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Anthony Smith reviews the various stresses and strains on the Indonesian republic.

There seems to be much speculation amongst commentators that Indonesia is on the path to breaking up into smaller political units. It is, on the face of it, an unlikely state since it is more diverse than most other states. With more than 13,000 islands, it has a population of 220 million people. It is also the world's largest Muslim nation (with significant Christian, Animist, Hindu, and Buddhist minorities, roughly in that order of prominence). Depending on how this is classified, there are 200-300 ethnic groups in Indonesia (matched by linguistic diversity).

All this makes Indonesia one of the most difficult countries to govern, compounded by its status as a less developed country. However Indonesian nationalism is surprisingly robust, despite its diversity in most quarters of the maritime country. This is because of, firstly, a common struggle against the Dutch colonial authorities and, secondly, a state sponsored collective consciousness, including the adoption of the Malay language (Bahasa Indonesia) as a lingua franca.

There is nothing inevitable about the collapse of Indonesia, but serious regional problems still exist in clearly defined parts of the country. Most serious for the future of its borders are Aceh and Irian Jaya (also known as West Papua). But communal and/or sectarian violence has also been a major issue elsewhere in Indonesia.

The province of Aceh has been the most long standing secessionist problem for the Republic of Indonesia, as it was for the Dutch colonial authorities. Aceh was a very late addition to the Dutch East Indies, putting up the most sustained resistance to Dutch rule in the archipelago. Although the Dutch launched their first attempt to capture Aceh in 1873, it remained effectively an independent Sultanate until 1903, when the Sultan, Muhammah Daud Syah, was finally defeated and killed. However resistance carried on throughout the Dutch annexation. After Japanese rule ended in 1945, Aceh was not reoccupied by Dutch troops, although it participated in the anti-colonial struggle (something often cited by Indonesian officials as helping bind Aceh to the centre).

Homogeneous society

In ethnic and religious terms, Aceh's four million people are a largely homogeneous society, being nearly 100 per cent Muslim, and mostly Acehnese. Islam in Aceh has been traditionally more orthodox. Over the centuries it has been the gateway to Arabia and subject to successive waves of missionary activity. The Darul Islam rebellion of the 1950s that fought for an Islamic state was strong in Aceh, although this movement never sought to achieve independence as such. However, this has given the impression that the more recent rebellion is brought about by the desire for an Islamic state. Suharto's government painted the insurrection as one fuelled by Islamic fundamentalism, which obscured the reality.

The creation of the Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM) in 1976 was seen by many of its proponents as a successor to the anti-Dutch war (known as the `Aceh War') and Darul Islam, but it took its own unique path. Although GAM is splintered along personal and ideological lines, its nominal head and founder is Tengku Hasan M. di Tiro, who lives in exile in Sweden. He declared Aceh independent on 4 December 1976 and continues to lead a government-in-exile.

The GAM's founder is the grandson of Tengku Chik di Tiro Muhammad Saman, who led the resistance struggle against the Dutch, and is said to have received the mantle of leadership from Aceh's last Sultan. The significance of this event is that Hasan di Tiro views himself as the rightful heir to the Aceh sultanate.(1) The formal head of the armed struggle is Tengku Abdullah Syafi'i, while Cut Nur Asyikin heads the important women's chapter.

Other opposition

Not all opposition to Indonesia (whether it be Indonesian statehood or the presence of the security forces) has been in the form of violent resistance. A splinter group of the GAM, led by Hussaini (another exile leader), has already renounced violence. It claims to represent about 20 per cent of the GAM's military capacity. A `civilian' approach to the problem in Aceh has been the formation, in 1999, of the Aceh Referendum Information Centre (SIRA), which not only demands the end of human rights violations but also advocates a referendum on independence. SIRA's leader, Mohamad Nazar, has been arrested and charged with inciting public disorder.

The struggle against `Javanese colonialism', to use di Tiro's oft repeated phrase, stems from two arguments. The first is that Aceh was independent prior to the Dutch invasion, and thus has, until less than a 100 years ago, its own history. Secondly, independence supporters allege economic exploitation, since Aceh produces 30-40 per cent of Indonesia's natural gas exports but to date has seen little return from these natural resources. Despite its resource wealth, Aceh from the early 1990s was ranked as the seventh poorest province in Indonesia (out of 27 at the time). This exploitation of Aceh, although also claimed by many in the provinces of Kalimantan and Riau, has become a key element in secessionist claims in the restive province.

