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Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

Aceh: Indonesian army unleashes bloody assault

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The Indonesian army has launched a ferocious military assault in Aceh in an attempt to destroy the pro-independence Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and to cow the local population.

Even the right wing media empire of Rupert Murdoch (Weekend Australian 24 May 2003) seems shocked at the cruelty displayed by the Indonesian army in its new attacks: “The four-year-old child was left tied to the body [of his father] from 4pm on Wednesday until 10am today. The child was voiceless because he had cried so much. His screams had been heard through the night, but fear of Indonesian military reprisals in the dark hours prevented local villagers from rescuing him.”

This is the reality of life facing the four million people of Aceh after the invasion last week by 50,000 Indonesian troops of the TNI. Twenty-three naval vessels, air force planes, tanks, artillery and 13,000 armed police back these troops. They face the 5,000 fighters of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM). One GAM spokesperson correctly predicted, “It’s going to be genocide all over again”.

Indonesian President Megawati Sukarniputri ordered the huge army incursion on 19 May, putting Aceh under martial law, to begin with for six months.

The TNI plans to round up vast chunks of the Acehnese population into 82 camps, as the Americans tried to do to the local population during the Vietnam War. However, as one right-wing think tank put it, “the military option is certain to fail as long as the security forces are incapable of exercising the degree of control and discipline over their troops necessary to prevent behaviour that alienates ordinary Acehnese.”

Western governments’ restrained response

The invasion followed failed peace talks in Japan two weeks ago. Western governments have made, at best, half-hearted requests for the Jakarta government to be restrained in its invasion. In any event, the US, Britain and Australia have no credibility after their invasion of Iraq, which was illegal even under capitalist international law and gave governments like Megawati’s the green light for pre-emptive strikes.

The Australian government of John Howard says the war in Aceh is an “internal matter”, which is not what they said about Iraq earlier this year! The Labor Party opposition in Australia calls for a UN mediator to be involved, while at the same time rushing to add its support for the ‘territorial integrity’ of Indonesia. This was the line they ran on East Timor for 25 years until they were shamed into supporting independence for that oppressed island.

The British government wants to keep its valuable customer Indonesia happy with military hardware. Four of the thirteen Indonesian planes being used in the invasion are British-made Hawk-200 fighters, “sold on the understanding that they would not be used for internal repression” (British Guardian, 20/5/03). But don’t hold your breath waiting for Blair’s ’Labour’ government to complain about the TNI’s recent actions. The British New Labour government have no intention of getting in the way of the British arms industry.

The Bush administration in the US wants Indonesian co-operation in the “war on terror” and will not want to upset Jakarta. In turn, the Indonesian government have copied features of the US-led invasion of Iraq, including “embedding” journalists with their frontline troops in return for tame ‘frontline reports’.

Only working people and youth can provide real solidarity with the oppressed people of Aceh. The CWI, for example, supports self-determination for the people of Aceh, including independence if they want it. Only by adopting such a position can the working class and progressive forces in Indonesia and elsewhere gain the ear of the people of Aceh. It is in the class interests of working people of Indonesia to see the people of Aceh win their national and democratic rights. This would mean a big blow for the ruling class in Jakarta (and a defeat for imperialism everywhere), which in turn would strengthen the working class of Indonesia and the fight for real change in society.

Of course we also argue for a socialist Aceh, as the only way to enable democratic control over the vast wealth of the area and to ensure it is used for social need and not for private profit. Given the desperate poverty levels in Aceh, it is vital a struggle for a fundamental change in society is linked to the wider region. Therefore we call for a socialist Aceh as part of a socialist confederation of the region. Supporting the right of self-determination of Aceh is the only way to strengthen the unity of the workers and peasants of both Aceh and Indonesia.

