Filmmaker William Nessen Discusses the Acehnese Struggle in Indonesia

William Nessen:The Black Road (William Nessen/

Edward Aspinall, Research Fellow, Australian National University and editor of Inside Indonesia said about The Black Road that, "By showing conflict from the perspective of ordinary villagers and insurgents, William Nessen's film presents a perspective of war that is not only unique in reportage of Aceh, but which is rare in the media's coverage of any of the 'small wars' which take so many lives around the globe. So often, we see only the view of governments and their troops. Here, the lens is reversed, and the effect is remarkable."

How did you become interested in the conflict in Aceh?

Just after the fall of Suharto, I went to Indonesia to work as a print journalist and photographer. The conflict in Aceh was one of the two or three most important stories in the region. At that point, Aceh appeared to raise the question of whether Indonesia would remain one country or split into several parts.

A number of the Acehnese you speak to in the documentary mention that Aceh was far more resistant to Dutch colonialism than the rest of the East Indies. How does this help explain the experience of Aceh following decolonization?

Aceh was one of the last places for the Dutch to invade. Bali came after. But Bali was always several kingdoms and did not have the relatively unified identity that the Acehnese had under the several-hundred year sultanate. Aceh's place in the Indian Ocean world, rather than as part of the Archipelago, also helped the Acehnese keep a sense of difference from the rest of Indonesia. That sense of being Acehnese helped them fight the Dutch. And in the immediate post-World War II years, during Indonesia's independence struggle, while the Dutch regained all of the Dutch East Indies, only Aceh (and a small strip of Java) remained free. The sense of identity and the awareness of their unique history remained strong in the first years of Indonesian independence. Jakarta's actions and the ensuing spirals of conflict of the past 50-something years made the Acehnese even more aware of who they are.

One of the people you speak to in the documentary says that the struggle of the Acehnese is not about ethnic identity or culture, but rather about sovereignty. How does this correspond to the way in which outsiders view this conflict?

Outsiders always ask, "But is there really any difference between Acehnese and Indonesian? Is there a racial or ethnic difference or a religious difference?" They think that a desire to have your own country has to be based in biology or in the divide that has become so important in the world today, Muslim vs. Christian. But I would guess that most 'separatist' conflicts are not about race or religion, but about different histories, or about a large number of things, many of them historically generated. Americans in 1776 had far fewer reasons for separation than the Acehnese have today; Americans were far less united in their desire than the Acehnese too. You look at Sweden and Norway, and it's hard to see much difference. But the history was there.

The Acehnese are aware of their prior well-recognized sovereignty during several hundred years. People who wanted to regain that sovereign status founded the Free Aceh Movement (GAM). Of course, many other things, included broken promises of autonomy, resource exploitation, and political and military repression, have fueled the movement.

As you point out, the US first supported the Acehnese, financially and militarily-even providing military training for rebels-against the Indonesian government during the Sukarno years, and later turned against the Acehnese under Suharto. What is the US position now on Aceh? And what do you think it ought to be?

The United States wants Indonesia to remain one country. If Aceh or West Papua became independent, the US fears that it will inspire other communities in other countries to fight harder for their own independence. The rules of the post-colonial international order would break down. That's the fear. It's not that Acehnese independence is a bad thing in itself, it's the effect.

If the Dutch had administered their colony/colonies differently, the Dutch East Indies would have likely become several countries instead of just one, Indonesia. They centralized administration in Batavia/Jakarta.

The French maintained several administrative centers. French Indochina became three countries and two of their large colonial territories in Africa, French Equatorial Africa and French West Africa became four and eight respectively. The difference was due largely to how they administered.

We do perhaps need new criteria for who should have a right to their own sovereign country. There are international legal scholars making the argument. The criteria are several: people must have a distinct and unified identity (whether on the basis of distinct ethnicity, a different history, or oppression as a people); they must have been subjected to exploitation and/or oppression; they must have consistently fought for their independence and their independence must not interfere in the operation of the original country (for example, by blocking or taking the only ports, or taking away the bulk of key resources); minorities in the new country must have strong legal protections; and a referendum must be held.

Aceh deserved its independence, especially after the tsunami. Instead Jakarta used the tsunami to force the Acehnese freedom movement to sign a new autonomy agreement. The Free Aceh Movement had been badly hurt by the preceding two years of military operations. People were already tired of the conflict and the suffering. The Free Aceh Movement did not want to continue the struggle if people were not willing to support it. The agreement is not a good one for the Acehnese, but it's probably the best they could get because they were the far weaker side at that point.

Stepping back and just speculating, I do believe that after 10 years, no one but the Acehnese would have cared whether Aceh was independent.

Is the government in Indonesia aware of the extent to which GAM continues to enjoy popular support in Aceh? How, if at all, have attitudes in Indonesia changed since Suharto's overthrow?

The government or people in the government must know. In fact, they are banking on GAM having the ability to keep the Acehnese in line, keeping the Acehnese from starting a new independence or referendum movement. Indonesia is hoping that GAM's leadership will develop enough stake in the new Aceh - still under Indonesian rule - that even if things go wrong, the conflict won't restart.

I should say something about Indonesians, not just their government. What's amazing is the ability of people - whether in Indonesia or America - to fool themselves about what their government is doing and has done. To fool themselves also about what other people - under the boot of their government - believe and want.

I'm always surprised by how little Indonesians, especially those in Jakarta, including the most liberal journalists, know about what the Acehnese felt and still feel. Indonesians simply don't want to confront what their governments in the post-Suharto years have done in Aceh. When I tried to get archival footage for my film, no television station would sell me anything that contained Indonesian violence against the Acehnese. They want to sweep it under the rug. They told me, "The Acehnese want to forget about it, it was so painful for them." I responded, "Perhaps they want to forget about it, but they want you and the rest of the world to remember."

Why is the experience of Aceh so different from that of East Timor? Is it impossible to imagine that Aceh will be granted the right to a referendum on independence, as East Timor was? Why, or why not?

East Timor was a Portuguese colony and so was entitled to a separate post-colonial sovereignty than what became Indonesia. That is how the post-colonial world map was drawn. It's international law. The East Timorese had standing at the United Nations, a standing that helped keep their hope alive and kept a few other countries on their side during more than two decades of Indonesian rule.

Everyone recognized that the East Timorese had been denied their justified self-determination. If not for the monetary crisis in Southeast Asia in the late 1990s, however, and the subsequent demonstrations throughout Indonesia and the fall of Suharto, there would have been no referendum in East Timor. Even then it almost didn't happen. The Indonesian military actually thought that the East Timorese might vote to remain part of Indonesia. If they hadn't, a vote might not have taken place. (And of course, Indonesia killed thousands in East Timor immediately after the vote).

At about that time, Indonesian President Wahid dared to say that perhaps the Acehnese should be allowed a similar referendum. But the Indonesian military leadership was already regaining its bearings and power and the generals told Wahid to shut up. And he did. The general got rid of him anyway; he was just too impulsive and compassionate for them.

What projects are you working on now?

I am working as a print journalist and photographer again, in India. I've had offers to make more documentaries and I'm considering them.

Interview conducted by Nermeen Shaikh of The Asia Society.