The Suharto regime's attempt to crush the GAM started in 1989 when the province became a Military Operation Zone (Daerah Operasi Militar). Not until August 1998 was this effort formally called to a halt under President B.J. Habibie. By mid-1990 the number of Indonesian troops in Aceh had doubled to 12,000. Brutalised by the war in East Timor, the troops who conducted the operation were notable for their `slash and burn' tactics. This massive repression included more than 5000 deaths, as well as torture and organised rape.

Mass graves

In the reformasi era that surrounded the year 1998, mass graves (the responsibility of the security forces) were uncovered in Aceh. Common tactics have been to burn the homes of suspected independence supporters (or sometimes their entire village) and conduct house to house searches. The GAM, drawing its strength from the traditionally restive areas of Pidie, North Aceh and West Aceh, were able, over time, to spread the rebellion to `non-traditional' areas in the east and south not traditionally resistant to the idea of the Indonesian state. This was made possible by the enormous hatred built up by the security forces' actions.

While human rights abuses and assassinations became common-place during the military operation phase, the situation has not improved in the post-Suharto era, apart from a brief respite after May 1998. Killings of both combatants and non-combatants have continued on a near daily basis. The military campaign against GAM, which often takes the form of the assassination of suspected (and unarmed) sympathisers, has been likened by Tempo magazine to Argentina's `dirty war'. A common tactic has been to leave dead bodies lying on public highways or in front of army and police posts as a warning. The US State Department's human rights' report on Indonesia for 2000 holds both the security forces and the GAM responsible for `numerous extrajudicial killings' -- although the former is responsible for most. Amnesty International has concluded that `the majority of the victims are not from the two parties to the conflict but are ordinary citizens'.(2)

Various investigations by the Indonesian Parliament and the National Commission on Human Rights have been carried out. Two trials have been held, but the punishments (ranging from two to ten years) have been criticised as too light, considering the nature of the crimes. So, too, has been the fact that those tried are scapegoats for more senior officers who have so far escaped the court proceedings.

Important concessions

On top of President Habibie's March 1999 apology to the province, Jakarta initially tried to undercut support for the GAM by allowing Aceh in 1999 to decide on and implement aspects of Islamic law (sharia) that went beyond those that apply to Indonesia's Muslim population (inheritance, marriage and divorce). In Aceh there have been greater restrictions on the sale of alcohol, attire (for men and women) and the enforcement of prayer times B although this has not alleviated the real concerns.

The now deposed President Abdurrahman Wahid promised a referendum for Aceh on its future soon after taking office. But he then predictably retracted his remarks or `clarified' them to say that he meant a referendum about sharia and greater autonomy. However, he had raised expectations unrealistically (especially in the aftermath of the East Timor referendum). In November 1999 between 500,000 and a million people (estimates vary) poured into the provincial capital of Banda Aceh to express their support for a referendum on the future status of Aceh.

Despite the Indonesian President and the military Chief of Staff giving orders to avoid the deaths of non-combatants, nearly 800 people lost their lives during the Humanitarian Pause(3) that took effect on 2 June 2000 and ran until 15 January 2001. Intimidation also continues unabated. For example, on 26 March 2001, soldiers burned 100 houses in a sweep operation in East Aceh. While many question if the Humanitarian Pause actually achieved anything at all, it did, however, represent the start of a dialogue process. These talks, brokered by the Switzerland-based Henry Dunant Centre (Centre pour le Dialogue Humanitaire), have been about improving the humanitarian situation rather than about political issues. Jakarta will not entertain discussion of the latter.

Growing reluctance

Unfortunately there are signs of a growing reluctance in Jakarta to seek a political settlement. Indonesian Defence Minister Mahfud M.D. has revealed his frustration with the process earlier this year: `Look at the Free Aceh Movement. We have held talks with them twice, but they were fruitless. They still ask for independence, which the government will never allow.(4) This reveals the minister's supremely unrealistic expectations. Mahfud has further promised to undertake stern action against the independence movement. Prominent generals have lobbied for a resumption of greater military action. Strategic Reserve (Kostrad) commander Lieutenant-General Ryamizard Ryacudu has issued a further challenge to the civilian authorities:
   The issuer of the orders should also be willing and dare to take
   responsibility. Let us say that Kostrad troops are deployed in Aceh and
   then a lot of people are killed, the soldiers should not then be quick to
   be blamed and dragged to the court for legal matters.(5)

In anticipation of this looming expansion of the conflict, Exxon Mobil have closed their operation in Aceh. There are currently around 12,000 troops in Aceh, supplemented by another 20,000 police (mostly mobile brigade or Brimob).

