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Aceh: How Not to Win Hearts and Minds


In April 2001, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister of Security and Political Affairs, gave a long interview on Aceh to Media Indonesia, a Jakarta newspaper. The interview appeared just after a presidential instruction had been issued authorising military action as part of a comprehensive strategy to address the Aceh problem. Yudhoyono stressed that social discontent was at the heart of any insurgency and that winning hearts and minds of the local population was the primary goal of a counterinsurgency strategy, so as to reduce local support for the separatists. “Our brothers and sisters in Aceh want respect, justice, and prosperity”, he said.

Those words are worth reviewing as Aceh prepares to endure the third month of a planned six-month military emergency declared by President Megawati Soekarnoputri at midnight on 18 May 2003. The government appears to have no clear objectives in this war, no criteria for “success” other than control of territory and body counts, and no exit strategy.

Despite the strict controls exercised by the army (TNI) over information – the government has drastically limited access to the province, particularly by foreigners – the message coming through clearly is that far from winning hearts and minds, Jakarta is managing to alienate Acehnese even further. Virtually everything it is doing now – forced participation in mass loyalty oaths, forced displacement of villagers, arrests not just of GAM fighters but of people branded “GAM sympathisers”, and background checks on civil servants – are tactics used before, to disastrous effect. They do not help end separatism: they generate more support for it.

The gravity of the security threat posed by GAM is not at issue. This is a guerrilla group that in addition to routine ambushes of Indonesian military and police has engaged in targeted assassinations, hostage-taking, arson, and extortion. One NGO source told ICG just before the military emergency began that if the government had avoided a military response to the collapse of the 9 December 2002 cessation of hostilities agreement, it might have been able to take advantage of growing disaffection with GAM, even in some insurgent strongholds. With the tactics being used now, support for GAM in these areas could return.

In the process, the notion of “special autonomy” for Aceh has been completely undermined. Not only is policy over everything – security, social welfare, governance – now directed from Jakarta, but also the additional revenue that Aceh was to receive from the autonomy legislation is being ploughed directly back into military operations.

While international criticism of the conduct of military operations is mounting, domestic criticism remains muted. This reflects the current nationalistic mood that has led to popular support for a tough stance against threats to the country’s unity, as well as the control over information and the political manoeuvring taking place in the lead-up to the 2004 elections.

All this means that the chances of returning to negotiations any time soon are slim. The military is determined to finish off the rebels, once and for all, and any non-military solutions have been put on hold.

Jakarta/Brussels, 23 July 2003


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