From Class Struggle 50, May-June 2003

Aceh is at war again. A truce between the Indonesian government and rebels has been torpedoed by the Indonesian demand that the Acehese renounce their claim to independence. Now Indonesian troops are burning villages and schools and hunting fighters of the Free Aceh Movement through the jungle. What position do revolutionaries take on this question?

Imperialism and Indonesia

The crisis in Aceh is caused by imperialism. Indonesia itself is a creation of imperialism, an unwieldy collection of peoples forced together by arbitrary boundaries drawn up by European capitalists. Imperialist countries like the US, Britain, Japan and the Netherlands continue to exploit Indonesia, sucking big profits from cheap labour and rich natural resources out of the country and into Western banks, and leaving only crumbs for the locals. In his movie The New Rulers of the Earth John Pilger noted that between them the tens of thousands of Indonesians who work in Nike factories earn less in a year than Tiger Woods gets from his advertising contract with Nike. Even in Aceh, one of the richest parts of the country, underdevelopment and foreign control are easy to find. Aceh’s large oil reserves are controlled by multinational companies, most notably Exxon-Mobil. There are few oil-based industries like plastics or chemicals to add value to Aceh’s oil. The big companies give their most skilled jobs to experts from outside Aceh and Indonesia.

From Communism to Nationalism

In the 1950s and early 60s opposition to Western exploitation of Indonesia was led by communists. Attracted by the promise of the seizure of foreign-controlled land and businesses, hundreds of thousands of peasants and workers joined the Indonesian Communist Party. The Communist Party was a serious contender for power in the 1960s, but it was destroyed by Stalinist misleadership and by the CIA-backed coup that brought General Suharto to power in 1965. With US help, Suharto slaughtered over five hundred thousand communists and destroyed the organised working class movement in Indonesia. With class politics driven into the shadows,leadership of the opposition to imperialism passed to nationalists and Islamists. Today, the Free Aceh Movement blends Acehese nationalism and Islamism. But can nationalism and Islamism defeat imperialism? Aceh is a small region, containing only about four million people. The Free Aceh Movement commands around 5,000 fighters, against an occupying force of 45,000. In a quarter century of war, the Acehese have lost at least 40,000 lives without ever looking like gaining independence.

Across Indonesia, the force which has been able to shake the Indonesian ruling class and its imperialist backers is not nationalism or Islamism, but the mass action of workers and peasants. In 1998 it was mass street protests, strikes and land occupations which brought down Suharto, the man Bill Clinton had in 1996 described as ‘our kind of guy’. These protests sparked solidarity actions by students and workers around the world. Unfortunately, without any sort of any organisation in place of the old Communist Party, the workers and peasants of Indonesia were unable to turn the anti-Suharto revolt into a revolution.

As Marxists, we support the Acehese people’s right to independence. The workers in the imperialist countries that have a history of oppressing Aceh such as Britain and the US, and their local ‘peacekeeping’ deputy sheriffs Australia and NZ, should demonstrate that they are on the side of the Acehese people by offering arms and military support.Indonesian workers, students and poor peasants should fight against Megawati Sukarnoputri’ s genocidal attack. If this fails to lead to workers and peasants taking control of the revolution in Aceh out of the hands of the capitalist leadership, then only the experience of living in an ‘independent’ capitalist Aceh will teach the Acehese the truth – that socialism is the real alternative to imperialism. Only when Aceh’s natural resources, land and industry are taken out of private ownership and a planned economy is built, will outside domination of Aceh cease.

The local capitalists who dominate the Free Aceh Movement do not dare to challenge the foreign control of Acehese resources – they wish only to negotiate a better rate for the control of these resources. For that reason, they refuse to mobilise the Acehese working class, and to use strikes and other workers’ tools to fight for independence. They prefer to use guerrilla attacks to rouse the ‘moral conscience’ of the West and drag the Indonesian government to the negotiating table. The leaders of the Free Aceh Movement spends a lot of its time jetting about the world, trying to convince imperialist governments to back its cause. The supreme leader of the Movement is based not in Aceh but in faraway Sweden, that homeland of ‘enlightened imperialism’.

The Khaki Greens and dangerous ‘solidarity’

Protests in support of the Acehese have been called across Australia and New Zealand, with Indonesian embassies and consulates being popular targets. In both countries, the Green Party have emerged as enthusiastic backers of the Free Aceh Movement. This is not surprising - the Greens are cut from the same cloth as the Acehese capitalists. Like the Free Aceh Movement, the Greens are dominated by the interests of local capitalists who are trying to get the multinationals off their backs, and who think that enlightened imperialism can help them. Over the last eighteen months or so the New Zealand Greens have made a name for themselves by calling for the pulling of Kiwi troops, ships and planes out of the Middle East. It’s not so well known that the Greens want these forces redeployed in the Pacific and South Asia, to act in a ‘humanitarian’ role in ‘crises’.

