Aceh: The more things change ...
Aceh: The more things change ...
MELBOURNE - Extrajudicial executions, disappearances, torture, rape and the targeted harassment of human-rights defenders. This was life in Aceh five years ago; it is also life in Aceh today. Add to that the attacks by unknown persons on peace-monitoring teams and their infrastructure, and the arrest of official negotiators, and one has described the environment within which the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (CoHA) struggles to survive.
The agreement is an attempt to bring peace to the troubled Indonesian province, but the threatened collapse of the internationally brokered CoHA will pave the way for the Indonesian military to unleash its might on 4 million Acehnese, the majority of whom want an independent state.
The Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and the Republic of Indonesia signed the CoHA on December 9. The main points of the document are a gradual process of demilitarization, an all-inclusive dialogue, and elections in 2004. In addition, the agreement provides for a joint security committee (JSC) to monitor implementation and investigate violations.
But there are some fundamental and structural flaws within the agreement. The fine detail of some of these points could not be agreed upon in the negotiation phase, and so were neglected. The result? The CoHA had a crisis of identity which has led to its imminent failure. Its personality as recognized by the Indonesian government is quite different from that recognized by GAM. The three points over which the identity of the COHA is in crisis are the following:
Demilitarization - GAM has offered a phased storage of its weapons, Jakarta has offered to shuffle troops from one village to another while at the same time sneaking more military personnel in under cover of darkness and by sea. All-inclusive dialogue - this remains elusive. Moreover, the process through which this dialogue will be achieved has yet to be agreed. And the identity of the dialogue itself remains a mystery. Elections in 2004 - the Jakarta-based government interprets this to mean the regular general elections due in that year. But to GAM (and to most Acehnese), it means local elections to allow the people a democratic voice about a local issue.
In addition to these structural flaws in the agreement, there have been three quite obvious and clumsy attempts by the Indonesian government to undermine the CoHA. First, attacks on the JSC by groups of militia. Cast our minds back to the militia in East Timor: recruited, armed and trained by Indonesian military. It is the same scenario in Aceh, and the presence of militia is not new there but has only recently been acknowledged. The JSC itself, thought by many to be pro-Jakarta, has said it believes the attacks were well orchestrated and acknowledged the likelihood of the involvement of these military-backed groups. The JSC was returned to Banda Aceh - the provincial capital - for security reasons, leaving the military free to act with impunity, as there is now no investigation of the violations of the CoHA.
The second attempt to undermine the agreement was the issuing of the ultimatum that GAM renounces its political goal of independence as a precondition of the continuation of the dialogue. The Jakarta government is also insisting that further dialogue take place in Indonesia. This is unacceptable to the separatist movement.
The third and latest worrying development is the arrest of four senior GAM negotiators in Aceh on Friday May 9. They were detained for two days before being released. In the interim, the police and military said they intended to charge these four with terrorism. All these actions are against both spirit and letter of the CoHA. The mandate of the agreement was narrow: a cessation of hostilities. This has proved to be unachievable.
GAM was motivated to sign this less-than-perfect agreement in the hope it would open democratic space for the civil-society movement in Aceh to pursue a peaceful and political solution to the decades-old conflict. Article 2(f) of the COHA makes provision for civil society to express their democratic rights or opinions without hindrance. But the common ground between what is written in CoHA and practical outcome is noticeable only by its absence. Since December there has in fact been a narrowing of the democratic political space in Aceh. Those who have dared to protest at the continuing violence and lack of justice, and to demand a platform for their voice to be heard, have themselves become targets.
At a demonstration in January, four villagers were shot by the elite mobile police brigade when they attended a peaceful rally to request the government's full implementation of the civilian's role in the CoHA.
In addition, police have arrested a prominent member of the civilian movement, Muhammad Nazar, chairman of the Aceh Referendum Information Center (SIRA). He spoke critically about the agreement at the January meeting. Now accused of spreading sedition against the government, the local chief of police has said he would like to see Nazar spend five years in prison.
The authorities have a growing list of those who they accuse of spreading hatred against the state, including Kautsar (former chairman of the Acehnese Democratic Resistance Front - FPDRA). Kautsar and many others have gone into hiding to avoid the same fate as Nazar. The local police and military, under orders from the government in Jakarta, are in effect silencing the voices of these people and of those whom they represent.
Troops in Aceh have been put on high alert; many more are on their way to the battlefield and provision has been made in neighboring areas for the expected refugee flow from the troubled area if war breaks out. The war clouds are gathering over Aceh. The international community with one voice has said it supports the unity of the state of Indonesia. The question is "at what cost?"
The international community must pressure the Indonesian government to uphold the letter and the spirit of the CoHA. The process of dialogue should resume with no preconditions, and a document signed on protection of negotiators. One cannot have a meaningful dialogue when one of the parties is under constant threat of arrest by the other. There should also be broad recognition and condemnation of attempts by the Indonesians to undermine the whole process. This may be the last opportunity for peace in Aceh for several years. But the Indonesians have fired a "no interference" warning shot across the bow of the international ship. They have said this action is insignificant compared with the Iraq war, as only their own sovereignty is at stake. The unspoken message: We noted the precedent set by the invasion of Iraq and the ousting of an "undesirable" regime, and we intend to take full advantage of the current international political climate to pursue a military solution in Aceh.
Today's international political climate provides the perfect arena for a massacre. One of the world's most brutal military is converging on Aceh. The roadmap to war, death and destruction is clear for all to see. Our great champions of democratic values appear to be dancing to the tune of the Indonesian military. The Acehnese will be sacrificed in the name of the war on terrorism, economics and realpolitik. Lessons learned from East Timor? It appears, none.
Lesley McCulloch is a research fellow at the Monash Asia Institute, Melbourne.