should help us to understand how different governments since the fall of Soeharto have dealt with the problem of secessionist movement in Aceh. The Indonesian government response to secessionist movement in Aceh indicates that democratisation could produce a combination of effects on the handling of the issue of national identity. Indeed, since the period of President B.J. Habibie until now Indonesia has used altenatedly diplomacy and military force in resolving the conflict in Aceh.

Various authors have made interesting analysis on how the issue of national identity has been dealt with by the Indonesian government after the collapse of Soeharto's regime. Rizal Sukma, for instance, emphasized the fact the Indonesian government has failed to fulfil its obligation in addressing the issue of justice in Aceh especially with regard to the handling of human rights violations during the New Order period. Sukma argues that unless this problem is dealt with in a satisfactory way, threats to security in Aceh will remain. Edward Aspinall underlines the fact that the emergence of Acehnese nationalism should be seen as a reaction to the activities of the New Order state especially its military. It is the Indonesian state itself which generates anti-Indonesian nationalism such as in Aceh. In a similar vein Damien Kingsbury argues that the current military operation in Aceh can be seen as an act of imposing a 'nationalist' corporate statism which can be identified with variations of fascism.

While there is no question about the validity of the observation of these authors, this paper will specifically focus its attention upon the political dimension behind series of government policies after Soeharto's fall in dealing with the secessionist movement in Aceh. By political dimension I mean a struggle for state resources, political and economic, among different actors in the making and implementation of a policy. In this context the state cannot be seen as a unitary actor but consists of various actors with different, if not, conflicting interests. Thus, the so-called integrated operation in Aceh should be seen as an outcome of bureaucratic bargaining among Indonesian civilian and military leaders who aspire to accomplish their respective interests in the handling of Aceh problem. Especially important in this argument is the relationship between the civilian leaders and the military at the national level. In an interview with an NGO activist and student from Aceh I was told that the solution of Aceh problem should be found in the interaction between national leaders in Jakarta. As Sukma put it succinctly: … "the main reason for the perpetuation and indeed the escalation of the [Aceh] conflict can be located within the state and the central government". Democratization, therefore, is not just seen as a dispersion of state power to the people but also an opportunity for various political actors to defend and expand their political and economic appropriation through state policies. By focusing on the dynamics of democratisation we will be enabled to explain the alternation of approaches used by the Indonesian government in dealing with conflict in Aceh. This analysis is quite different from the hypothesis made by Juan J. Linz and Alfred Stepan who treated democratic consolidation as a variable depending upon state's nation-building policies. According to the authors: "…, in a multinational setting, the chances to consolidate democracy are increased by state policies that grant inclusive and equal citizenship and that give all citizens a common 'roof' of state-mandated and enforced individual rights". Thus, as I will show later on in this paper, democratisation and nation-building affect each other through state policies. The problem with other authors' arguments mentioned above is that they fail to explain why diplomacy and military repression have been interchangeably used even after the Indonesian state has been formally committed to democratic principles and human rights.

In order to establish the correlation between democratisation and the solution to the problem of national identity issue in Aceh, the paper will be organized in the following way. After this introduction the relationship between the two variables is explored at the theoretical level and how different authors have analysed it. In the third part we will be dealing with the nature and characteristics of Indonesia as a nation and how the nation came into being in the historical process. This analysis will be based on definitions of nation given by various authors. Then we will see the evolution of Indonesian nation after independence and how different political regimes dealt with the problem of nation-building. Such analysis is important because of its tremendous consequences on the complexity of the conflict resolution in Aceh after the collapse of Soeharto's regime. A particular attention is also given to the evolution of Aceh nationalism especially in the eyes the leaders of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) or the Aceh Sumatera National Liberation Front (ASNLF).

Since democratisation is a multi-variable concept we need to break down the concept into its constitutive elements so that we might have a comprehensive picture about the relationship between this process and the handling of the national identity issue. Firstly, we look at the nature and characteristics of Indonesian transition to democracy after the collapse of Soeharto's regime. Such observation could help us to understand the complexity of Indonesia's transition to democracy prior to the general election in 1999. Secondly, we analyse the relationship between the Indonesian armed forces (TNI) and civilian leaders in order to see how effective is the practice of the principle of civilian supremacy over the military in the whole process of democratic consolidation. Of particular importance in this analysis is how the TNI tries to find its proper position within the democratisation project without sacrificing what it perceives as its traditional prerogatives in the defence of national sovereignty and territorial integrity. It is argued that as an institution the TNI cannot be perceived as a passive recipient of external pressures for democratic reform. The military leaders do react to those pressures as political actors who seek to advance their political and economic interests vis a vis civilian leaders. It is also necessary to see how each president after Soeharto has failed to develop an effective control over the military. Thirdly, regional autonomy is an important element of democratic consolidation. In the case of Aceh the promotion of special autonomy based on law no. 18/2001 is used by the Indonesian government as a framework within which the conflict in Aceh should be solved. It is important to see how the optimist and pessimist views are contested over this issue. Fourthly, civil society groups plays an important role in finding solution to the problem of national identity. Therefore, we need to see to what extent civil society groups in Aceh have been included in (or excluded from) the process of conflict resolution in Aceh. The question is: what are the consequences of their inclusion or exclusion? Fifthly, the problem of corruption at all levels of government can be a serious obstacle in the process of nation-building. No matter how well-designed the social and economic development programs are, if corruption practices are not overcome, grievances and anger will remain especially in the hearts of the people who have been victimized by those practices for decades. Sixthly, for a democratic consolidation to succeed there should be an effective rule of law. Independent judiciary is important in restoring the sense of justice and fairness for the people in conflict areas like Aceh. Of particular importance in this section is an evaluation of how the Indonesian government has fulfilled its obligation to bring to justice all the perpetrators of past violations of human rights in Aceh. Are the Acehnese people satisfied with the legal process of those crimes? Finally, democratisation is not only a domestic process but also subject to international influences. The dynamics of democratisation in Indonesia has been greatly influenced by some international contingencies especially with regard to the role of the military in defending national security amidst the growing threat of global terrorism in Southeast Asia. Although the identification of the above factors is not meant to be exhaustive, they are the most important variables in the process of democratisation which in turn affect the way the Indonesian military and civilian leaders deal with the separatist movement in Aceh. The main thesis of this paper is that democratisation does affect the handling the national identity issue through the dynamics of its constitutive elements as I will try to show throughout the rest of the paper.

