One million Aceh Muslims rally to demand self-determination

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Abd Rahman

Sha'ban 08, 1420 1999-11-16

South-East Asia

by Abd Rahman (South-East Asia, Crescent International Vol. 28, No. 18, Sha'ban, 1420)

In their biggest-ever demonstration of contempt for the pagan Pancasila rule of the Javanese-Indonesian government, an estimated one million Acehnese Muslims rallied in their capital, Banda Aceh, on November 8 to reiterate their decades-long demand for self-determination through a referendum.

Young and old, men and women, converged on the town, almost all wearing bandanas inscribed with the word “referendum.” There was no reported violence, and not a single uniformed Indonesian soldier or police officer was seen in the area. One report even said the Indonesian army (unable to cope with unprecedented support for referendum(had been reduced to actually cooperating with the demonstrators, who had travelled from every part of this North Sumatran Muslim stronghold.

Notices and calls for the rally had been distributed everywhere in the capital and elsewhere in Aceh, as well as internationally through the Internet in order to raise awareness about the demonstration. But even as the people’s demand for self-determination was gaining momentum, pro-Indonesian elements, believed to be from among the Javanese-Indonesian military, had circulated leaflets announcing that the mass rally had been cancelled. This strategy did not work, as students rushed to all parts of Banda Aceh to inform people that the rally, called General Assembly of Fighters for a Referendum (SU-MPR Aceh), would go ahead as planned. Foreign and local media workers were also told to ignore the leaflet, which was easily dismissed as being yet another provocation by the Javanese-Indonesian military.

The rally was reminiscent in many ways of the massive rallies held during the height of the Islamic revolution in Iran, resulting in the overthrow of the Iranian monarchy and its replacement by a popular Islamic republic. The November 8 rally was also the largest rally in south-east Asian history since the “people’s power” demonstrations in the Philippines, which ended with the overthrow of the Marcos government. At the rally, Muslim leaders, student representatives, non-governmental activists and officials took turns to address the crowd in and around the Baiturrahman mosque in the centre of Aceh’s capital.

A petition in support of a referendum for Aceh, to be sent to the Indonesian legislature and to UN secretary general Kofi Annan, was signed at the mosque by the Muhammad Yus, the Aceh parliament’s leader and vice-governor Bustari Mansyur. The organisers and speakers made it clear that the gathering was a peaceful venture, but anger and frustration at the Javanese-Indonesian military’s unpunished brutalities against Aceh civilians prompted some speakers to call for jihad if the referendum was not agreed and held.

“Today, it has been proven that all the people of Aceh are united, and came to Banda Aceh to voice their aspiration and demand for a referendum,” a Muslim leader Teungku Bulkaini, is reported to have said.

The organisers also unveiled a huge billboard in front of the mosque’s main minaret that read “The People of Aceh Want a Referendum on Staying or Breaking Away from the Indonesian Republic” to heavy applause. Yells of “Referendum”( the battle cry of the Acehnese for several years((resounded in the air.

Whether the demands will be met remains unclear at a time when Indonesia’s political situation has been shaken by various factors over recent months. The first of these was the popular unrest which resulted in the resignation of president Suharto last year. Since then, his successor B J Habibie has been forced from office, and a new president, the ‘unknown factor’ Abdurrahman Wahid, was elected president last month. Another destabilising factor has been the referendum and secession of east Timor, despite the best efforts of Indonesia’s government and military. This has provided some encouragement to the Acehnese, but they are also aware that the Timorese success owed much to international pressure, and that this is unlikely to be exerted on the Acehnese Muslims’ behalf, even by other Muslim countries.

Indonesian government reaction to the million-strong demonstration was mixed. The military’s immediate response, voiced by the local commanders in the Aceh region, was that the situation in Aceh was totally different to that of Timor, and the question of a referendum or of secession could not arise. However, Abdurrahman Wahid, speaking in Manila on October 9, said that there was no difference between the Acehnese and the Timorese cases, and a referendum should be held. Whether he means this ï he is developing the habit of saying different things to different people at different times ï remains to be seen, and even if he means it, it remains to be seen whether other powerful forces in the government will permit it.

Resentment against the Javanese-dominated Jakarta government is not new. Aceh has been wracked by violence involving security forces and freedom fighters who have been fighting for an independent state since 1976. There are also stark cultural and religious differences between Aceh and Java, where Indonesia’s political power resides. Many Javanese leaders, despite their Muslim appearance, are heavily influenced by traditional Javanese paganism, in particular Javanese mysticism. The people of Aceh, in contrast, are relatively orthodox and puritan in their Islam, promoting and following classical teachings. They also have a long tradition of jihad against foreign invaders, first the Dutch colonialists and now the Javanese.

The tragedy that befell the people of Aceh was unfortunately little known outside a small circle of Islamic activists. While other struggles for independence such as in East Timor, Chechnya and Afghanistan had some exposure at world stage, the same is not the case with Aceh. Even when Indonesia is mentioned, it is often in relation to how badly the regime was treating the people of East Timor. While no right-thinking mind can tolerate the atrocities against the East Timorese, the fact is that they pale into insignificance in comparison with those perpetrated in Aceh.

That however began to change after Suharto’s downfall last year. Many Acehnese men and women came forward to testify about the thousands of extra-judicial executions, disappearances, torture and rape. Mass graves were discovered and torture centres were officially identified. Sadly, not a single officer had been disciplined, much less punished, for such horrendous crimes. Despite Aceh’s “military operational zone” status being lifted last year, the Indonesian army under General Wiranto has continued with more atrocities, under the special military operation, “Operasi Wibawa ‘99”. The military is likely to prove the largest obstacle to the Acehnese Muslims being granted self-determination and a referendum.

Muslimedia: November 16-30, 1999

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