The Jan-Mar 2005 edition of Inside Indonesia includes a memoir by an Acehnese villager in exile in New York.
Panga is a small village in West Aceh surrounded by mountains and wild forest. At night, you can hear clearly the waves of the Indian Ocean. This is the village where I was born in 1975, in my grandparents’ home.
At that time, there were no modern medical facilities nearby, or even electricity. Most of the villagers were traditional farmers and some worked as small-scale loggers. Electricity arrived in my village only in the 1990s….
I moved to Banda Aceh for my final year of junior high school. It was in Banda Aceh that I first experienced a sense of inequality which I now realise was a result of Indonesia’s policies. As a boy from a village, I often felt that I was being treated with disrespect. Most of the people in Banda Aceh felt that they were superior because they were more ‘Indonesian’ than we were. This was especially true of the children of the military and police.
There was an obvious ‘class gap’ in Acehnese society in the city. Political power was concentrated in the city and city people were materially better off than those in the villages. Most city people thus felt a certain sense of gratitude towards Indonesia.
By 1996, I had become a journalist. I witnessed first hand the impact of Suharto and his family’s rule. I also saw the military’s brutality and arrogance, and its abuses against my homeland and its people. Their repression not only resulted in the deaths of so many Acehnese over the years, but they also destroyed our natural environment. Our forests, and even the Leuser National Park with its unique ecosystem (which is funded by the international community), have been ravaged at the hands of the military and the authorities for the sole purpose of profit-making. These powers are behind the massive logging in Aceh, especially in the west, south and southwest, where I have seen for myself the scale of the devastation….
I was inspired by Suara Timor Timur, a newspaper in East Timor, which had succeeded in bringing independent news to its homeland during the conflict there. Unfortunately, unlike our East Timorese counterparts, we did not have a ‘security net’ like that provided by the church. Nor did we have much international support for our cause, or the financial strength to continue. Sadly, that project folded after only a couple of months.
I felt that it was too risky to continue working as a journalist under such conditions. The reason I left Aceh, however, was not because I wanted to avoid trouble with the military. It was because I felt that press freedom in Aceh had died after the military took control. I believed that the only way to present my ideas about Aceh independently was by developing alternative media from the outside.
I spent two and a half years in Malaysia while waiting to be resettled in the US. But there is no real refuge for Acehnese in Malaysia…. I was arrested and sent to jail twice in Malaysia. The first time was because the police suspected me of being a member of GAM (Free Aceh Movement). The second time was for simply being a refugee. My refugee status, although granted by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, was not recognised by the Malaysian government….
I was finally resettled to the US in August 2003. I felt that I had found my freedom once again. After four months living in Houston, Texas, I decided to move to New York City. It has not been easy trying to settle down here…. In the US, and in New York City in particular, I have again had to deal with forms of discrimination. The funny thing is that I find discriminatory behaviour most widespread among immigrants, especially those who have recently become American citizens and now work in the public service. Sometimes their treatment of non-citizen immigrants is impolite and unfair. I find this attitude difficult to understand. Maybe it is because they think that we do not understand our rights so they can do whatever they want to us.
It has not all been a negative experience, though. I am particularly grateful because I now have the opportunity to further my studies. It is not a problem for me that I have to start college all over again. I am now working towards a degree in Media Studies and hope to return to journalism after I graduate. I also hope that when my command of English improves, I will be able to continue campaigning for the Acehnese cause at a more meaningful level.