What sort of nation in what sort of state?

Indonesia can be categorised as a multinational or multi-ethnic state. Since the building and formation of a nation as an "imagined community" is a never-ending process, it has been a constant challenge for the Indonesians to redefine their common identity throughout the period after independence in 1945. As in many other Third World multinational states, the boundaries of the Indonesian state were determined by divisions inherited from the Dutch colonial history which had little to do with national, ethnic or other local identities. Therefore, unless the Indonesian government accommodates the diversity of the Indonesian people under the principle of multiculturalism, there will always be a question about the acceptability of national identity by different ethnic groups throughout the archipelago. A failure to make such accommodation could result in the emergence of ethnic nationalisms and secessionist movements such as in Aceh and Papua. The continuing threat of the reestablishment of the Dutch colonial rule in late 1940s was a factor behind popular support for Indonesian leaders to defend national independence. The Indonesian unity was maintained despite efforts by the Dutch colonial government to disintegrate Indonesia through the establishment of the United States of Indonesia (RIS). Since early 1950s the authority of the Indonesian government began to face challenges from the regions. For instance, in 1953 under the influential leadership of ulema Tengku Daud Beureueh, Aceh declared a rebellion against the central government in Jakarta in order to create an Indonesian Islamic state. The same movements were also active in other regions like West Java and South Sulawesi. In 1958 there emerged a rebellion in Sumatera called Revolutionary Government of the Republic of Indonesia (PRRI). The threat of national disintegration was also aggravated by political instability due to competition for power among political parties and ideological forces. It was under these circumstances that the Indonesian Armed Forces (ABRI) formulated its doctrine of the dual-function (Dwi-fungsi ABRI) which would justify its dominant role in the New Order period.

The rise of Indonesian nationalism in the first and second decade of the twentieth century signified people's resistance against the domination of the colonial state. However, the rise of the New Order government under the leadership of General Soeharto after the abortive coup by the Indonesian Communist Party in 1965 open the way for the state to dominate the process of nation-building. The domination of the army in Soeharto's New Order made political stability as a sacred goal for Soeharto's regime. It was the state elite rather than the people who had the right to formulate the meaning of Indonesian modern nation-state. Thus, hierarchy and order, were the main values to be pursued along the process of nation-building. It goes without saying that the primacy of those values would require a tight control by the state over the political aspirations of a plurality of Indonesian ethnic groups. Such a state-led nation-building would inevitably run contrary to the nature of a nation as a shared "imagined community" on the basis of a voluntary choice. The fact that the state, nation and nationalism did not coincide during Soeharto's regime has led to the explosion of ethnic conflict and separatist movements in various regions after Soeharto's fall. No wonder if the concept of Indonesian nation under Soeharto's regime was one without the people. It was not an "imagined community" for the people and they were not even allowed by the state to have a free imagination about their future. It was actually a colonization of people's collective mind.

The New Order's version of "imagined community' was very much linked to its only source of legitimacy namely the promotion of economic growth. As such, the economic growth was pursued not so much for the welfare of the people as for the perpetuation of political power. In addition, the New Order economic development policies relied heavily on the exploitation of natural resources in the rich provinces like Aceh, Riau, East Kalimantan and Papua. This kind of exploitation necessitated certain modalities of relationship between the central and local government. Those modalities of governance include centralization of power and control and the cooptation of local government by the central political elite. As a result people in the regions could never channel their aspirations to the central government. Local government officials tended to satisfy their patrons in Jakarta while at the same time they were indifferent towards the needs of the local people. This kind of political patronage helped to alienate the people from the whole process of government. From the perspective of political sociology pent-up emotions due to social frustrations and political powerlessness at the regional level can be easily transformed into radical violence. The target of this violence can be the government itself or the symbols of the state. The alienation of the people in the regions from the development process could nurture the seeds of separatist movements and other types of political extremism. The political marginalization of the people in the regions was aggravated by the fact that political leaders at the central level were always preoccupied with a competition to get Soeharto's favour.

