„Make Love, Not War!“ in Aceh

Indonesia House, Amsterdam, September, 2002

By Aboeprijadi Santoso, journalist, Amsterdam

Yayak's calender "Tanah untuk Rakyat"

Yayak's calender "Tanah untuk Rakyat"

„Why is it that they want to maintain the nation by fighting against our brothers and sisters?“ Such is the Aceh-puzzle that disturbs Yayak, an Indonesian artist living in Cologne, Germany. Fears have grown that the next round of talk between the government in Jakarta and the Acehnese rebels GAM (Free Aceh Movement) in Geneva may sooner or later end up with an escalation of war. Already Jakarta hardliners’ emergency calls have deepened the crisis in Aceh. Any escalation would perpetuate what is seen as New Order’s habit of state violence, impoverishment and sufferings at grass root level. As a result, there is a growing alienation vis a vis state authorities among the civil society. Three examples illustrate this perspective.

It has been argued that Southeast Asian old states actually mirror a theatre. The American anthropologist Clifford Geertz suggests, all that mattered for them was not so much the might and power, but the great cultural and moral superiority they claimed and displayed for the sake of their own aggrandizement. Today it seems just the other way around: it is the might and power, as exemplified by its influence, geographic scale, and military might that mark modern nation-states.

To people like Yayak, these state’s businesses and symbols are irrelevant — „it is human life that matter, isn’t it?“ he insists. In a very similar way, the Dutch colonial-state and the Javanese aristocrats were once seen as oppressive and irrelevant by the Blora (Central Java)-based Saminist peasants. Yayak Iskra Ismaya, 46, an imaginative graphic-designer, painter and folklore singer, painted vigorous images of state’s repression and various fates of children. He was forced to leave his hometown Yogyakarta in 1992 because he made a calendar of Indonesia’s pro-democratic struggle allegedly humiliating Mr. and Madame Soeharto (1990). Yet he keeps his empathy and fighting spirit alive, witnessed a war theatre in Aceh in 1989, helped aid agencies helping children in Thailand, India and Africa, and now embarks on a popular education project (Perguruan Rakyat Merdeka) in Indonesia. He recently introduces his song „Ciliwung Merdeka“ (Free Ciliwung) calling for solidarity with Jakarta’s marginalized people.

Pipit Rochijat, 53, another example, is a witty ex-student, who abandoned his study in Berlin, Germany, to resist the intimidation that the Indonesian military attaches put him through in the eighties. A prolific writer, he became well known as his essay „Saya PKI atau non-PKI?“ (Am I PKI or non-PKI? – PKI is the outlawed Indonesian Communist Party) was translated and published by Cornell University’s periodical Indonesia in 1985. Pipit’s internationally celebrated essay – pointing to the New Order’s brutal method and ugly reasoning as he describes the mid-sixties massacres in East Java’s Kediri – put him in the same niche as Yayak. He appears to suggest that state’s obsessions, like with Hitler and Stalin, could easily lead to, and be used to justify, a human tragedy.

Otto Shamsuddin Ishak, 43, articulates similar views with deep humanitarian concerns as Yayak and Pipit. A perceptive sociologist, who studied in Yogyakarta and used to live in Aceh, he focuses on injustice, repression and people’s sufferings; his books on Tengku Bantaqiah killings and „Jakarta’s panic“ should contribute efforts to understand present-day Aceh. „The next Geneva meet should at least agree on methods to control armed movements of both sides of the conflict that has victimized the civil society,“ he urges.Last year he witnessed the Sept. 11 attack as he crawled in the dust of Manhattan’s streets. „Even in New York, which was not a conflict area like my homeland Aceh, the security of people is no longer assured. Not the state, but the common people were being victimized. Yet, instead of human security, state security has since acquired a paramount importance. The 11-09 has pushed back the primacy of human rights,“ he concludes.

Yayak’s, Pipit’s and Otto’s values – precisely because they have themselves been victimized by the impact of a brutal state at home or abroad – are relevant and reflect concerns on problems like Aceh and Papua. To share their concerns is to see the problems from the victims’ perspective. Few in war-torn Aceh, except the security apparatuses, would ask – to borrow Pipit’s style – the silly question „Are you GAM or non-GAM?“ The question is irrelevant since the problem obviously is not the label but the real injustice and the escalating violence. While the idea of „independent Aceh“ has naturally grown from this context – one cannot, therefore, blame the locals for that – it is the state politicians and the military and the rebels, who were responsible for the war.

Acehnese, who grew up in the midst of the conflict since the late-eighties and become pro-independent-minded, should not be punished and forced to lick and scrap the words „referendum“ and „freedom“ from the wall, whilst the dictator, generals and officers, who were responsible for the atrocities, enjoy absolute impunity. The Army has in fact lost any legitimacy to be part of the solution since they have been – and remain – part of the problem for decades. As a consequence, most Acehnese may by now be sympathetic to the idea of independence although this may not necessarily imply active support for the rebels. As both activists and locals in Aceh told this writer recently, the state will have to deal with, not only GAM, but local independence aspiration.

For once the spirit is out of the bottle, you cannot put it back; to do so is to kill human beings that would provoke a greater tragedy. To win heart and mind, thus, becomes increasingly critical. Indonesia’s experience with East Timor has demonstrated that its army has failed to do just that. According to local human rights NGO Kontras, South Aceh, for example – with a concentration of migrants, reportedly a training ground for Army backed militias, and close to strong GAM bases in West Aceh – now has the second-highest level of violence (after East Aceh). Recent arrests of foreign observers – Lesley McCulloch and Joy Stadler – in that very area may trigger Aceh, like East Timor, to be closed from the outside world. But, as the East Timor case has taught us, no bloodbaths will remain hidden behind the façade of peace talks.

Neither (Jakarta’s desperate) ultimatum nor war-theatre can restore people’s trust. It never did anywhere on earth. Incidentally, this is what Sri Lanka and the Tamil separatist rebels have finally realized and agreed to pursue a peace process despite the enormous gap between them. By contrast, Indonesia’s regional rebellions in the fifties were much less threatening as the rebel-officers were disgruntled corps-fellows without popular support. Unlike today-rebels, they were seen as part and parcel of the nation rather than a security problem in a resource-rich part of what is now felt as imposed unitary state. Unless, therefore, Jakarta generals want to risk a greater mayhem or loosing Aceh, the one thing they must not do – and the politicians should prevent – is war. „Make love, not war!“ said Yayak.   ends

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