Indonesia: The Yugoslav Model
January 18, 1999


Ron Moreau

More trouble in Aceh raises new fears of Balkanization

The young soldiers were last seen alive on a public bus, traveling away from their base in Indonesia's remote province of Aceh. Dressed in civilian clothes and headed home for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, they were ill prepared to face an angry mob. About 200 machete-wielding villagers stopped the bus, apparently seeking retribution against the Indonesian Army. They demanded papers, and seized any man who could produce only military identification. Of 18 soldiers on the bus that December day, the mob took seven; their mutilated bodies were found scattered about the scene of the abduction, with bound hands and feet and signs that they had been tortured.

The ambush has shattered a brief time of peace in Aceh, a province of 4 million people with a long history of resistance. They fought against Dutch colonial rule until 1910, and later against the regime of President Suharto. For much of his 31-year reign, the president's regal powers were enough to intimidate most of Indonesia's restive provinces, but not Aceh. In 1989, Suharto finally placed Aceh under martial law, and the brutal story of that period began to emerge only after he was forced to step down last summer. The Acehnese exposed mass graves, and told of summary executions, torture and rape, embarrassing Suharto's handpicked successor, B. J. Habibie. The new president and his aides apologized and promised to make amends, but failed to deliver. Now, amid new reports of Army brutality, the troubles have returned-raising fears that Aceh would inspire other aggrieved regions to fight Jakarta, too.

First came the bus attack, then days later the highway kidnapping of a Marine major and a soldier, who are still missing. The official response was swift. The Habibie government threatened to re-impose martial law on Aceh. General Wiranto, the military commander who had promised to withdraw soldiers, instead dispatched hundreds of combat troops. They conducted house-to-house searches for the two missing soldiers and for members of the Free Aceh Movement, suspected in the kidnapping and bus attack. They hunted the group's reputed leader, Ahmad Kandang, and ran into stiff resistance from armed rebels and local crowds, who burned government buildings and police stations in and around the city of Lhokseumawe. Details of the fighting remain murky, but the Army claimed that some civilians died in cross-fire or because rebels used them as human shields. By early last week, some 12 Acehnese civilians lay dead and dozens more wounded, while the Army had rounded up more than 200 suspects, most of whom were later released.

The real culprits in Aceh may be lost in the intrigue that has accompanied Suharto's fall. Some locals blame the bus attack on military provocateurs, who are said to be stirring up unrest in order to justify the continuation of special military powers and privileges. Other Acehnese blamed vigilantes who have armed themselves against the provocateurs-and particularly against mysterious "ninja" killers. These black-clad assassins are said to be responsible for the murder of some 200 preachers and shamans in East Java last year. In this atmosphere, it is easy for a mob to mistake a soldier for a "ninja," says a Western diplomat. "Sometimes the first reaction of fearful and stressed-out people like those in Aceh is to pick up a machete."

The irony is that the Acehnese count themselves among the most loyal of Indonesians. Unlike the rebels of East Timor or the tribes of Irian Jaya, the Acehnese do not consider themselves ethnically or religiously distinct from their mostly Muslim countrymen. In fact, they still celebrate Acehnese heroes, including women warriors, who fought for Indonesian independence. But they want punishment for those who committed martial-law abuses, and compensation for the Suharto era, when Aceh's wealth in natural gas went largely to enrich associates of the president. "The Acehnese don't really want independence," says a Western military attache in Jakarta. "They simply feel they've been terribly wronged by the military and are protectively fighting for their rights."

Their complaints could prove contagious. Like Tito in the former Yugoslavia, Suharto's presence intimidated many religious and ethnic groups into swallowing their grievances. Now that the center is gone, most provinces are seeking more autonomy, and the rebels of Irian Jaya and East Timor are pressing for independence. Anger at the post-Suharto regime remains high; young rioters burned several police stations last week in Karawang, a city outside Jakarta, where Habibie is seeking ways to calm the nation. His government budget released last week directs billions to help poor regions including Aceh. So far, though, the administration has made no serious effort to investigate military abuses, an omission that will further provoke the hinterlands. That doesn't mean that Indonesia will go the way of Yugoslavia, or that the parallels are exact-only that the dangers are real.