Because of systematic economic exploitation by the state no wonder if provinces like Aceh and Papua became areas where poor people are concentrated. Anne Booth (1992) made an interesting comparison among regions in Southeast Asia in terms their economic conditions. By using data on per capita regional GDP (Gross Domestic Product) in US dollars in 1985, Booth found that from 48 regions of Indonesia, Malaysia, The Phillipines and Thailand eight Indonesian provinces were the richest 20 regions. The eight provinces were East Kalimantan, Riau, Aceh, Jakarta, South Sumatera, Irian Jaya, Central Kalimantan and Bali. Surprisingly, "all these regions except Jakarta ranked much lower in terms of per capita consumption expenditures, the main determinant of living standards, then they did in terms of per capita GDP". It is also surprising to find that even though by the regional standard Aceh and East Kalimantan had relatively high GDP per capita, which were 1021 US dollars and 2560 US dollar respectively, the two had far lower consumption expenditures, which were 168 US dollar and 224 US dollar respectively compared to those of Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah with 995 US dollar and 992 US dollar respectively. At the same time if we use the Malaysian poverty line as a standard of measurement, we can see that Aceh and East Kalimantan had a much higher percentage of population living below that line, with 93.2 % and 94.2 % respectively, compared to those of Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah, with only 17.3 % and 35.3 % respectively .

It is then no exaggeration to suggest that the emergence of a distinctly Acehnese secessionist movement in the 1970s should be understood within the context of the New Order's concept of nation which was so embedded in the regimentation of the state. Edward Aspinall (2001) argued that there were two important factors which could explain the Acehnese secessionist movement. First, the growth of the massive oil and natural gas zone around Lhokseumawe which damaged the predominantly Acehnese economy and society. Second, the brutal tactics used by the New Order government in repressing the GAM insurgency in the 1970s and 1990s. In a statement made by the Executive Council of the Free Aceh Movement - MP GAM with title "Why Acheh Wants Independence from the Colonialism of the Republic of Indonesia" there are two more additional reasons. First, the statement said that Aceh had already been an independent state before the transfer of power from the Dutch colonial government to Republic of Indonesia. Hence, the inclusion of Aceh in that transfer of power was illegitimate and violated the sovereign rights of Aceh. Second, according to the statement the national identity of the Acehnese people has nothing to do with Indonesia as a nation. In other words, they are entirely two different nations.

The most important message from the above analysis is that Soeharto's New Order state did not really function as a comfortable home for the Indonesian nation in the eyes of its human constituents especially in Aceh. This is exactly the reason why the issue of national identity has continued to haunt the Indonesian government even after the collapse of Soeharto's authoritarian regime. As the process of democratisation began with the replacement of Soeharto by President B.J. Habibie in May 1998 people now wonder in what sense democratisation has introduced new strategies and methods in dealing with the problem of national identity. In other words, people want to know how democratisation in Indonesia might affect the process of nation-building on the basis of the recognition of the primacy of democratic principles and basic human rights. My tentative answer to this question is that if we want to look at the effect of democratisation on the issue of national identity it is necessary to go deeper into the dynamic patterns of interaction among different political actors who are competing for their respective interests in that process. Transition to democracy always involves interest contestation between those who want to defend their political and economic privileges and those who aspire to have control over state's resources. Before we investigate the validity of my tentative answer let us first develop a theoretical overview so that the essential elements of democratisation can be clearly identified.

The Politics of Democratisation and the National Identity Question: Theoretical Overview

The process of democratisation consists of two important elements: transition to democracy and democratic consolidation. The distinction between the two elements is important for this analysis as each of them affects the process of nation-building in different ways. Democratic transition is a period starting from the collapse of an authoritarian regime until the establishment of a new democratic government through a general election. Democratic consolidation covers the period after the establishment of a popularly elected government in which the process of democratisation is expected to take roots not only in the formal government institutions but also in society. According to He democratisation includes variables such as the initiation of democratisation which presents an opportunity to settle the national identity question, the establishment of the rule of elections, the promotion of civic and political liberties, and the competition for political power among political parties and other political actors. The problem with He's analysis is that his exploration of democratisation as an independent variable is not deep enough to capture the real dynamics of struggle for power among political actors in that process. We cannot find, for instance, sufficient analysis about the evolution of the principle of civilian supremacy over the military as conditio sine qua non for a democratic reform. As I will show later the absence of the civilian supremacy over the Indonesian military brings tremendous consequences on the formulation of state policies dealing with the secessionist movement in Aceh.

Unlike He, Margaret Canovan argues that democracy and nationalism affect each other in various ways. There are some features of nationalism which can give support to democratic politics. When using democracy as a starting point, Canovan identifies both positive and negative features of democracy which determine the nature of its effect on nationalism. The positive features include the possibilities of negotiation, bargaining and compromise between conflicting parties. On top of that, democracy may also provide opportunities for the institutionalisation of devices of power-sharing between the elites of the rival groups. Democracy also provides a wide range of incentives for the mobilization of nationalist sentiments. If these sentiments are transformed into military insurgencies this could open the way for the state to take a military action. If this is the case, the military leaders could use this opportunity to justify their return to politics and resist demands for civilian supremacy.

There are different ways of identifying the arenas within which various political actors try to defend and promote their political interests along the process of democratisation. Linz and Stephan, for instance, make a theoretical construction of democratic consolidation which consists of five interacting and reinforcing arenas. They include the emergence of free and lively civil society groups and associations who are relatively autonomous from the state and attempt to advance their interests in the state's policy-making process. The second arena is the existence of political society in which political parties and other actors (including the military) compete for control over state's political resources (political authority and state offices). The third is the establishment of rule of law in order to guarantee citizen's freedom and independent associational life. An important element of this arena includes the development of an independent judiciary. The fourth area of contestation is state bureaucracy which can be used by political actors to mobilize support from society. Finally, there is an arena of economic society consisting of norms, institutions and regulations that mediate between state and market. For the context of this paper the theoretical argument is that the chance of using democratic principles and peaceful negotiation in finding a solution to the problem of national identity is determined by the political game and bureaucratic bargaining among political actors within those arenas. Thus, the politics of democratisation and its consolidation may help us in solving the puzzle whether democratisation will lead to peaceful negotiations or military operation in dealing with a separatist movement.

