by A Correspondent in Banda Aceh (South-East Asia, Crescent International Vol. 31, No. 20, Shawwal, 1423)
More than two years after the collapse of the so-called humanitarian pause signed by Jakarta and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) in Geneva, both parties met again on December 9, this time to sign a peace treaty and end decades of bloodshed in the North Sumatran region.
Just a few days earlier, the Indonesian government had been issuing an ultimatum to the Acehnese fighters: sign the peace treaty or face full-scale military action. On December 4, Aceh was tense as GAM stood its ground and celebrated its 26th anniversary. The Indonesia army (TNI) and police had repeatedly warned against any such commemorative ceremony. However, the mood of celebration could be felt as fighters hoisted flags in the capital, Banda Aceh, although many preferred to stay indoors to avoid the probable violence.
A statement by Tengku Muhammad Hasan di Tiro, the leader of GAM, now in exile in Sweden, was read out at the ceremony. In it he urged the Acehnese to ignore the threats from Jakarta. “We have fought this war for 26 years today. If needed, we will go on fighting until our noble goal is achieved,” Tiro said.
Even though the treaty required Indonesia to withdraw its army, Jakarta was preparing for a full-scale war as GAM refused to show any signs of optimism that this time a ceasefire would work. As the Eid celebrations (which usually last several days here) reached their second day, Jakarta fulfilled the only promise it knows how to keep: reinforcement of its military presence. By December 7 about 3,000 troops had been sent to Lhokseumawe, an industrial town, to reinforce TNI’s strength in Aceh. TNI also announced that the arrival of fresh troops did not mean that the forces already in Aceh would be withdrawn.
The latest peace treaty was signed against the backdrop of a stand-off between GAM fighters and TNI since early November in a village in North Aceh. The combination of TNI’s huge might and the police force is this time concentrated on a small group of fighters whom they believe are high-level GAM members, including Muzzakir Manaf, the GAM commander high on the military’s list. GAM has denied that Muzzakir is trapped, but Endriartono Sutarto, the Indonesian commander in chief, is determined to continue the siege, and says that any green light from Jakarta before December 9 to “wipe them out” would be acted on. The army has even rejected calls for a ceasefire during Ramadan, saying that GAM has no right to announce ceasefires. So convinced are they that they have got their best catch that nothing can persuade them to withdraw. Yet the military is in a quandary about whether to launch an offensive, despite GAM challenging it to attack.
In the weeks leading to the peace conference on December 9 in Geneva, GAM had been insisting that the meeting would be in the framework of further negotiations and not an occasion for the signing of a peace accord. But Jakarta, tired of fighting the Acehnese and their determination for independence, insisted that GAM sign a peace treaty, and has threatened to attack its ‘captives’ in the current siege in North Aceh, should GAM fail to heed its call. One wonders whether the daily offensives, arrests and shootings in Aceh are not war. GAM has even challenged the army to end the siege by attacking their ‘captives’. “Come on, just shoot. What’s the use of waiting?” asked Zaini Abdullah, GAM’s chief negotiatior in Sweden.
Although GAM agreed to sign it, the latest ‘peace treaty’ was not welcomed with open arms by GAM, as had happened in May 2000. Because of their experiences two years ago, many Acehnese have lost hope that real peace can be achieved by negotiations. It remains to be seen whether GAM has matured politically, and realised that no peace treaty will work until the Indonesian army complies with a major demand: complete withdrawal from Aceh. So far Jakarta refuses to do so. This is the main obstacle to the peace accord: instead of forcing the TNI to disarm its terror-machines in Aceh, GAM is required to surrender its arms, while Jakarta is required only to withdraw its troops and replace them with policemen. There is also no guarantee that Jakarta can be forced to disarm itself in Aceh, as required by the peace treaty. The only reason Jakarta had to speed up the signing was because of Washington demanded that it solve the Aceh crisis in order to concentrate on the ‘war on terror’.
GAM has stated that a peace accord is not the final objective; it will continue to seek independence for Aceh. Jakarta has recently made some cosmetic concessions that are essentially meaningless to the Acehnese people: giving the territory freedom to “implement Shari’ah”, and some limited forms of economic ‘autonomy’. This is not the Acehnese people’s idea of peace, as TNI continues to flex its muscles against civilians who are sympathetic to Aceh’s struggle for meaningful self-determination. Jakarta has even ruled out any kind of East Timor-style referendum.
Yet the peace talks arranged by the Geneva-based Henry Dunant Centre are welcomed by western governments and their allies, whose mouths are watering at the prospect of getting a share of oil-rich Aceh’s economy. Governments from Europe, Australia and Japan have pledged billions of dollars’ worth of ‘aid’ to ‘develop’ Aceh after the signing of a peace agreement. More than 24 countries, and such organisations as the World Bank and the UN, convened in Tokyo on December 3 to “discuss the process of creating peace” in Aceh. Japan has already contributed 4 billion yen to Jakarta for ‘reconstruction’.
Jakarta and GAM have been locked for years in one of the bloodiest conflicts in the region. Since the Suharto era tens of thousands have died in massacres and arbitrary killings, and billions of dollars’ worth of oil has been plundered by American oil companies and the Suharto family. The kind of atrocities committed during the Sukarno and Suharto eras has not stopped. Since Suharto’s downfall GAM has had the opportunity to campaign freely for self-determination in Aceh; tens of thousands of young people have registered as members, but not all were armed and many were looking for a political solution. These unarmed young members have become targets of the notorious TNI.
When a ‘breakthrough’ was achieved in the form of peace talks and ‘ceasefire’ in 2000, many were sceptical that the decades of killings could be stopped by European mediators through leaders who are claiming the leadership of Aceh despite decades of exile in Sweden (see Crescent, June 1-15, 2000). Another problem is that Jakarta and GAM have contradictory understandings of what ‘ceasefire’ means. The ‘humanitarian pause’ signed on May 12, 2000 collapsed immediately; hundreds have been killed since.
TNI’s continued presence in Aceh, despite its talk of peace, is proof that the current government in Jakarta is no more interested in peace than Suharto was. Indeed, far from seeing their lives change for the better, the Acehnese may have to accept the fact that the treaty of December 9 will prove the prelude to even more bloodshed. Jakarta’s ultimatum to GAM is that GAM surrender or face a ‘wipe-out’; this threat was made by president Megawati as soon as she assumed office. The Acehnese people know better than to hope with so little basis: they are used to betrayals and always being caught in the middle.
In the mean time the Henry Dunant Centre and European governments have ignored GAM’s concerns and wholeheartedly lent their support to Jakarta’s show of optimism in the latest peace treaty. Whether it will work this time is entirely in Jakarta’s hands. But Jakarta’s sincerity is suspect for so long as the perpetrators of numerous atrocities and massacres go uncharged and unpunished. The demands for justice are being ignored, as is the call for a UN-sponsored referendum in Aceh, on the pattern of the one in East Timor. The explanation of the discrepancy is obvious: East Timor is Christian; Aceh is Muslim: its emergence as an independent Muslim state can only be the last thing Washington and its allies are prepared to allow.