Indonesia Aims at Aceh, Again

Neither side ever lived up to the earlier peace pact, and now Jakarta's army is storming back, vowing to exterminate the rebels

Indonesia's long-awaited peace accord with the ancient sultantate of Aceh looked like a nonstarter from the moment it was signed on December 9, 2002. Even then, the terms of the agreement were a stretch: The 5,000 guerrillas of the Free Aceh Movement (known by its Indonesian acronym, GAM), would lay down their few rifles and grenades, while the distant Jakarta government would surrender control over Aceh's oil and gas reserves. Centuries of hostility between Jakarta and Aceh, a semi-autonomous state on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra, would cease miraculously.

The surprise was that both sides initially appeared to embrace the Geneva pact -- and that it actually held for five months. But now that 40,000 Indonesian troops have marched back into Aceh, the seams have come undone.

In fact, both sides seem to have anticipated a renewed outbreak in fighting all along. Despite the terms of the peace accord, GAM refused to disarm and used the lull in fighting to regroup in the remote hills around the natural-gas fields of Lhokseumawe in the district of Central Aceh. There they could virtually hold hostage a $3 billion ExxonMobil liquefied natural-gas (LNG) plant, potentially cutting its output.


  Meanwhile, the Indonesian army used the year-long runup to peace talks to identify previously secret leaders of GAM, who disclosed their identities within Aceh's universities and its civil service to participate in the peace process.

In retrospect, "Neither side has shown any real interest in making the agreement work," says Sidney Jones, Indonesia director of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. "Thanks to the negotiating process, they [the Indonesian army] now have a lot more intelligence on who's GAM and who's not."

As Indonesian paratroops parachuted into the provincial capital of Banda Aceh and armored vehicles took defensive positions on the highway linking Banda with Lhokseumawe, Indonesian Armed Forces Commander General Endriartono Sutarto lined up his field officers at an army garrison in late May and harangued them to "exterminate" GAM within six months.


  Ironically, Jakarta is justifying its biggest military operation since its invasion of the former Portuguese territory of East Timor in 1975 by pointing to the U.S. invasion of Iraq (see BW Online, 5/22/03, "In East Timor: Justice, Not Revenge"). "Some of the more hardline elements of the military in Aceh are saying, 'Why should we talk about dialogue when even the U.S. simply uses force to settle its disputes?'" says Dewi Fortuna Anwar, deputy chairman of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, a government think tank in Jakarta. The fact that Washington had covered some expenses involved in the Aceh peace talks, such as shuttling negotiators between Tokyo, Geneva, Banda Aceh, and Jakarta, detracted from the accord's credibility in the eyes of some Indonesians.

In economic terms, much is at stake for Indonesia and its neighbors. Some of the heaviest fighting could hit ground at the northwestern mouth of the Straits of Malacca, the world's second-busiest waterway after Britain's Dover Strait and a vital trans-Pacific route for supertankers.

Indonesian generals estimate an 18-month campaign

The conflict also presents a threat to a major source of hard currency for Indonesia. The army immediately stepped up security around the ExxonMobil LNG plant in Lhokseumawe after GAM commanders threatened to attack "strategic installations" if hostilities erupted once more. The plant, which ExxonMobil (XOM ) operates for Indonesian national oil company Pertamina, supplies LNG to steel mills and municipal power plants in Japan. It's still operating at full capacity, but it shut down for three months in 2001 after rebels attacked a bus and helicopter carrying employees, and some LNG buyers refused to extend their 30-year contracts with Pertamina.

Now that Indonesian generals have staked their credibility on a quick and absolute victory in Aceh, turning back may be impossible. "There's a cockiness about this whole operation," says Jones of ICG.


  The questions hanging over the operation are how long it will take and how many innocent people will die? Human-rights activists warn of thousands of civilian casualties if the campaign drags on. Some army generals have privately offered 18 months as a reliable estimate, accounting for troop rotations every six months. An independent Indonesian commission found that between 1,000 and 3,000 people, mostly civilians, were killed from 1989 to 1998 when Aceh was under martial law.

Critics of the peace accord now shake their heads and wonder aloud why anyone ever took it seriously. Perhaps the deal benefited from the euphoria accompanying Indonesia's historic but still unfinished democratic transition after the fall of Suharto in May, 1998, and the election of President Megawati, daughter of founding President Sukarno, in August, 2001. But that euphoria has faded, as Megawati has revealed herself as a nationalist at heart, dead-set against allowing any more Indonesian provinces to follow East Timor, which won independence in a referendum supervised by the U.N. in August, 1999.

The army's scorched-earth campaign in East Timor led the U.N. to accuse the generals of war crimes, alienating Jakarta. The question now is whether they can conduct an operation in Aceh that doesn't arouse international condemnation again. Achieving victory could be tougher than they presume.

Shari covers the Indonesian archipelago from Singapore

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