Indonesian troops’ shooting of Acehnese Muslims ends illusions about Wahid’s presidency

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Jakarta Correspodent

Muharram 26, 1439 1999-12-16

South-East Asia

by Jakarta Correspodent (South-East Asia, Crescent International Vol. 28, No. 20, Muharram, 1439)

At least 10 people in Aceh were wounded by gunfire, and many more injured in other incidents, on December 4, when Indonesian troops and police fired on people celebrating the territory’s ‘national day’. The violence came as people raised Acehnese flags in defiance of a military warning that this would not be permitted. The incident finally ended the misconception some people had that the election of Abdur-Rahman Wahid as Indonesian president last month would lead to a change in the tone and style of the government, and possibly make it easier for Acehnese Muslims to establish an Islamic state.

The shooting incident took place in Sigli, 100km east of the capital Banda Aceh, when troops intercepted a convoy of four trucks and a fleet of motorcycles, carrying dozens of villagers waving Acehnese flags. The troops had reportedly blocked the road and opened fire as the vehicles approached. It was the worst of several serious incidents on the day, as tens of thousands of people across the country took to the streets to voice their determination to win total independence. It was on December 4, 1976, that the Free Aceh Movement, led by Tengku Hasan di Tiro, who is now in political exile in Sweden, declared Acehnese independence and announced its jihad movement to renew the Acehnese struggle, which can be traced back to the arrival of the European imperialists in the area in the late sixteenth century.

The incidents, although not as serious as previous Indonesian atrocities in Aceh, had been clearly presaged the previous day, when Wahid had warned that Indonesian authorities would take “repressive measures” if the anniversary was used as an occasion for challenging Indonesian rule. “We will use repressive force if we are challenged,” he said during a visit to Beijing. “If there is no challenge, just an expression of their wishes, then that’s okay. Why not? But if they challenge us, then we will do the repression.”

Wahid’s warning, and the Indonesian army’s subsequent fulfilment of it, finally ended the illusions of those who had thought that his presidency might bring some change in Indonesia’s policies. One of his first acts on becoming president, in the immediate aftermath of the East Timor referendum and its bloody consequences, was to agree to Acehnese demands that they should also have the opportunity to vote on their future. In the immediate euphoria of his election, he acknowledged Acehnese independence as a possibility if that was what its people wanted, and ordered that at least some Indonesian troops be withdrawn from the region, in response to their unpopularity there.

In truth, few Acehnese had expected such promises to be fulfilled. The rally of more than 1 million Acehnese on November 8 passed peacefully, but Acehnese leaders were clear that they had no expectations of Wahid. Tengku Hasan di Tiro, speaking from Sweden, made the Acehnese position clear, saying that “talk of dialogue is stupid... we don’t need it. We are already independent.”

Acehnese leaders in Banda Aceh and Sigli agreed. Abdullah Syafei, the commander of the Acehnese movement in Aceh, was quoted as saying that the change of government “has no importance... Wahid is a liar and all his promises are just lies. There can be no negotiations with Indonesia whatsoever.”

Muhammad Nazar, a key political leader and one of the organizers of the November 8 rally, said that independence was the Acehnese people’s only demand and any referendum which was based on any other issue was irrelevant. “I think the options of independence and total freedom are enough,” he said. “There is no need for anything else.”

Hasan di Tiro also denied Wahid’s claims that he had spoken to the exiled leader. Wahid said that de Tiro had been “overcome with joy” to receive a call from Wahid shortly after his election as president.

Wahid’s election last month had been greeted with mixed reactions in Indonesia and elsewhere. Many Indonesians were simply pleased to see the fall of B J Habibie, who was too closely linked to former president Suharto to survive. However, Wahid was a compromise candidate promoted to keep the main opposition leader, Megawati Sukarnoputri - daughter of former president Sukarno - out of office, and is largely an unknown quantity in political terms.

He quickly proved adept at saying the right thing to the right people; but observers just as quickly learnt that nothing he said could be relied on even from day to day, let alone longer. This was not surprising to more informed observers of Indonesian politics and Islamic affairs.

The first weeks of his government have seen him spending more time abroad than in Indonesia. Among his destinations were Washington, where he assured government officials that he was not anti-Israel, let alone an ‘Islamic fundamentalist’. In return, he was given assurances that, following the west’s assistance to East Timorese separatists, it was now committed to ensuring the territorial integrity of the rest of the country, and apparently also promised financial aid.

He also visited Japan and other Asian countries, and Arab Muslim countries. Meanwhile, the broad-based coalition cabinet he appointed immediately after his election has been left largely leaderless, and has proved unable to seriously set any agenda. This has left a power vacuum which the military - traditional power-brokers in Indonesia - have been happy to fill. Following troubles in Irian Jaya and Ambon earlier this month, the military warned that they could intervene in politics if matters did not improve.

Abdur Rahman Wahid emerged as a serious candidate for the residency only when it became clear that Habibie was seriously challenged. He may prove a joker playing into the military’s hands.

Muslimedia: December 16-31, 1999

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