Two elements of democratic consolidation - the role of the military and civil society organisations - need to be elaborated further. The fact that now the military gains a dominant position in resolving the problem of Aceh should draw our attention to the importance of looking at this Aceh policy as an outcome of civil - military relationship within the framework of democratic consolidation. Focusing on the civil - military politics as an independent variable in understanding Indonesian government policies in dealing with separatist movements in Aceh and Papua is not a new thing. In his book titled Military Politics and Democratization in Indonesia, Jun Honna, for instance, argues that the military response to government policies in the post- Soeharto era is very much linked to the internal struggle within the military. The rise of the so-called "security-first" generals after the impeachment of President Abdurrahman Wahid and the appointment of a nationalist Megawati as the new President provide a policy setting behind the military option in Aceh.

The insistence of the military in imposing military approach in dealing with separatist movement is not only influenced by its interaction with the civilian leaders but also by the presence (or absence) of an international pressure. International pressures may come from foreign governments as well as international NGOs. Foreign governments carry out their pressures in various forms. For instance, in protesting the excessive use of military approach to deal with separatist movement, they can punish the targeted state by cancelling foreign aid or military cooperation. There is also a possibility that foreign governments take initiatives to internationalise certain intra-state conflict by inviting the United Nations intervention. This is particularly the case when there is a gross violation of human rights. Foreign governments may also give support to the rebel groups with the effect that the concerned state can be alienated from the international community. However, international pressures may also decline because of some international contingencies. For instance, some powerful states like the United States may end up with facilitating or strengthening the culture of impunity in certain states because of the indispensable role of certain states (especially their military) for the accomplishment of the US global strategic goals related to war on terrorism.

The problem of national identity cannot be reduced into an exclusive business of the state and the separatist movement. Civil society also plays an important role because they have the capacity to articulate people's interests without any interference both from the state and the rebel groups. On top of that, civil society organisations in conflict areas are capable of forming an international networks aiming at the promotion of peaceful means in conflict resolution and respect for human rights by all parties. Civil society actors normally resist any attempt by the state and its agencies to monopolize the resolution of national identity question. Indeed, there is a contestation between the civil society approach and the statist approach in the settlement of the national boundary issue. Baogang He argues that the former approach has five strong points in comparison with the latter. First, nation-states tend to defend the existence of fixed borders while civil society organisations try to problematise those borders on the basis of political morality that is universally acceptable. Nation-states always avoid the internationalisation of an intra-state conflict for fear that they might lose support from the international community. Second, the civil society approach is more inclusionary than the statist approach as it provide opportunities to more people to participate in promoting public interests. The state is only represented by the authorized politicians and negotiators. Third, the statist approach is committed to its "single-centred notion of national identity" and relies on the monopoly of violence while the civil society approach favours non-violence and respect for universally accepted democratic principles in resolving conflict. Fourth, nation-states tend to monopolize the discourse on the national boundary issue and look at civil society actors with suspicion. Civil society organisations, on the other hand, accommodate the diversity of political forces in society. Fifth, civil society actors like NGOs are more flexible, loosely organised and less costly in conducting their operations while governments are lacking in those qualities that they cannot operate in remote areas.

Democratisation and the National Identity Question: Empirical Evidence

In this section we will see the nature and the main characteristics of Indonesia' s transition to democracy after the collapse of Soeharto's regime and how this political process has affected the way the new government under President Habibie dealt with the secessionist problem in Aceh. If we refer to the terminology used by Graeme Gill the period of President Habibie can be considered as the preparatory phase in which there was a prolonged and inconclusive political struggle among protagonists who tried to defend and advance their respective interests. Of particular importance in this political process is how the old forces from the previous regime defended their presence within the political system in order to influence government's policy-making. Soon after Soeharto's fall the Indonesian military became a target of public criticisms and condemnation for past violations of human rights especially in conflict areas like Aceh. In the beginning reaction from military leaders was quite accommodative. For instance, on 7 August 1998 the Commander in Chief General Wiranto made a public statement in Aceh to apologize what the Indonesian military had done to the people of Aceh in the past through a series of military operations. Wiranto then lifted the status of Aceh as Daerah Operasi Militer (Military Operations Zone) or DOM. Some senior retired generals also appeared before the parliament meeting to answer questions regarding their policies in the past which led to an extensive violation of human rights in Aceh. However, as it turned out, apology was not enough to restore peace and stability in Aceh as the TNI was quite reluctant to leave the province and let the people decide what they wanted for their future.

Soeharto' s New Order regime could sustain for a quite long period since 1966 until 1998 mainly because of the use military repression to weaken and even eliminate any potential contender or opposition to the ruling power. Thus, TNI was the backbone of Soeharto's political regime. It was an enormous task for the Indonesian reformists to depoliticize the military and organize the institution so as to make it subservient to a democratic civilian power. David Beetham was right in saying that "[a] military regime leaves behind the difficult task of depoliticising the armed forces, and reorganizing them in ways that make their intervention in politics more difficult in the future". It was said the President Soeharto only agreed to resign after the commander in chief General Wiranto assured him that he would be protected by the TNI from any kind of vengeful action against him and his family. This commitment implies that General Wiranto believed that the TNI would remain a powerful institution after Soeharto's fall and no other institution including the new president could weaken its position in maintaining security and stability. The position of the TNI was even strengthened by the fact that there was a mutually beneficial relationship between the military and President Habibie. The latter needed the military for political support and conversely the military leaders would persuade Habibie not to marginalize their economic and political power.