In the 1950s, the CIA backed the Aceh independence fighters when they were opposing the left-nationalist Indonesian President, Sukarno, who in turn was backed by the massive Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). At the time, the PKI put national integration ahead of Aceh’s democratic right to self determination, thereby walking all over basic Marxist principles. They were under strict instructions from their masters in Moscow to keep Sukarno onside at all costs. This Stalinist policy of tail-ending the so-called ‘progressive’ section of the capitalist class was to lead to the annihilation of the PKI in 1965, (which saw up to 3 million communists killed). From out of this bloodbath, the right wing dictatorship of Suharto ruled for decades, until a mass movement of youth and workers overthrew him in the late 1990s.

The language being used today in regards to Aceh is the same as that employed during the Sukarno period. Jakarta and the West talk about “territorial integrity” and oppose self-determination for oil and gas-rich Aceh.

For Indonesian President Megawati (Sukarno’s daughter) the invasion is a useful diversion in the run-up to the April 2004 general elections. At the moment, there is reportedly strong support across Indonesia for the military assault, and the big protests against cuts to food subsidies have abated. The renewed conflict also sends a message to West Papua and other areas thinking of attempting “an East Timor”. The Indonesian state was forced to let East Timor go, but much fiercer resistance will be put up against Acehnese independence claims.

For the TNI, the war allows them to boost their political influence, which was undermined with the fall of the Suharto dictatorship in 1998 (for example, they have lost their police role), and the war gives them an opportunity to show their importance to ‘national integration’. The conflict is also about, “making some extra cash. The poorly funded army controls a large stake in Aceh’s profitable marijuana trade and is involved in a range of illegal and legal businesses, including protecting ExxonMobil’s huge LNG plant” (Australian Financial Review 21/5/03). As a saying in Indonesia goes, “Come to Aceh with an M16, and leave with 16M (million rupiah)”.

Aceh, situated in the far north east of Indonesia, has strong Islamic traditions and had 500 years of independence before being defeated by Dutch imperialism. After the Second World War, Aceh played a key role in the struggle for Indonesian independence. But the victory of the Suharto counter-revolution in 1965 was a disaster for Aceh. Since then the central government fleeced it of its fossil fuels and forests and a policy of Javanese transmigration to Aceh was employed to give Jakarta a social base in the area (Java is the largest island that makes up Indonesia and the most populous).

In 1976, GAM was formed, with Libyan-backing. In 1989 they stepped up their military resistance to Indonesian rule and over 12,000 people have been killed since then, mainly by the TNI. Over 100,000 refugees have been created by the low level war.

No democratic capitalist solution

From 1989-98, Jakarta declared Aceh a “special combat zone”. The fall of Suharto in 1998 appeared to hold out hope of a settlement to the conflict, but the ‘democratic capitalism’ promised by the new government was a sham and in 2001 a new military offensive was announced by the central government.

A ceasefire framework agreed last December between the Indonesian government and the GAM never really took on flesh. Last ditch efforts to resuscitate the negotiations, proposed by the US, with backing from the EU and Japan, failed to persuade the Indonesian government to step back. Talks scheduled in Tokoyo for the weekend 17-18 May were wrecked by Indonesian officials who demanded the GAM surrender their separatist demands and hand over its arsenal of weapons. Just to force the point, Indonesian police arrested five GAM negotiators when they tried to board a flight to the talks.

Despite Washington’s apparent unease at the launching of an attack in Aceh, it appears that Megawati has decided it is a good time to embark on military operations in an international climate of “war on terror”. Her counterpart in the Philippines, President Gloria Arroyo, has recently ordered a military assault against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

This new invasion of Aceh takes the repression to a new height. But there will be no military solution to Aceh. In fact, Megawati is creating a Vietnam-style situation for herself. Despite her previous reputation as a ‘reformer’ and a ‘democrat’, Megawati has no solution to the deep social, national and economic problems that beset Indonesia. She has clearly sided with the reactionary tops of the powerful armed forces of Indonesia in regards to plans for Aceh. But the issue goes wider. The utilisation of the army serves as a warning to the left and working class movement throughout Indonesia of future possible events if a mass socialist alternative to poverty, unemployment, corruption and oppression is not built.

-Withdraw Indonesian Troops Now!
-For an independent, socialist Aceh, and a socialist confederation of the region

By Stephen Jolly

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