November 1999

On the verandah




You'd think it was time for Indonesia to disappear from our newspapers' front pages after letting East Timor go and holding a reasonably satisfactory presidential election. Time for another country to take the stage and show us how mismanaged it is. But no, the limelight has just shifted a little bit to another part of Indonesia, the province of Aceh.

In case you haven't followed the Aceh events, or perhaps your newspaper in Bloomington, Deep America, does not carry much international news, let me give you a brief summary of the situation.

A brief history of the Aceh problem

Aceh is (currently) a province at the northern end of Sumatra island. It has an area of 55,000 square km, a little larger than Denmark, a little smaller than Sri Lanka or Ireland, with 5.5 million people. It was the first part of Southeast Asia to be converted to Islam, and even today the people are devoutly Muslim. Being the closest part of the archipelago facing Arabia, Aceh is nicknamed The Verandah of Mecca.

Even in the days of the Dutch East Indies, the Acehnese were resisting the colonial rulers. It was the Japanese, however, who threw out the Dutch in 1942, but after the Japanese themselves surrendered, 1945, the Dutch planned to re-impose their rule. The Acehnese teamed up with other resistance groups in the archipelago, declaring an independent Republic of Indonesia. After some low level fighting, the Dutch gave up in 1949, and Indonesia became a reality. Yet in the new set-up, the Acehnese did not get their separate autonomy, nor their dream of an Islamic Indonesia. The new government in Jakarta believed in a unitary and secular state.

In 1953, the Acehnese joined the Darul Islam revolt, whose aim was an Islamic Indonesia, and which was spreading through Sumatra and other parts of the country. As a concession by the central government, an autonomous Aceh province was created (1956), but otherwise the revolt was put down brutally. It was all but over by the early 1960s. Yet even the autonomy so won was to prove cosmetic. As President Suharto (1966-1998) consolidated power within his inner circle, and relied on the army to keep his hold on the country, the Acehnese felt disempowered again.

New revolts broke out 1976-79 and 1989-1991, led by the Free Aceh Movement. Unlike the 1950s the uprisings were not for an Islamic Indonesia, but for a separate Islamic Aceh. Once again, the Indonesian army was sent in, and as armies are wont to do, they did their best to terrorise and alienate even the fence-sitters. One wonders, don't people ever learn from the Vietnam War?

In 1998, Suharto was overthrown. His army was massively booed by demonstrators in Jakarta streets, his hand-picked successor Habibie defeated in the 1999 elections, and East Timor reluctantly allowed to go free. No surprise then that the Acehnese were emboldened to press their demand again. The insurgency resumed, but so did civil pressure. Last week, half a million people ("nearly a million" according to some reports) attended a rally in the capital Banda Aceh, demanding a referendum for independence. Half a million people is about 10% of the entire province's population gathered in a single place. For every one of them there, there must have been many others who sympathised, but couldn't or didn't feel it safe enough to attend. Meanwhile, the army began pulling out, acknowledging after a decade, that force would never solve what was a political problem. Implicit was the recognition by the new government and military command that military tactics had actually made the grievances worse.

Now, I think it's too late. The Acehnese would not be satisfied with anything less than total independence. There is not a shred of trust left that Jakarta or its army will treat them decently. Even if this administration does, what about the next?

The army command is bitterly opposed to secession. Too many of their men have died in the decades of fighting in Aceh; they have been humiliated enough in East Timor and will take no more. The newly-elected politicians in Jakarta are also strongly opposed to Acehnese independence, though some days, they waffle a bit and suggest that the groundswell for a referendum is too great to be ignored. I think they recognise that they have few levers left. What means has Jakarta to prevent Aceh's secession, except perhaps to bludgeon them into submission? But this has already been tried, and has failed.

The cost of suppression

Of course, one could try again, with a higher level of force, the way the Russians are having a second go at Chechnya. But almost always, this course of action carries huge costs for the metropolitan country, even if it's less immediately apparent compared to the deaths and destruction in the seceding province. The cost of a massive military campaign to bring a rebellous province to heal is the brutalisation of the metropolitan state. The army, in requiring a larger share of resources to do its remit, often ends up occupying a bigger share of power at the centre. Since this may provoke criticism, the press often has to be gagged and political opposition muzzled. It is difficult to maintain a democratic way of life when a state is stamping out popular will in another part of the same country.

