Subject: ZNet Commentary: Scott Burchill / Indonesia and Terror

ZNet Commentary Oct 2

The US, Indonesia, and Terror By Scott Burchill

In a bid to build its coalition for a war against terrorism, the United States has demonstrated that it is keen to have on side the world's biggest Islamic nation, Indonesia. Support from Indonesia, an ally of the United States from the late 1960s until September 1999, was being sought by the US in any case for its coalition against China. But the new 'terrorism' agenda has made that support more urgent.

The main trade-off for Indonesian support for the US is renewed military assistance to the Indonesian armed forces, the TNI. Indonesia has been able to produce its own small arms and buy some equipment elsewhere, but the TNI sorely needs mechanical parts, especially for its aircraft, and new higher technology equipment.

The pro-TNI government of President Megawati Sukarnoputri is keen to assist in this war against terrorism. Yet two problems arise. The first is that there is little enthusiasm within the Indonesian government for limiting the activities of fanatics operating under the banner, if not the values, of Islam.

That there is official tolerance for Islamic fanatics searching hotel registers for US citizens has been astounding. And there was too little too late in terms of official efforts to curtail the activities of the Laskar Jihad in Maluku. And this does not even begin to document the creation and maintenance of several private and official militia groups who resemble nothing so much as the fascist gangs of the European 1930s.

In most countries, such organizations would at least be the focus of very careful official scrutiny, or banned under any one of a range of laws against operating private armies. But Indonesia's legal code remains notoriously weak, as does any sense of commitment to an idea of consistent and impartial justice.

This then raises questions about training and financial support for such groups, and the smuggling of weapons to them from abroad. Even an outsider with a passing interest in the subject can see the linkages, and who are some of the key players. Old soldiers donít retire, they just go into a related line of business. One wonders, then, why Indonesia's own police, or its much vaunted intelligence services, cannot do the same, and act on it.

So, if the Indonesian government can't act in these obvious areas, what can it do for its bit on the US-led war against terrorism? More than anything else, the government would step up its already high level of operations against the Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (Free Aceh Movement, or GAM) in Aceh. In justifying this, it would claim, as it has done in the past, that GAM is an extremist Islamic organization, and that it qualifies as a terrorist organization through alleged involvement in bombings in Jakarta.

Yet such claims are plainly ridiculous. Official claims that GAM was linked to any of the bombings in Jakarta have not been based on demonstrable evidence and, in the case of supposed association with fugitive Tommy Suharto, are laughable. As one GAM official recently told me: "We don't work with any Javanese." He said that the idea of working with the young Suharto was in particular contemptuous.

Of course, GAM has conducted attacks against government installations and personal in Aceh, and others it has believed opposed them. That is, not surprisingly, because GAM is fighting a war of secession.

Yet it is not an Islamic war. As a couple of GAM officials separately pointed out, Christian Chinese and Bataks still live comfortably within Aceh's predominantly formal Islamic society without harassment, without having their homes or churches or shops burned. By comparison, in recent times Christian churches and homes had been burned in Java, and (usually Christian) ethnic Chinese women systematically raped.

Both GAM officials said, in two separate interviews, that what GAM wanted was not an Islamic state, but an independent state based on justice and democracy. It would be Islamic, but not exclusively so. The new state would also be a Sultanate, but more like Thailand's constitutional monarchy than, for example, Brunei's absolutist monarchy. This then begs the meaning of 'terrorism'.

About 6,000 automatic weapons were recently shipped by the TNI to central Aceh, to further arm transmigrants there already receiving training from the TNI's notorious Kopassus (special forces). Kopassus trained and led the brutal militias of East Timor. The Indonesian government would no doubt argue the training and weapons are for self-defense. But to the Acehnese, these ethnically Javanese militias are just a variation on the thugs that were trained and armed by the TNI in East Timor.

Even the Indonesian government's attempts to 'civilianise' the Aceh conflict fail under scrutiny. There are supposedly fewer TNI troops in Aceh now, although still more than 10,000. But it is now public knowledge that when such claims were made in East Timor they were fabrications. The TNI continues to have a heavy presence all along the highway from Banda Aceh to near the Aceh-North Sumatra border, as do the burned homes, schools and shops. There are many differences, but the comparisons with East Timor, prior to the referendum in August 1999, are inevitable.

The national police Mobile Brigade (Brimob) also has a high presence. Yet Brimob is hardly 'civilianising' the conflict. In any other country, Brimob would be called the Civil Guard, or the domestic army. I even saw a Brimob post north of the Lhokseumawe, the troubled and violent town near the valuable Arun natural gas field, designated as 'Hunters'. As one TNI Lieutenant-General told me in Jakarta, Brimob had "problems with discipline".

Unfortunately, the vast majority of the people hunted and killed by Brimob, and the TNI, are not GAM but civilians. Officially more than 1200 people have been killed this year. Unofficially, including those who have 'disappeared', the figure is much higher, perhaps double. And this does not take into account the persistent use of rape, torture and beatings to attempt to compel compliance. Aceh is less a discontented part of Indonesia and more, like East Timor was, a territory under brutal military occupation. That effectively all Brimob and TNI in Aceh are from elsewhere in the archipelago confirms this impression of occupation.

The long-held and fiercely defended sense of a separate Acehnese identity, which can be dated to 1873, has only been strengthened by the 'terror' inflicted by the TNI and Brimob. And, it seems, apart from the offer of an internationally supervised referendum on broad autonomy or independence, there is no other offer that is acceptable in Aceh. This frustrates Indonesia's 'nationalists' enormously, and calls forth more of the type of violence that in turn breeds a greater will for independence.

But it seems that nationalists know of no other way, or can conceive of Indonesia in anything other than its colonial Dutch-created form, even though some of its constituents who did not wish to be a part of that colonial form do not wish to be a part of this one either. Hence, when the US offers military assistance to help fight terrorism, in Indonesia it is likely not to be used against those who might suitably qualify under the term, but against a movement that is concerned with self- determination.

When the US Congress banned military aid to Indonesia in 1999 it was because Indonesia needed to learn to resolve its differences through means other than violence. Very clearly, Indonesia has yet to learn how to do that.

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