In order to understand the relationship between democratisation and the national identity question it is necessary to have a closer look at how each civilian government (president) after Soeharto deal with the challenges of national unity especially with regard to the conflict in Aceh. Considering the long history of military's involvement in Aceh it is also important to see how the military react to government policies of nation-building. The question for each period is whether the TNI is willing to subordinate itself to the civilian government or do the military leaders build their own strategy in dealing with this issue. Thus, in each period we will see the dynamics of the contestation between democratic approach and military approach in bringing to an end of conflict in Aceh. If we understand democratisation in developing countries as a form of bureaucratic bargaining among political and military leaders government policies on the national identity question can also be seen as a political game through which each political actor seeks to secure his or her political and economic interests. When there is a tough competition among political elites in securing their control over state's political and economic resources it is naïve to assume that those elites would be indifferent to the outcome of government's strategic policies. This assumption may help us to understand why the Indonesian government nation-building policy in Aceh in the post-Soeharto era is full of inconsistencies, paradoxes and discontinuities. The phenomena of competition for partisan interests around government policies in the era of democratisation is not beyond expectation for there was so much concentration of power and centralization of decision-making during the previous regime of Soeharto's authoritarian rule.

When President Soeharto resigned in May 1998 and was replaced by his hand-picked vice president B.J. Habibie the Indonesian nation was at a critical condition. The threat of national disintegration came from all directions. While the economic situation appeared to be going nowhere due to the severity of economic crisis, the troubled regions like Aceh and Papua seemed to capitalise on the political chaos in Jakarta to consolidate their struggle towards independence. They perceived the outgoing of Soeharto as the end of Jakarta's tight control over their regions. On top of that throughout the transition period of President Habibie ethnic and religious conflicts began to take place and intensify in various regions such as Maluku and West Kalimantan. The seemingly breakdown of the country encouraged the rebel groups in Aceh to anticipate what they expected as the inevitable balkanisation of the entire archipelago. The communal conflict which jeopardized the unity of the nation was also aggravated by the fact that political leaders tried to mobilize popular support in the lead up to the 1999 general election by raising primordial sentiments like ethnic and religious forms of solidarity. Political scientists use this evidence to support the argument that transition to a democratic state may aggravate the problem of national identity. Indeed, during Habibie's presidency Indonesian process of nation-building was at the crossroads which was attributed to a combination of weakening control of the central government over the regions and the absence of an effective leadership on the part of the Indonesian civilian leaders. It was in this period that Indonesia seemed to lose the very foundation of its unity with the effect that the country had to reinvent a new basis for nation-building which is more compatible to democratic principles and human rights.

When President Habibie took power he realized that there was no way he could resist people's demand for a more democratic political system. In the context of this paper the question is to what extent his commitment to democratic principles really changed the once military-dominated policies in resolving the conflict in Aceh. In what sense can we say that President Habibie applied democratic principles in dealing with the national identity question in Aceh? Did the president have the capacity to convince the military that it was high time to give more priority to the use of peaceful means than the reliance on military might in resolving the conflict in Aceh? In order to answer these questions we need to look deeper into the pattern of the relationship between the president and his generals. In some instances it was evident that the president had an effective control over the military. For instance, President Habibie insisted not to apply emergency rule in Aceh despite some pressure from the military. In the case of East Timor Habibie managed to sidestep the military in allowing the referendum for East Timorese. Habibie also got credit for the democratisation of the political system through his policies such as the release of political prisoners, the creation of independent political parties, press freedom, military reform and free general election in 1999.

As far as conflict in Aceh was concerned Habibie wanted to emphasize that his government wanted to restore the negative image of the central government in the eyes of the Acehnese people. Although it was not easy for him to avoid the public image that he was committed to his gratitude to Soeharto, he wanted to keep distance from the stains of his predecessor's authoritarianism. Habibie's policy on Aceh was a reconciliatory one and based on his belief that socio economic development could be a good starting point to keep Aceh remain a part of the Indonesian unitary state. Before making his visit to Aceh, Habibie declared an amnesty for 39 GAM political prisoners as his political gesture that his government would not see the rebel group as an enemy. When Habibie visited Aceh on 26 March 1999 he publicly apologized for what the Indonesian government had done during the era of DOM. In addition Habibie also pledged to provide a number development projects such as railways. Habibie told the Acehnese that his government would not use military approach in solving the conflict in Aceh.

Notwithstanding Habibie's democratisation projects and his political will to solve the problem in Aceh by peaceful means, there was much evidence that he did not really control over the course of events in Aceh. Not only did the military intensify the use of force but he also failed to bring the perpetrators of past violations of human rights to justice. Indeed, one of the most brutal mass killings in the history of conflict in Aceh took place during the period of Habibie's administration. The case in point was the incident of Beuteng Ateuh on 23 July 1999 in which the Indonesian soldiers massacred 57 students and their teacher Tengku Bantaqiah. To spread salt on the old wounds, Habibie's government also failed to carry out a satisfactory and fair trial of the military officers who were most responsible for the incident. No wonder if resistance against Jakarta grew stronger and there was an overwhelming support for independence among the Acehnese civil society groups especially among university students and NGOs. It is quite clear that during Habibie's administration the Indonesian government did not really act as a unitary actor in Aceh and a coherent policy towards conflict resolution was just absent. While President Habibie favoured a more conciliatory approach to win the hearts and minds of the Acehnese, the Indonesian military continued to rely on their traditional means of killing and eliminating any Acehnese who refused to be part of the unitary state.