In the early 1960's, Katanga tried to secede from the newly independent (ex-Belgian) Congo. It was put down, and Mobutu, who rose to power amidst the chaos, remained dictator of the country, renamed Zaire, for the next three and a half decades. With absolute power, came absolute corruption. The impoverishment of Zaire was only matched by the mind-boggling wealth stashed abroad by the President-for-life.

In the early 1970's, Biafra tried to secede from Nigeria. A very nasty war ensued, in which the Ibos of Biafra were defeated. But the did average Nigerian do well in the thirty years hence? I don't think so. They had almost continuous military rule, economic bankruptcy (for an oil-producing country, to boot) and a level of corruption that exceeded Zaire's. Sure, the outcome wasn't directly related to the Biafran war, but I think the legitimisation of violence and authoritarianism from waging a civil war is part of a complex of factors that led to an overall downward spiral.

In the early 1970's too, Bangladesh seceded from Pakistan, but not before Islamabad sent in its troops to prevent it. The (West) Pakistanis failed mostly because the Indians intervened to help Bangladesh. Even so, Pakistan has seen an undue influence of its military in its affairs throughout its history; General Musharraf is just the latest coup-leader.

Islamic Sudan today is still fighting its southern, Christian, minority. Sudan is not famous as a liberal, peaceful, nor even famine-free, state. Turkey is keeping a lid on its Kurdish minority (and its Islamist movement). Is it any coincidence that its army is not quite under civilian control? And that its continuing abuses of human rights is denying it entry into the European Union?

In contrast, when, in 1965, Singapore was a part of Malaysia, but our government was at loggerheads with Kuala Lumpur and we were on the brink of civil strife, Tengku Abdul Rahman, then Prime Minister of Malaysia, decided it was better to peacefully separate Singapore from Malaysia than to crack down. Malaysia has remained a relatively democratic and prosperous place since.

With popular will in Aceh so evident, I cannot see how the Javanese can reverse the course of events there without hurting themselves for another generation. For everybody's sake, Aceh should go free.

Will Indonesia disintegrate?

The hardliners say that if Aceh were allowed to cast off, it would be the beginning of the end for Indonesia. The sprawling country of 7,000 inhabited islands and 200 million people will disintegrate. As it is, there is unrest in Kalimantan and Sulawesi, a secession movement in Irian Jaya, and Muslims and Christians slaughtering each other in the Malukus.

I think this is a simplistic argument. Secession is never easy to achieve. It requires a clear cause with lots of grassroots support, a fighting force, and most of all, leadership. Without leadership, the situation becomes mere lawlessness. At this time, no other movement anywhere else in Indonesia has all three ingredients.

My guess is that without Aceh, there would still be a big Indonesia. Disintegration would not necessarily follow. When the Irish Republic parted from the United Kingdom in 1920s, neither the Scots nor the Welsh followed suit. When Singapore left Malaysia, neither Sarawak nor Sabah left.

What is the Indonesian nation? What is a nation?

Although Aceh is a local, perhaps regional, issue, its story presses us to examine the myth of modern nationhood. Aceh has all the textbook characteristics of a nation: a uniformity of race, language, religion, and above all, a sense of common destiny, separate from other peoples. They have a strong enough feeling to fight for their own future over decades. But through most of those decades, the world media, and of course, the Indonesian media, have talked about an Indonesian nation. So which is the nation? Indonesia (which all this while included the Acehnese), or Aceh?

My money goes to Aceh. What is Indonesia, but the successor to the Dutch empire in the East Indies? The Dutch never pretended they were ruling over a nation. They were ruling a motley of island-communities and statelets: the Riau, the Balinese, the people of Seram, Flores, Yogyakarta, Madura But then, of course, empires prided themselves on heterogeneity, on peaceful diversity under a benevolent, civilising crown.