In contrast to Aceh, Irian Jaya is extremely heterogeneous, with 257 distinctly different languages spoken amongst an array of tribal groupings separated by mountainous terrain. The diversity of its population, numbering just over 2 million, is compounded by the presence of more than 700,000 trans-migrants. Irian Jaya was added to the Dutch East Indies in 1828. This was the basis for the Indonesian claim to the province after independence t one not satisfied until 1 May 1963. In 1969 a heavily rigged vote taken amongst 1022 carefully selected tribal leaders endorsed Indonesian rule. This is known as the `Act of Free Choice'. The rule of Irian Jaya was formally passed from the UN Temporary Executive Authority (UNTEA) to the Indonesian government. The United Nations `noted' the plebiscite but did not `endorse' it, which leaves open the possibility of a legal challenge to Indonesia's rule.

Serious challenge

The struggle for independence in Irian Jaya has been less marked by an armed struggle, although the Organizasi Papua Merdeka (Organisation of Papuan Independence or OPM) has been active militarily in the past. Highly fractured (usually along tribal lines), OPM has been unable to mount a serious challenge to the armed forces of Indonesia. But Irian Jaya has witnessed the same reprisal attacks on civilians as occurred in Aceh and East Timor. Police and army personnel number about 10,000. The Human Rights Commission is currently examining what it terms genocide in Irian Jaya. Their half-time report drew the broad conclusion that Irian Jaya exists under a repressive atmosphere which has not changed with the era of political reform, and that there is wholesale intimidation by the police force, who enjoy complete impunity from legal accountability.(6)

A leadership is emerging among Papuan activists that seeks to obtain independence without the use of violence. These leaders have chosen to press legal claims to independence. This issue came to a head when Wahid sponsored the Papua People's Congress in July 2000. Jakarta's expectations of this conference cannot have been high when the delegates chanted merdeka (independence) as top Indonesian officials entered the meeting hall. The representatives passed resolutions to `correct history' and establish that representatives of the Netherlands had presided over a handover ceremony to Papuan authorities on 1 December 1961. The implication of this is that West Papua acquired independence prior to Indonesia's acquisition and, ipso facto, Indonesia's rule has no legal basis. Representatives also questioned the 1969 Act of Free Choice and established a Papuan Presidium Council to explore the possibility of a transitional government.

Vitriolic reaction

The reaction in Indonesia's Parliament was vitriolic. Some senior legislators called the Congress treasonable and recommended a full-scale invasion. Foreign Minister Alwi Shihab described its deliberations as a `distortion of history' to domestic and foreign audiences. Other ministers suggested that Western countries would have a lot of sympathy for the independence cause, given that the majority of West Papuans are Christian, and that the way was thus open for a future international intervention. The Irian Jaya Chief of Police, S.Y. Wenas, even imprisoned one of the Congress leaders, Theys Hiyo Eluay, and then refused the President's order to release him.

These events have sparked a new round of bloody show downs. A number of militia groups, similar to those that operated in East Timor, have been fostered by the armed forces to undercut independence efforts. Since this time more than 30 people have been killed as security forces fired on civilians attempting to raise the Papuan flag (known as the Bintang Kejora or `morning star'). This included an incident on 6 October 2000, when the police killed six people at Wamena as they attempted to raise the flag.

Much like the policy confusion in Aceh over a referendum, the Indonesian President has been accused of making matters worse. Papuan leaders have stated that they regretted gaining permission from the President to fly the Papuan flag. Wahid said that the flag could be flown but that it had to be smaller, and could not be flown higher, than the Indonesian flag. However, the military seemed determined to stop the Papuan flag being flown at all.