Abdurrahman Wahid was the first democratically elected president in the post-Soeharto era. He was the leader of the largest Islamic mass organisation called Nahdlatul Ulama and under the New Order regime he was one of the most ardent critics of President Soeharto. In the early 1990s together with NGO activists he established Forum of Democracy the aim of which was to promote democratisation of Indonesian politics. Thus, his background was deeply embedded in the political worldview of civil society organisations which reject the domination by the state or the military over the Indonesian society. However, when he was elected as the new president replacing President Habibie, he faced a tremendous challenge of how to build an effective civilian supremacy over the Indonesian military that seemed to remain reluctant to entirely withdraw from politics. It was quite evident that Abdurrahman Wahid tried to have an effective control over the military through his policies. The first example of his effort to control the TNI was the dismissal of General Wiranto from his position as Coordinating Minister for Political and Security Affairs when Wiranto was accused of being responsible for the gross violations of human rights after the pro-independence group won the referendum in East Timor in September 1999. The second step was Abdurrahman Wahid's decision to appoint the reform-minded generals to fill strategic positions within the TNI. For instance, while many conservative generals wanted to get rid of Lieutenant General Agus Wirahadikusumah for his radical view on military reform, Abdurrahman Wahid appointed him as Kostrad Commander replacing Lieutenant General Djadja Suparman who was close to General Wiranto.

Notwithstanding his clear steps of making the military subservient to his policies, Abdurrahman Wahid could not do much to stop the TNI from using military force in solving the conflict in Aceh. The insistence of the TNI to solve the conflict in Aceh and Papua by using military force was the main obstacle to Abdurrahman Wahid's preference for dialogues with the rebel groups and the promotion of the role of civil society organisations in both provinces. Courses of events in Aceh during Abdurrahman Wahid's administration can be seen as the outcome of a contestation between the use of dialogues and the military means in ending the conflict. Through numerous instances we can see how Abdurrahman Wahid's government and the TNI went their own way in dealing with the conflict in Aceh. First, despite a strong demand by the military for the reinstalling of a separate military command structure in Aceh, on October 31, 1999 Abdurrahman Wahid refused to do so on an account that such policy could disrupt his effort to solve the problem in a more democratic manner. Second, some TNI leaders were upset by the fact that on various occasions Abdurrahman Wahid made an explicit promise to the Acehnese that the central government would give them an opportunity for a referendum. In the eyes of the TNI leaders such promise would strengthen support for independence among Achenese society. Third, while Abdurrahman Wahid enthusiastically initiated direct talks with GAM leaders in Geneva with the intermediation role of Henry Dunant Centre, senior military leaders perceived such move as an unnecessary recognition of the international status of the rebel group.

However, on 12 May 2000 the Indonesian government represented by Dr Hasan Wirajuda, Indonesia's permanent representative to the UN in Geneva, and GAM represented by "Minister of Health" Zaini Abdullah signed an agreement in Davos Switzerland. "Joint Understanding for Humanitarian Pause for Aceh", the title given to the document, was mainly aimed at halting the occurrence of violence, the facilitation of humanitarian assistance to the Acehnese people who were affected by the conflict and the nurturing of mutual trust between the two sides. The initial scope of the agreement covered three-month period starting from 2 June 2000 until 2 September 2002. Although the agreement was extended until January 2001, considering the escalation and intensity of military violence since its instalment, it was a total failure. According to some reports, the TNI sabotaged the implementation of the agreement as the military leaders in Jakarta realized that GAM had used this opportunity to consolidate its military strength. Thus, in April 2001 President Abdurrahman Wahid issued a Presidential Instruction No. 4/2001 called Operasi Keamanan dan Penegakan Hukum (Operation for the Restoration of Security and Upholding of Law) the objective of which was to restore security and law enforcement through a combination of military and police operations. The fact the military dominated the actual implementation of this policy in the field was a proof of the primacy of state coercion over the use of democratic principles in solving the problem of national identity in Aceh. Was it a reflection of a perception among Indonesian military leaders that the TNI had an indispensable role in defending the sacredness of the unity of the nation?

When President Abdurrahman Wahid tried to marginalize the role of the conservative generals like Wiranto, they found support and sympathy from then Vice President Megawati Soekarnoputri. It is important to note that the impeachment of President Abdurrahman Wahid in July 2001 was a by-product of a pragmatic coalition between the parliament, the military and Vice President Megawati. As a nationalist who is very much concerned with the territorial integrity of the Indonesian unitary state President Megawati regards the TNI as her natural ally. There was a perfect matching between Megawati's passion for the unity of the nation and the military's searching for a comeback to politics. On top that, Megawati seemed to have learnt that marginalizing the role of the military in such an important issue like the unity of the nation could jeopardize her position as the president. When President Habibie offered to hold a referendum for East Timorese in 1999 without the consent of the TNI, the result was a brutal retaliation by the military and the militias. Then Indonesia reaped a shattered image in the eyes of the international community. The seriousness of President Abdurrahman Wahid in trying to solve the conflict in Aceh through dialogues and international mediation came to nothing as the TNI leaders preferred a military approach. This is probably the reason why President Megawati appear to have less patience in dealing with the rebel group in Aceh compared to her two predecessors. At the same time the fact that the two previous presidents failed to have an effective control over the TNI in dealing with GAM may have strengthened TNI's self-confidence. It is not uncommon in many developing countries that the military is always ready to capitalize on the weaknesses of the civilian leaders. No wonder if the TNI increased their pressure upon Megawati's government to solve the problem in Aceh by force.

