Published: Sep 22, 2007

Aceh is a neglected human rights horror story.

IRIP News Service

Marwan Yatim (see article 'In the Tigers Den' this issue) was lucky. He escaped with his life. A local government enquiry recently concluded 430 had died in 1989- 92, while 320 remain missing. Hundreds of houses were burned, cattle, cars and jewelry stolen. And that was only in the North Aceh regency of Aceh province. Data on the possibly hundreds of women raped remains sparse.

Just over a month after Suharto's resignation, local newspapers in Aceh, north Sumatra, began a determined campaign to expose abuses during a military anti-secessionist operation between 1989 and 1992. The metropolitan press soon picked it up.

Early in August the National Human Rights Commission said the situation in Aceh had been worse than that in East Timor and Irian Jaya. A few days later the Commission was digging up mass graves under the media spotlight. Many more graves remain unopened.

In response, armed forces commander General Wiranto on 7 August went to Aceh to apologise for human rights abuses, and to announce that the province's dubious 'special operations' status had been revoked. Much aid has flowed into Aceh since then.

Acehnese proudly remember Sultan Iskandar Muda (ruled 1607-36), who made Aceh the most powerful state in the region. Europeans began seriously to press in during the imperialistic nineteenth century. In 1873 the Dutch launched a costly and bloody war against Aceh. Despite superior arms, it took them four decades to win effective control against Acehnese guerrilla tactics.

When Indonesia proclaimed its independence in 1945, Acehnese leaders lent crucial support. But they were disappointed that Jakarta gave Islam, and themselves, far less importance than they had hoped. Aceh joined a major regional rebellion in 1953. Fighting wound down after the Acehnese won an agreement with Jakarta in 1959 that extended autonomy to Aceh.

In 1971 Mobil Oil discovered massive natural gas reserves in North Aceh. The Lhokseumawe liquid natural gas plant became the biggest in the world, supplying 30% of Indonesia's oil and gas exports. Industries mushroomed around it, and with it pollution and social disruption.

However, the Acehnese were well aware there was little in it for them. This was perhaps the main reason for the resurgence in 1989 of an Acehnese secessionist movement that had been led for years by Hasan di Tiro from his exile in Stockholm. The military crackdown that followed left deep wounds in Acehnese society that are only now being exposed.

Wiranto's apology is not enough. The Acehnese want justice for the terrible abuses of 1989-92, and they want a better deal on the natural wealth of the region. They also want independence, or at least they want the 1959 autonomy agreement revived.

Inside Indonesia 57: Jan-Mar 1999