Name change

Wahid also initially approved the name change to Papua, at the request of community leaders, but this did not legally come into effect. Many officials are still unsure about the status of the name. Indonesia has subsequently expressed its desire to foreign governments that the name `Irian Jaya' be used as the formal name. Another confusion remains over Irian Jaya's formal split into three provinces -- a split not recognised by the leaders in Irian Jaya and therefore not in force. This division takes the number of provinces in Indonesia to 32. It has been suggested by some commentators that the division of Irian Jaya is to undermine any emerging unity amongst the Papuan peoples. Political dialogue with Papuan leaders has also been encouraged and discouraged at the same time. When Papuan leader Willem Onde went to Jakarta recently for talks, he was instructed by the Indonesian Parliament on arrival that any discussion of secession would not feature on the agenda.

Like Aceh, Irian Jaya has an abundance of mineral resources and the same perception of being exploited. One of the largest commercial operations in Indonesia is the Irian Jaya-based PT Freeport Indonesia, which operates one of Indonesia's largest copper and gold mines. Despite Irian Jaya's status as the fourth richest province in Indonesia, the percentage of Papuans under the poverty line in 1999 was 71 per cent (as compared to a national average of 26 per cent).(7)

Communal tensions

Communal violence has been most evident in Ambon, and throughout the wider Maluku island group. Fighting between the Christian Ambonese and the Muslim trans-migrants broke out in January 1999. So far it has claimed the lives of more than 5000 people. Jakarta has failed to bring order to the conflict, which has devastated Ambon and created 100,000 refugees (and 400,000 more in the wider Malukus).

Violence has also been widespread in North Maluku. This conflict has been labeled as a `Christian' versus `Muslim' conflict, but religion is just one factor amongst a background of ethnic and economic tension. Sectarian or ethnic conflict has been seen on a lesser scale in Kalimantan, Sulawesi, and Lombok, and in a well co-ordinated bombing attack on churches in Jakarta and elsewhere on Christmas Eve 2000.

Sometimes these sectarian conflicts have occurred elsewhere in Indonesia because of a perceived religious struggle in Ambon. This was clearly the case when Muslim gangs torched churches on Lombok. An extremist Islamic group (Laskar Jihad) has sent a large number of `volunteers' to Maluku to assist the `Muslim forces' there. Laskar Jihad are thought to be receiving outside funding from dubious sources in the Middle East. This group was not prevented by the military from landing in the Maluku island chain in what constitutes one of the most serious breakdowns in the Indonesian military's chain of command in recent times.

Sporadic violence

Communal violence has also occurred sporadically in Kalimantan (or Indonesian Borneo). February and March 2001 saw the deaths of around 500 Madurese trans-migrants in central Kalimantan at the hands of Dayak gangs -- mainly around the town of Sampit -- in a repeat of the violence that struck the island in 1997 and 1999. This pattern has occurred more than a dozen times in the last four years. In the most recent violence, it took seven days to get 400 soldiers to the scene (which is roughly half the number of troops rushed to Irian Jaya to pull down the `morning star' flags and contain independence demonstrations).

Although this conflict revolves around religious, ethnic and economic differences, it does not involve demands for independence by any of the protagonists. However, this all serves to weaken the Indonesian state. It is not hard to see that a protracted conflict could lead eventually to an independence movement. Already an embryo independence movement has started in Ambon, called the Maluku Sovereignty Front (FKM). Furthermore, the armed forces have shown a disturbing trend of not preventing the violence, and the Indonesian daily Jakarta Post goes so far as to say that there is a neat parallel between trials of members of the Suharto family and incidents of communal violence. On at least two occasions the police and army have fought against each other in disagreements in the midst of these crises -- once in Ambon and once in Kalimantan.

Trans-migration policy

These communal conflicts put the policy of transmigration under the microscope. The policy, which has existed since colonial times, intensified in the Suharto era. It was undertaken not only to alleviate pressures on Java, Bali and Lombok, where 70 per cent of the population live, but also to assist the development of the less populated outer islands at the same time. But it has created tension in many areas. In Kalimantan and Irian Jaya, the gifting of small plots of land directly to trans-migrants conflicted with the traditional lifestyles of the original peoples, who have less defined property rights and found their lands slowly slipping away.