Like her two predecessors President Megawati also faces the challenge of rebuilding Indonesia as a new nation based on the primacy of democratic principles. We have seen that at theoretical level there is a reasonable expectation that a democratising political system would be under a constant pressure to solve the problem of national identity question through the use of democratic means. The existence of opposition parties and assertive parliament who always try to be critical on government policies, the function of press freedom and the participation of civil society organisations in public discourses may serve as political forces which prevent the ruling power from imposing its will upon the people. However, political reality is always more complicated than theory. The evolution of Megawati's policy on Aceh since she took power in July 2001 until the current implementation of martial law in Aceh indicates how the TNI has become increasingly convinced that the use of military approach is the only way to keep the unity of the nation. The declaration of martial law in Aceh at midnight on 18 May 2003 can also be seen as the climax of TNI's rejection to be committed to any dialogue or negotiation initiated by the Indonesian government. Although the Presidential Decree No. 18/2003 is meant to be an integrated operation which also includes development and humanitarian assistance, in practice it is dominated by military operation seeking a total defeat of GAM.

People may argue that President Megawati has used some democratic principles in resolving the conflict in Aceh. For instance, soon after she became president replacing Abdurrahman Wahid, she immediately signed Law No. 18/2001 on special autonomy status for Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam. The content of the law constitutes a substantial devolution of political authority and economic power from the central government to the provincial level. In addition, the law also allows the implementation of Islamic law in Aceh. Megawati's policy on Aceh insists that any negotiation with GAM should assume the acceptance of this law by GAM. In other words, Aceh should exist within the framework of Indonesian unitary state. The acceptance of the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (COHA) by the Indonesian government on 9 December 2002 was based on its conviction that the content of the agreement had been in line with the spirit of the special autonomy law. However, from a democratic point of view the reestablishment of the military command structure in Aceh could render Aceh's special autonomy status meaningless and vulnerable to military intervention. Moreover, the current military operation in Aceh has come to a point where military officers take over civilian positions such as village head and head of sub-district in insurgency's strongholds. According to some analysis the increasing presence of the military in Aceh after the enactment of the special autonomy law is an effective anticipation of how to secure its economic appropriation from the increasing revenues given to the provincial government through Law No. 18/2001.

It is no exaggeration to suggest that the indispensable role of the TNI in resolving the national identity question in Aceh coincides with its increasing effort to strengthen bargaining position vis a vis Indonesian civilian leaders. At the same time, as far President Megawati is concerned, it seems that the failure to solve the conflict in Aceh in a more democratic way is tantamount to her acknowledgement that only the TNI has the capacity and means to keep Indonesian "imagined community" from being shattered. Instead of winning the hearts and minds of the Acehnese the current military operation has spread fear and powerlessness so that the Indonesian government, by using the powerful hand of the TNI, can easily impose upon the Acehnese its own version of what constitutes Indonesian national identity. The process of the de-civilization of the state is now taking place in Aceh as the intensified military operation has spread fear and feeling of uncertainties about the future of the province. Under such circumstances we need to question to what extent the current phenomenon of mass loyalty oaths in several places in Aceh are made out of a genuine desire for being part of the Indonesian nation or just a manifestation of a longing for human security that has been so often neglected by the state. Now that the military operation in Aceh appears to be going nowhere people begin to question whether the Indonesian government has a clear objective other than the total submission of the Acehnese to the will of the central government.

When state authoritarianism ended with the fall of President Soeharto in 1998, the Indonesian people were hopeful that time had come for the Indonesian civil society to play a more significant role in the governing process. The question is to what extent Indonesian political and military leaders have given opportunities to civil society organisations in Aceh so that they might participate in the solution of the problem of national identity in Aceh? Has their role been marginalized by the state? Are they involved in the dialogues and negotiations that are held by the Indonesian government and GAM? We cannot deny the fact that the atmosphere of political liberalisation after the fall of President Soeharto has led to the emergence of a diversity of civil society organisations with extensive networks both at the local, national and international levels. This phenomenon has been present since the government of President Habibie until today. We are not going to mention all of them here but some of them who are most active in advocating the aspirations of civil society in Aceh need to be mentioned. Civil society actors in Aceh like university students, mass media, NGOs and religious groups develop their own views on many important policy issues but unfortunately many times their views are always under the shadow of the competing visions of the state and the rebel group.

Civil society actors conduct a diversity of political activities such as the organisation of mass rally and demonstrations demanding for the implementation of referendum in Aceh, conducting a campaigning against the violations of human rights by the military, and asking the judiciary to make a thorough investigation into corruption practices within local government bureaucracies. The most important and influential student-based group is the Information Center for Aceh Referendum (Sentral Informasi Referendum Aceh or SIRA) who has been quite successful in organising rallies and demonstrations asking the Indonesian government to hold a referendum in Aceh. Being inspired by the decision of President Habibie in 1999 to offer a referendum on independence for East Timor, SIRA managed to attract strong support from a wide spectrum of Acehnese society. SIRA also conducted international campaign against the repression by the Indonesian military in Aceh. The mass rallies that were held by SIRA in November 1999 and November 2000 made headlines in local and national newspapers with the effect that the Indonesian government and the military leaders were alarmed by the quick spread of their influence among the Acehnese people. The second civil society actor is NGOs who have an extensive national and international links. The NGOs are mainly concerned with campaign against the violations of human rights by the security forces. Their political strength stems from the fact that their widely circulated reports on the violations of human rights have served as a pressure for the Indonesian military both at the national and international level. The third civil society actor is the ulama or Islamic scholars. While there is no question about the powerful voice of the ulama in condemning violence and killings of the innocent civilians, their political role has been constrained by fear of being targeted by the military or the rebel group.

