By Harry Glass
The Indonesian military is making heavy work of its assault on Aceh, according to reports in the Australian socialist paper, Green Left Weekly.
After claiming significant progress in its operation to crush the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), the Indonesian military lost seven soldiers in an ambush in northern Aceh. It was the highest number of casualties the military has suffered since martial law was declared on 19 May.
The army claims that 169 GAM fighters have been killed so far, with around 300 captured. It has announced plans to build a prison to hold more than 1,000 suspected GAM members and supporters. It says 23 soldiers, four police officers and 18 civilians have been killed. More than 25,000 people have fled their homes.
A more significant setback for the government’s operation was the mass resignation of 76 village heads in the Bireuen regency, after complaining about the pressure they had to face in dealing with both the army and GAM. Village chiefs said they could not run the administration under such pressure. Local leaders have been attacked and abducted during the military operation.
When the GAM was formed in 1978, according to GLW writer Max Lane, it attracted little support. He argues that political and social discontent in Aceh had not previously taken a separatist form. Earlier armed rebellions in Aceh had been part of wider struggle for an Islamist Indonesia, not an independent Aceh. That it can now mobilise 5,000 guerrilla fighters would not be possible unless GAM enjoyed some significant popular support.
Why has support for an independent Aceh grown? Lane argues that widespread sentiment for independence developed after 1998. There was opposition to Suharto’s dictatorship and resentment because few of Aceh’s people benefited from the exploitation of its oil and gas reserves. But the presence of the Indonesian military was the key factor in fostering the demand for independence.
Lane argues that the growth of pro-independence sentiment occurred because of disappointment with the policies of the governments after Suharto. Despite promises, no significant prosecutions for human rights abuses took place and the Indonesian government continued to pursue a military response to GAM. This is why up to a million Acehnese participated in a mass demonstration demanding a referendum on independence in November 1999.
Lane concludes that whether or not the war against GAM succeeds in defeating the guerrillas, it will not, and cannot, eliminate widespread pro-independence sentiment among the Acehnese population. Rather, it is likely to strengthen that sentiment.