Aside from these specific cases of regional turmoil, the centre-province relationship has changed since the fall of Suharto in May 1998. The provinces have universally demanded some degree of power sharing after the demise of the very dominant centre that characterised the New Order Regime of Suharto. The provinces and districts now elect their own leaders, and are no longer subject to Jakarta's interference. To undercut anti-Jakarta sentiment it has been a political imperative to consider autonomy. Indonesia's situation would, on the face of it, lend itself to federalism, but there are some powerful barriers to the adoption of such arrangements. Indonesia was briefly a federal polity after the Dutch left Indonesia in 1949. In less than a year, however, the Republic of the United States of Indonesia was abandoned. It was seen as a colonial legacy, one designed to weaken the fledgling state.

Regional autonomy

Nonetheless, there is a plan for regional autonomy that involves devolution, not to the provinces, but rather to the districts (or `regencies') -- some 400 kabupaten and kotamadja -- which are the lower level of administration. The empowering legislation, which was to have been implemented between 1 January and 1 May 2001, is quite confusing. However, it is generally understood that the central government will continue to be responsible for defence, foreign affairs, the high court, overall monetary and fiscal policy, religious affairs, and the development of natural and human resources. The districts will look after the residual powers of government, including health, transport, education and so on. Concerns over this scheme include the nature of funding for regional autonomy, since some provinces are vastly richer than others, and the lack of human resources at the lower level to cope with the devolution of authority.

Although the break up of Indonesia is not inevitable, the republic is in real danger of fraying at the edges, notably in Aceh and Irian Jaya. Aceh represents a strong military challenge for Indonesia, while Irian Jaya could potentially pose a troublesome legal question in the future. Disastrously the Indonesian military seems intent on using an `iron fist' to smash secessionist movements. At the same time the Indonesian government seems `ineffective'(8) in tackling ethnic and religious conflict.

Although Indonesia has entered an era of `democratisation', there are still unfortunate legacies from the authoritarian past. Of particular importance in this post-authoritarian society, the military have been able to wield a high degree of independence from an embattled political elite. President Wahid's olive branches to the independence movements in Aceh and Irian Jaya have been completely undermined by military actions, thereby seriously muddling overall policy. Devolution of power to the regions will be the only way to safeguard Indonesia in the long term, but there is serious doubt as to whether this will be handled in a sensible fashion.

Although Indonesia faces a serious challenge in satisfying regional demands from its various provinces and districts, it still appears to be a cohesive political entity. Strong secessionist claims are obvious only in Aceh and Irian Jaya - at opposite far ends of the archipelago. Communal violence has been a substantial problem in Maluku and Kalimantan, and has threatened to emerge in a number of other areas. Although these events do not challenge the territorial integrity of Indonesia, they do challenge its ability to contain ethno-sectarian forces. Jakarta s response has been to draw up plans for regional autonomy to placate local demands for greater control over resources. However continuing human rights abuses could lead to greater international attention in the future.


(1.) Hasan di Tiro further argues that Aceh is subject to Javanese colonialism and that Indonesia is what he terms a neo-colony. The Indonesian `neo-colony' is in fact seen as an extension of Western colonialisation: `Members of the Western imperialist consortium, the so-called IGGI (Inter Governmental Group on Indonesia) considered Javanese Indonesia as their best neo-colony. This is so because Javanese Indonesia has now replaced all their lost colonies in Africa, Latin America and other parts of Asia.' Dr Tengku Hasan M. di Tiro, Indonesia as a Model Neo-Colony (Sumatra, 1984).

(2.) Amnesty International, `Indonesia: A Cycle of Violence for Aceh's Children', Nov 2000.

(3.) It was called a Humanitarian Pause instead of a `ceasefire' because Jakarta did not want the GAM recognised as a legitimate belligerent.

(4.) `Jakarta plans to clamp down on separatists', Straits Times, 22 Feb 2001.

(5.) Quoted in `Military push for attack on Aceh', Sydney Morning Herald, 6 Apr 2001.

(6.) `Tindakan Penyelidikan Pelang-garan Hak Asasi Manusia di Papua/Irian Jaya', 11 Apr 2001.

(7.) Calculated from Statistical Year Book of Indonesia 1999.

(8.) This term is borrowed from the US State Department's 2000 human rights report on Indonesia.

Anthony L. Smith is a Fellow in the Regional Strategic and Political Studies programme at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore. This article is based on an address which he gave to the NZIIA's Auckland branch on 2 May 2001.
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Author:Smith, Anthony
Publication:New Zealand International Review
Geographic Code:9INDO
Date:Sep 1, 2001
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