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Aceh: Why Military Force Won’t Bring Lasting Peace

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For much of the last 50 years Aceh has been in rebellion against the failure of successive Indonesian governments to recognise the political and economic aspirations of the Acehnese people. The distinct historical origins and social cleavages of the Acehnese were never reflected in the political structures of the region, and economic equity was distorted by Jakarta’s centralised control of development and resource exploitation. The undisciplined military response to rebellion, especially from the late 1970s onwards, also embittered many Acehnese and deepened their sense of grievance against the central government. When President Soeharto’s New Order collapsed, these frustrations were expressed in demands for accountability for past crimes, in demands for greater autonomy, and in a burgeoning demand for independence. These were accompanied by an upsurge in armed resistance when Jakarta failed to grasp fleeting opportunities to seek an end to conflict.

The six-point plan announced by the Wahid government on 11 April 2001 was clothed in the language of a comprehensive solution involving political, economic and social measures but it can have little effect while 80 per cent of the province is not under effective government control. Regaining control requires either successful security operations or a peace agreement with the Aceh Liberation Movement (GAM). Intensified security operations could restore government control over large areas and deal a sharp blow to the armed wing of the Aceh Liberation Movement (AGAM) but a hardened rump would remain, and the people of Aceh would have been further alienated in the process.

The military solution 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. Many of the practices of the authoritarian past are still in use. The intelligence system seems at times to be subject to hidden agendas set by both internal and external influences. Brutality and reprisals against unarmed civilians and their property also go largely unpunished. With two ambiguous exceptions, there is no indication that those responsible for abuses of human rights have been, or will be, brought to justice.

The failure to impose discipline and control stems in part from the fact that only 25 per cent of the security budget is provided by the state. This means that military and police forces in the field, in Aceh as elsewhere, are compelled to engage in a great variety of legal and illegal activities to provide the remaining funds to support operations and meet personal needs. These depredations on the economy are underpinned by the use or threat of force.

There are also reasons to believe that the military [TNI – Indonesian National Military], particularly the army, benefits from continued conflict in Aceh even if it is not the result of explicit policy. Continued engagement in Aceh allows the TNI to portray itself as the only force capable of preventing the disintegration of Indonesia and thereby helps it to preserve its political influence. It also supports the army’s push to regain responsibility for internal security from the police that in turn justifies the army’s retention of the territorial system that is the fountain of non-government funding. Political influence assists the TNI to preserve its institutional independence and foil efforts to bring senior officers to justice for past human rights offences.

President Wahid has resisted pressure to declare a state of emergency but he has authorised the establishment of an operational command under police leadership and the dispatch of army reinforcements. In present circumstances more troops and the expansion of operations under the guise of restoring law and order will inevitably lead to more depredation and frustrate the objective of winning the hearts and minds of the people, let alone address the underlying political problem.

A more appropriate strategy would be to maintain the status quo while talks are pursued to overcome the substantive obstacles to peace. A central issue in these talks would need to be the extent to which Jakarta was prepared to grant wide autonomy to Aceh. Meanwhile, to help ensure that efforts are not undermined by inappropriate actions on the ground in Aceh, effective control measures are required from both the government and the security forces.

If the Indonesian government is prepared to make reasonable concessions on regional autonomy, the international community could play a useful role in informing the GAM leadership overseas and in Aceh of the advantages and disadvantages of various options, in assisting negotiations and in monitoring a settlement. Peace keeping forces are unlikely to be acceptable to Indonesia, and the best guarantee that a settlement will endure is a successful democratic transition in the country.

This report is primarily concerned with why military operations to support the imposition of a solution are unlikely to bring lasting peace. A following ICG report will examine the proposals for autonomy and their prospects for acceptance as an alternative to independence.


To the Government of Indonesia

1. In order to facilitate negotiations and because efforts to regain territory by force are counter-productive to the peace process, military operations should be limited to what is necessary to maintain the status quo while searching for a peaceful settlement of the conflict.

2. Consideration should be given to the designation of a lead minister or the appointment of a special minister to focus and invigorate the search for a settlement of the conflict.

3. Consideration should be given to the appointment of a political authority in Aceh – most likely the governor -- to control and coordinate all government agencies and the security forces in accordance with national policy.

4. It is essential to provide clear and unequivocal regulations covering the call out of TNI and its powers of search, arrest, and interrogation, rules of engagement, command and control arrangements, and accountability.

5. The review and restructuring of national intelligence agencies and accountability mechanisms should be expedited.

6. Discipline and order should be imposed on the police paramilitary force (Brimob), particularly relating to the wearing of uniforms, rules of engagement and accountability for abuses of power.

7. In order to restore the confidence of the people of Aceh, it is necessary to bring to justice security forces personnel, including senior officers, responsible for human rights abuses, particularly clear cut cases like the RATA killings of December 2000.

To the Indonesian National Military (TNI)

8. Necessary intelligence collection and analysis should be separated from the authorisation of intelligence operations.

9. Civic action programs should be suspended until a political settlement is reached.

To the International Community

10. The international community should support the search for a political solution to the conflict and provide any assistance required to facilitate negotiations and monitor a settlement.

Jakarta/Brussels, 12 June 2001


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