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Women's groups should be included in Aceh solution

Jakarta Post - June 27, 2000

Santi Soekanto – A truly democratic negotiation for solutions in Aceh should include different elements including women groups, says Jacqueline Aquino Siapno from the Philippines. The lecturer in political science and staff member of the Melbourne Institute of Asian Languages and Societies, at University of Melbourne, recently finished her book, Women, Nationalism, and Political Violence in Aceh. The following is an excerpt of an e-mail interview with The Jakarta Post.

Question: You have been observing the turbulence in Aceh for years. What do you think of recent developments there?

Answer: The situation in Aceh has been so horrifying in the past decade that, like many people, I was at first optimistic about the truce (Joint Understanding on Humanitarian Pause recently signed in Switzerland) since it is a step towards ending the violence. However, it is glaring omission that the women's groups that have been at the forefront of political organizing in Aceh have not been included.

A genuinely democratic negotiation with any hope of lasting should include the women's groups, student organizations and religious leaders. There is too much emphasis on the role of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM). This is a rather present-oriented and narrow-minded view. The struggle for independence in Aceh must be understood from a broader historical perspective, and not be too limited to the present conflict.

This has been an ongoing struggle for several decades and historically, the rebellions against the state had specific differences in terms of leadership (during the Darul Islam rebellion in the 1950s it was the ulama who led), demands, and aspirations. The independence movement in Aceh today is much larger than GAM. Any genuine solution to the conflict ought to include all the other groups outside GAM that also want independence, but talk about the desirability of independence in different terms.

How do you see the spread of the self-determination movement in Aceh?

Calls for referendum have already spread to South Aceh, Aceh Proper (Banda Aceh), West Aceh, and Central Aceh, initially not as militant in the early-mid 1990s. This is partly due to the success of the students in their campaigns on the referendum despite the state terror and intimidation waged against them.

But it's mostly due to the sadism of the Indonesian government and military which has been digging its own grave in Aceh in the past decade with its extremely brutal measures against ordinary Acehnese.

The push for self-determination in Aceh is about many things, among them the reorganization of the nation-state and capital, about ending state violence and sadism, about seeking justice for victims of massive human rights violations.

It is also about unfair development policies, and corporate greed and irresponsibility on the part of companies like Mobil Oil. However, it is not about "religious conflict" which is the propaganda that the government has been using to delegitimize the independence movement.

Many have expressed fear of Indonesia disintegrating, especially following East Timor's self-determination.

I think the disintegration theory should be given a decent burial. The two places that seem most likely to become independent are Aceh and West Papua. However, the problems in the other provinces seem quite different, and in some cases, they are asking the government and military to intervene to solve problems rather than leave them alone.

I don't really believe in any "domino theories". This was supposedly the same reason why Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975 – they were concerned about the "domino effect" of a Third World populist socialist government coming to power.

I think the example of East Timor becoming independent has been an immensely inspiring experience, not just for Aceh and West Papua, but for the Muslims in Mindanao, Southern Philippines, as well. Or for that matter, for small groups considered "an insignificant dot on the map" or "gravel in the shoes" of big hegemonic giants.

It is inspiring in the same way that the struggle for independence in Vietnam against French and then American colonization was inspiring to so many other colonized groups in the world. What is so criminal about dreaming of becoming free and independent?

Your comment about President Abdurrahman Wahid's (Gus Dur) handling of the calls for self-determination?

Like many people, I am very much hopeful that Abdurrahman will respond to the growing quest for self-determination in creative and non-cynical ways. His background as a religious scholar makes many different groups in Aceh hopeful that if there were a president who could understand the complexities and subtleties of the problems in Aceh, it would be him.

However, so far his record on Aceh is not good, and in fact Acehnese activists have begun to call him a war criminal and the joint military-civilian tribunal as a mob court (pengadilan gerombolan).

The President kept Aceh's problems for himself, and gave Vice President Megawati Soekarnoputri the problems of Irian Jaya, Maluku and Riau. What do you think? Your suggestions for Megawati?

It is possible that Gus Dur "kept Aceh for himself" possibly because he better understands the sensitivity of the Acehnese situation.

Someone with his immense understanding of religion, would hopefully, unlike Soeharto, not "play the Islamic card" as a political tool. This seems to be a hope that many Acehnese continue to cling to, but who knows what can happen in the future.

My suggestions for Megawati: try to be a shining role model for women in politics, take up earnestly this role of building and creating an intellectual and political space for women, and make astute, wise decisions about the serious problems of the growing push for independence in places like West Papua.

One would think that the desirability of "independence" would be something that strong women would intuitively understand since it is something many seriously struggle for in their own lives.