Indonesian nationalism, like most independence movements, from the Burmese to the Angolan, was a response to European rule, the sense of injustice when foreigners lorded over indigenous peoples (note the plural: peoples). It was primarily a coalition of interests, to evict a common trespasser. Quite often, independence movements were led by an elite, who were partly westernised, thereby cutting across local differences of race, language, tribe or religion (e.g. the English-speaking Congress movement in British India). This elite was more able to conceive of themselves as a single people than the less educated masses, but it was their perspective, not the reality on the ground.

After winning independence, the new elite set about creating new nations, using propaganda and the school curriculum. Various countries did things slightly differently, but many imposed a common "national" language, and glorified "national" achievements (such as the tallest building in the world). To promote unity, they tended to create strong central governments, with little space for local autonomy. Today, we are led to believe that these ex-colonies are now modern nations. They are not. Very often, especially the authoritarian ones, they are old empires under new management. Burma is not a nation: its Karens and other minorities are still resisting Rangoon's rule. Somalia is not a nation: the different tribes and clans take orders from no one else. Papua New Guinea has a rebellion on Bougainville Island; Sri Lanka has been bleeding from its fierce Tamil separatist movement for over a decade; and what does one make of Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda and Burundi?

True nations (in the classic sense) are very rare. All countries have subcommunities and minorities. There are never hard edges to race, language and ethnicity. There are more Lao people in Thailand than in Laos, and they gradually blend into the Thais in Isaan. At the southern edge of Thailand, the people resemble the Malays and are Muslim, not Buddhist. There are significant numbers of Chinese living in the Vladivostok region of the Russian Far East, but various Korean-Chinese admixtures in China's northeastern provinces. Going eastward from Java towards Irian Jaya, the inhabitants appear less and less Malay, more and more Melanesian. More and more Christian.

Not only on the fringes, but even within societies, there are outcrops of minorities. There are Vietnamese living among the Khmers of Cambodia. There are Muslims amid the Buddhist Sinhalese of Sri Lanka. There are Punjabis in Bangkok and Jews in Singapore.

Against this reality, we can see that the problem with nationhood as a concept is that it does not respect the graininess of demography. The idea of nation-states -- states based on a supposed homogeneity of race, culture, religion or language -- is fundamentally flawed, because it is ultimately imaginary and inherently illiberal to minorities within. Japan for the Japanese -- what about the Koreans within? Kazakhstan for the Kazakhs -- what about the Russians in the northern half? Indonesia for the Indonesians -- but what if people feel more Ambonese or more Papuan than Indonesian? What if people feel more Kurd than Turkish? More Turkish than Cypriot?

When we wake up from our dream, must states splinter to the multiplicity of communities? What a mess that would be! And try drawing new borders when demography is fuzzy! Isn't it better to question why we expect states to be homogenous at all? Why do we want to create this romantic thing called a nation, when romantic emotion often rides roughshod over reason? Why are we so suspicious of internal variation and differences, that we'd use the powers of the state -- the laws, budgetary requisition, the army -- to squeeze out minority spaces?

India provides a far better model. Oh, the place is far from ideal. Poverty is widespread, corruption rife and inequalities still unconscionably large. But for a country with countless languages, religions and regional power-brokers, to have stayed together and not fragmented, testifies to their doing something right. Their last general elections gives you a clue.

Over 60% of the electorate went to the polls, a very respectable turnout, indicating the way that people, however dispossessed, however furious with the inefficiency of the many layers of self-serving government, still feel they have a stake and a voice in the overarching concept called India. I think it's because the enduring legacy of Nehru has been for a democratic, federal, secular system, and a respect (however creaking, in real life) for civil liberties and differences of creed and opinion.

Compare this to Indonesia under Sukarno and Suharto. For a country nearly as large and diverse as India, they had a centralised, unitary state, no democracy, no free speech, and heavy reliance on the army to enforce the President's decrees. To create an Indonesian nation.

Is India a nation? What does it matter if it is, or if it is not? So long as it is at peace with itself, which is a hell of a lot more than most so-called nations can say of themselves.

Yawning Bread 


Remarks, Nov 2004:

This article about Aceh may be a little dated now, having been written 5 years ago. At first, on reviewing it, I thought of re-writing it.

But then the article isn't really about Aceh, it's an excursion through the case of Aceh into the question of secession, suppression and nationhood, which is a long-standing political question.

So I decided to leave the original article alone.