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Mosque in Indonesia
Politics and Economy:
A Dirty War
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Islam Worldwide: Indonesia Primer

The country with the world's largest Muslim population is thousands of miles from the Middle East. It's the vast and lush collection of islands known as Indonesia. In the remote province of Aceh, a long-standing battle is being waged, with both sides committing atrocities. But this conflict is not about religion. Both sides are Muslim. The issue is independence. There's a movement for Aceh to be a country unto itself, and the government of Indonesia is resisting it. In order to understand this struggle, you need to take a look back at the forces that created contemporary Indonesia.

map of Indonesia
Indonesia is unique in a number of ways. Undoubtedly, the most important of these is its very genesis as a nation. Indonesia is not an ethnic or religious grouping, a historical kingdom or a ancient political or trade state. It is, according to THE ECONOMIST, "one of the world's most artificial countries." Its boundaries are based solely on the fact that all its diverse and widespread territories were once colonial possessions of the Dutch.

The Dutch first arrived in 1512 and for two hundred years traded in the area as the Dutch East India Company. In the mid-17th century, the island territories became an official colony of the Dutch government. The Dutch government ruled until the Japanese took possession of the area during World War II. Not uncommonly, rule by a colonial power generated a sense of community where little had existed before, and when the Dutch attempted to reassert control after the war, they met armed resistance. Indonesia, itself a name from the West, was recognized as independent in 1949.

Indonesia mosque
Indonesia is sometimes compared to the former Yugoslavia — so great are the number of religions, peoples and languages found within its borders. At different times the population of the islands has been predominantly animist, Hindu, Buddhist and is now over 88% Muslim, making it the largest Muslim country in the world. Within this group beliefs and practices vary widely. And Indonesia is hardly a monolith politically, with 48 parties participating in the last election.

After September 11, some Indonesian Islamic leaders called for suspension of ties with the United States, while President Megawati Sukarnoputri negotiated with the U.S. for the resumption of military monies in order to join in the "war on terrorism."

Although, the northern islands tend to be more conservative religiously, it is in the middle of the island chain, the Moluccas and Central Sulawesi, where the militant Laskar Jihad have been battling local Christians for the past several years.

Indonesia military jeep
It is the army that has long held together the diverse mass of Indonesia. It was the army that backed former President Soeharto during a coup in 1965 — restoring him to a post that he held for another three decades. The coup year, 1965, is known as "The Year of Living Dangerously" and the CIA has called it "one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century." Free elections were only held in 1999. Also, it was only in 2000 that a national police was formed — before that the army was the police force.

It was concern over human rights violations by the army during East Timor's struggle for independence from Indonesia that caused the United States to sever financial ties with the military. In what is known as the Leahy Amendment to foreign appropriations bill Public Law 107-115, funds for the Indonesian military can be made available:

"only if the President determines and submits a report to the appropriate congressional committees that the Government of Indonesia and the Indonesian Armed Forces are
(1) taking effective measures to bring to justice members of the armed forces and militia groups against whom there is credible evidence of human rights violations in East Timor and Indonesia;
(2) taking effective measures to bring to justice members of the armed forces against whom there is credible evidence of aiding or abetting illegal militia groups in East Timor and Indonesia...."
Map of Indonesia
East Timor's successful bid for independence has inspired other movements in the island state. The two most prominent separatist movements are taking place at opposite ends of the chain of islands. Aceh, the setting for NOW's "A Dirty War," is in the far north, while West Papua is over 2,500 miles away, at the other end of the chain near East Timor.

East Timor had only been annexed by Indonesia in the 1970s, which bolstered it claim for independence. But Aceh too feels itself different from the rest of Indonesia. Its location at the gateway to Africa and India the made it one of the first areas to be converted to Islam and its populace remains very devout. The Aceh populace is not Javanese, like many Indonesian Muslims. The people of Aceh also came under the Dutch/Indonesian umbrella late, conquered only in 1903, after 30 years of war. The Free Aceh Movement, GAM, and the Indonesian military have been in conflict in the province for the past decade.

Aceh has another important feature — it is the oil-rich portion of a very poor country.

Rice gatherers in Indonesia
Although Indonesia has become self-sufficient in rice production and is industrializing, it labors under a massive foreign debt. It relies heavily on the oil reserves in and around Aceh. In April the Indonesian government sent more troops into Aceh. Then, in May, the international press reported some progress in the case of Aceh. New peace talks are being held in Geneva to negotiate a ceasefire. The government has reportedly come up with a plan to let the people of Aceh keep much more of their oil wealth. However, the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) has said that only full independence will suffice. And even the Governor of Aceh, Abdullah Puteh has recently lodged another complaint on behalf of his province calling the revenue allocation unfair.

Indonesia Resources:

Aceh: Self-Determination Conflict Profile
This article provides a general history of the Aceh province and explores the current conflict through descriptions of the actors and the U.S. role in the civil war. Also included are lists of resources, links to the Arab community in Aceh, and academic publications on the Aceh conflict.

Building Human Security in Indonesia
The Indonesia web site of the Conflict Prevention Initiative — an online project of the Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research at Harvard — is a comprehensive list of news, resources, maps, issues, laws and treaties relevant to Indonesia's various conflicts, including the civil war in Aceh.

Indonesia: Country Reports on Human Rights Practices
The annual Human Rights Report from the U.S. State Department provides descriptions of Indonesian politics and economics along with the nationās human rights abuses. The report details the various human rights abuses of the Indonesian security forces and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) throughout the year in the province of Aceh, as well as human rights abuses throughout the whole of Indonesia.

Indonesia: World Factbook
A general briefing on Indonesia from the Central Intelligence Agency that provides background information and statistically details the geography, people, government, economy, etc. The site also includes an illustrated map of the Indonesian archipelago.

AsiaSource Interview with John L. Esposito
John L. Esposito, author of UNHOLY WAR: TERROR IN THE NAME OF ISLAM (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), is a leading academic on Islam-Christian understanding. He discusses his book in an interview with the Asia Society's online publication.

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