One important aspect of the conflict resolution in Aceh is the question of who represent the public interest of the Acehnese people. Are the represented by the rebel group? Can the provincial government claim itself to be the only legitimate representative of the Acehnese people? Do the political parties speak on behalf of the people? Or can the student-based group like SIRA claim to represent the whole people in Aceh? There has been a strong tendency that only the Indonesian government and GAM who are actively involved in formal negotiations to resolve the conflict in Aceh and the role of civil society organisations in that process has been very limited. Even if their participation in the implementation of the agreement is encouraged the escalation of violence by both armed parties to the conflict always prevents them from promoting their independent interests. To be sure, the negotiations between the Indonesian government and GAM in February 2002 produced an agreement that the two sides "would work toward a cessation of hostilities, an all-inclusive dialogue, and 'free and fair elections' in Aceh in 2004". While the agreement on a cessation of hostilities was signed by the two sides on 9 December 2002, the all inclusive dialogue and election have never been materialised.

The document of the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (COHA) article 2 (f) does mention specifically that "[b]oth parties will allow civil society to express without hindrance their democratic rights". However, there are at least two reasons why various elements of civil society in Aceh are hindered from expressing their democratic rights. First, they have fear because of intimidation and threat made by the TNI and GAM. Second, the Indonesian government especially the military is less willing to include the civil society actors out of a long-held suspicion that they will support GAM. The Presidential Decree No. 28/2003 which gives a de facto absolute power to Aceh regional military commander is an explicit denial of the role of civil society in the solution of conflict in Aceh. Such legalization of military operation as an instrument to solve the conflict can be likened to a public declaration that civil society has no right to participate in the solution of the conflict. On 16 June 2003 the Indonesian government issued the Presidential Decree No. 43/2003 which bans all the activities of foreigners, domestic and international NGOs and journalists without permission given by the head of Aceh military authority. In early July 2003 the US government condemned the Indonesian court for giving five-year punishment to the chairman of SIRA Muhammad Nazar who was accused of spreading hatred against the Indonesian government through his active campaign for referendum in Aceh. Nazar's imprisonment symbolizes the return of the primacy of national security at the expense of civil liberties in Indonesia. Indeed, the indispensable role of the military in the handling of the national identity question has been strengthened by the fact that the US war on terrorism necessitates the dominant role of the TNI in politics as well as security issues. Without democratic control and public accountability such domination could be an anathema against Indonesian nationalism.

Concluding Remarks

From the above analysis we can see that there is indeed a relationship between the dynamics of democratisation and the way the Indonesian government deals with the national identity question in Aceh. In theory people would expect that democratic governments have a bigger chance to apply democratic principles in solving the secessionist conflict in Aceh. To be sure series of dialogues and negotiations between the Indonesian government and GAM with the intermediation role of the HDC have taken place since the government of President Abdurrahman Wahid in 2000. The use of peaceful means to solve the conflict in Aceh continue to take place under President Megawati. The enactment of special autonomy law is meant to devolve more political and economic power to the provincial government. However, along with the failure of the civilian supremacy over the military and its return to politics the TNI seems to have no incentive to support government's peaceful policy in Aceh. We have seen how the political dynamics of democratic consolidation has served as the main independent variable explaining the success and failure of the use of peaceful means in solving the conflict in Aceh. The TNI has presented itself as a political actor with a final say how to deal with the rebel group like GAM.

The fact that now military operation comes up again as the only way to settle conflict in a trouble region like Aceh reveals a big dilemma of nation-building in the post-Soeharto era. A close look at the government of three civilian presidents after the fall of Soeharto indicates that on the one hand the Indonesian civilian leaders want to convince the Indonesian public that they give priority to the use of peaceful means in solving the conflict in Aceh but on the other hand they do not rule out the use of military force. Their consent to the use of military approach might come out of their failure to have an effective control over the military like in the case of President Habibie and Abdurrahman Wahid or a mutually beneficial cooperation in the case of President Megawati. The marginalisation of the role of the military could cost the civilian leaders the TNI's support which quite essential in the competition among them. As is quite evident after the fall of Soeharto, the TNI is always ready to capitalize on their important role in the management of strategic issues like political stability and national unity for strengthening their bargaining power vis a vis civilian leaders. This suggests that whether or not the process of democratisation leads to the use of democratic approach in resolving the national identity question in Aceh will very much depend on how effective the civilian leaders can control the military to make them subservient to government peaceful policies. If this dilemma of nation-building continues to characterize Indonesian policies on Aceh, we should be ready to find more inconsistencies and paradoxes in those policies. Until these problems are resolved in a a democratic and satisfactory way the future of the Acehnese will remain as uncertain as ever.





Dr Aleksius Jemadu

Parahyangan Centre for International Studies (PACIS)
Department of International Relations
Parahyangan Catholic University
Bandung - Indonesia
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Paper presented at Third International Convention of Asia Scholars (ICAS3)
National University of Singapore (NUS)
19 - 22 August 2003


Draft. Please do not cite without the author's permission.
Comments welcome

Last Updated on Friday, 13 August 2010 13:11