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Indonesia on the Brink: Again


A Point of View. Indonesia on the Brink: Again.

By David Miller

The imposition of martial law in the rebellious province of Aceh comes at a dangerous time for Indonesia. The country is still dealing with the repercussions of the Bali bombing that not only devastated its vital tourism industry but lent weight to the reputation that Indonesia is a theatre of operations for al-Qaeda and its associated groups. It is not surprising that the Jakarta government has adopted a tough approach when dealing with Aceh as this is not as just a fight over independence and oil and gas. This conflict, which erupted in 1976, threatens the survival of a regime and the possible disintegration of a country.

President Megawati Sukarnoputri gave the green light for war against separatist rebels after last-ditch peace talks in Tokyo collapsed last week. In her decree that imposed martial law, the President claimed the refusal of Free Aceh Movement (GAM) rebels to give up their fight for independence left her no alternative but to introduce a military option. Unfortunately for the Indonesian government the blame does for the breakdown of the peace talks must also be placed at their door as well as the rebels because the Indonesian government has refused to be drawn from its insistence that the Acehese accept Jakarta’s sovereignty over their province.

The military option has been introduced throughout the insurgency and with little effect. These measures have only served to widen the differences between the Aceh people and the government and there is little reason to expect this offensive to be any different. However Megawati must be seen to be firm. There is mounting criticism of her leadership from within her own ruling party and population due her reliance on military support, her failure to stamp out corruption from within the government and military leaderships and the continued poor performance of the economy. This year alone, direct foreign investment in Indonesia had dropped by 42 percent and if Megawati is to survive them she must convince the electorate and her military supporters that she will not allow Indonesia to fall into the abyss.

Megawati must also counter the rise of Islamic fundamentalism throughout the archipelago that has given Indonesia the reputation that it is a safe haven for a-Qaeda linked terrorists and has replaced Afghanistan as the organisation’s centre of operations. This reputation intensified following the Bali bombings and in its aftermath it has been reported in the media that many al-Qaeda operatives are training there in preparation for missions into Europe and other parts of the world.

If Indonesia is to rebuild its reputation as a stable nation then it needs the support of the United States. The US cut off military ties following the violence in East Timor in 1999, however US involvement with the country is crucial if the war on terror is to succeed and the Indonesian military is to be controlled. The Indonesian military has a poor record on human rights but if the US and its allies simply walk away from Indonesia then there is little to prevent the military leadership becoming more nationalistic, more extreme and more brutal in its manner. The US and states such as New Zealand need a stable and unified Indonesia and one that does not pose a threat to its citizens and security. It seems hypocritical but the US, Australia and New Zealand must remain committed to working with the Indonesian government despite its record on corruption and human rights. If that outside pressure is not applied then there is nothing stopping Indonesia’s slide into political chaos, religious fervour, civil war and possible disintegration. If that happens then it is only groups such as al-Qaeda and its followers who will reap the benefits and for this reason the future of Aceh must be resolved. Small issues can often be the catalyst for much wider instability and devastation.


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