After Indonesia declared independence in 1945 the country's leader, Sukarno, faced the extremely difficult task of creating a unified state out of Indonesia's numerous ethnic groups. Also ever since its independence Indonesia's rulers had to suppress uprisings of muslim groups because it threatened the country's secular ideology. The attempts by Indonesia's leaders to maintain unity and the ways in which the military suppressed separatist movements fueled many of the economic, social, and political problems the nation is facing today. After the tsunami, many of the issues surrounding the nationalist issue resurfaced and might change the nature of the conflict between supporters of Indonesian unity and those seeking independence. The rebels in Aceh claim that the region was illegally annexed by Indonesia at the time of independence, and a separatist movement has been active there since 1976. During the regime of Suharto the military was given absolute power, and the continuous military presence in the region was marked by brutality towards the Acehnese and mistreatment of suspected rebels.
Therefore many Acehnese feel a deep sense of distrust towards Indonesia. Since 2003 Aceh has been under Indonesian military rule and the area was closed off to foreigners as an attempt to isolate the area and crush the separatist movement. Indonesia allowed virtually no foreign presence in Aceh. Many believe that the isolation of the area was an attempt by the government to conceal the military's mistreatment of suspected rebels.
However, because the tsunami devastated most of Aceh Indonesia was forced to open Aceh to foreign troops and organizations as they rushed in aid by navy warships and helicopters. Many Acehnese see the presence of foreigners as an opportunity to expose the cruelties of the military and see it as a step forward for independence. However, Indonesia is urging the departure of foreign troops and set a March 26 th deadline. The Indonesian military has quickly reasserted their control over Aceh. The U.
N. has said that emergency operations would be over in 3 months, but said that the Indonesian governments' motives were purely political. This action has received sharp criticism from many political analysts who say this action reflects a hasty nationalism among Indonesian officials that fails to take into account Indonesia's incapability of dealing with such a calamity. This also further proves Indonesia's devotion to maintaining unity at the expense of discontented people. Yudhoyono, the current president of Indonesia, is a moderate who, unlike Suharto, is seen as someone who find a solution and appease both supporters of Indonesian unity and separatists.
His supporters have praised him for his efforts to bring peace to Aceh. A few days after the tsunami he organized a summit Jakarta where he urged Indonesians to be more receptive of the presence of foreign military. However, he faces a difficult job of juggling the needs of his nation with the demands of his main political supporters, most of whom are ardent nationalists keen on maintaining Indonesian unity. The tsunami came at a time where many Indonesians felt a sense of strong nationalism. Therefore, it seems as if Indonesia is unable to accept the aid as an unconditional act of generosity rather than anything more sinister and come to terms with its own inability to cope. In the Jakarta Post, people were warned of a growing xenophobia as traditionally fierce Indonesian national pride kicked in regardless of the needs of the Acehnese.
Most appreciate the help of foreigners, but at the same time are suspicious of their true motives. Even though GAM (Free Aceh movement) shifted to an ideology of secular nationalism in 1976, Acehnese inclinations towards a strong Islamic identity remains strong. There is a cultural and religious divide between Aceh and the rest of Indonesia, where a more conservative form of Islam is practiced. This is why Jakarta has allowed the implementation of shariah law, which is a major concession for Jakarta in view of its staunch secular nationalist ideology. If both GAM and Jakarta regard the separatist conflict as having gone on for too long, the post tsunami period would be the best time to end it. As a result a meeting was held in January in Helsinki between representatives of the Indonesian government and members of the Free Aceh movement.
Both sides are saying that some tentative progress has been made towards an agreement, but neither side expects that the tsunami disaster will quickly bring reconciliation because the animosity between Indonesia and GAM is too deep. Ultimately, Aceh wants independence from Indonesia with the establishment of an Islamic state. This is something that Indonesia might never accept because the country has always maintained a policy of nationalism and secularism among all ethnic groups and religions. During the Helsinki talks Indonesia rejected GAM's offer to suspend its quest for independence in return for a referendum in Aceh within a decade, which means that GAM might feel weakened by the tsunami disaster to accept a final solution which would fall short of its dream of an independent Aceh. The only thing certain now is that the tsunami has changed the nature of the conflict between Indonesian nationalism vs. separatism.
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Robert. Colonialism and Cold War: The United States and the Struggle for Indonesian Independence, 1945-1949. Cornell University Press, 1981. Tou wen, Jeroen. "The Economic History of Indonesia." Leiden University. 10 Sep.