The ‘Khaki’ Greens are all for military adventures, as long as they’re ‘humanitarian’ military adventures like the invasion of East Timor in 1999 or NATO’s war on Yugoslavia in the same year. The Greens want New Zealand to stop helping out the bad guys in the Middle East, and start acting like good guys in Asia and the Pacific. What better place to start than Aceh, with a new ceasefire and some ‘peacekeepers’, perhaps?

Trouble is, New Zealand has always been a bad guy in Asia and the Pacific. New Zealand is a semi-colony of the US – US capitalists own many of our key companies and are able effectively to dictate the New Zealand government’s economic and political policies. It’s not surprising, then, that the US has always been able to count on New Zealand to serve as its Deputy Sheriff in the Asia-Pacific region, from Vietnam to Samoa to East Timor.

Riding on the coat tails of the US, New Zealand has even been able to carve out a sideline career as a mini-imperialist power in the Pacific, sucking profits out of small countries like the Cook Islands and Fiji. Earlier this year we ran an article on the looting of the Solomon Islands by New Zealand, Australia and the International Monetary Fund. We described how ANZAC suits in the South Pacific branch of the IMF had forced the Solomons to cut government spending by a third, and lay off a third of government employees. Now that these IMF ‘reforms’ have intensified the chaos and crime in the Solomons, the Australasian governments and their friends in the mass media have taken to describing that country as a ‘failed state’ and a potential ‘haven for terrorists’. Sound familiar?

The Solomons is not an isolated case: both the US and the ruling classes of Australia and New Zealand are increasingly keen on military intervention in the Pacific and in South Asia. With the backing of the US, New Zealand and Australia combined to quash the independence struggle on Bougainville Island, co-opting the leadership of the Bouganville Revolutionary Army and getting it to sign a sell-out peace deal renouncing independence with the Papua New Guinea government on a New Zealand frigate. Papua New Guinea itself is now being mooted as a candidate for armed ‘humanitarian’ intervention by an Australian intelligence establishment spooked by the political instability in Oz’s former colony. Australia has already begun nibbling at Papua New Guinea’s neighbours – it oversees a neocolony in East Timor, and has flooded Indonesia with secret service forces since last year’s Bali bombing.

For now, Australia, New Zealand and (surprise surprise) the US are all backing the Indonesian government against Aceh. Bush, Howard and Clark all gave the Free Aceh Movement the same line: give up your claim to independence if you want the truce to continue. For now, the US is more worried about Islamists building a state of their own in Aceh than about the instability a new round of fighting could cause. But Aceh is a very important part of South Asia. Not only is it rich in oil, it sits on the western side of a shipping lane that leads to Singapore, one of the busiest ports in the world. There is a real chance that, if instability worsens, the US (and therefore Australia and New Zealand) could decide to change horses, and back a neo-colony over chaos. The US might decide to put its muscle behind an independent Aceh, in return for the Free Aceh Movement guaranteeing it control over the region’s ports and oil. This, of course, is exactly what happened in East Timor back in 1999, when Clinton andstooges like John Howard and Jenny Shipley saw the opportunity of setting up a UN colony and grabbing control of the oil in the Timor Gap.

Solidarity with Aceh, against Imperialism

There is a real danger that the Aceh solidarity movement in Australasia could play into the hands of imperialism, by making arguments for a ‘humanitarian’ intervention in the region. Again, this is what happened in 1999, when mass protests against Indonesian occupation of East Timor were turned into cheerleading sessions for a US-orchestrated invasion that only seemed necessary because the sell-out East Timorese leaders were keeping their troops away from the Indonesians in an effort to ensure massacres that would appeal to the ‘moral conscience’ of Bill Clinton. Today East Timor is a rapidly disintegrating neocolony of the West.

Unemployment stands at 50%, crime is rampant, students are shot for protesting UN occupation, and demobilised Fretelin troops have started a low-level guerrilla war in the countryside. East Timor is the sort of mess that the Khaki Greens’ ‘humanitarian imperialism’ makes.

The Australasian left should show solidarity with the Acehese fight for independence without offering an excuse for any Western military or political intervention in the region. Let’s recognise that the real cause of the war in Aceh is imperialism, not Indonesian brutality or a lack of moral conscience amongst Western governments.

Let’s focus our protests on the US, Australian and New Zealand governments, and on companies like Mobil. We should only target Indonesia with direct action to stop any military gear going through Kiwi ports, for instance. By their very nature, actions like these highlight the links between New Zealand capitalism and the war in Aceh. Symbolic protests focused on the Indonesian government are dangerous, because they bolster the Khaki Green argument that Indonesia acts alone in its oppression of the Acehese, and that ‘neutral’ governments like New Zealand’s might be able to play a ‘humanitarian’ role in Aceh.

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