May 19, 2022 Last Updated 8:50 AM, May 6, 2022


Aceh homebound?

In the wake of peace, Acehnese living in Malaysia are thinking about return. But it can be tough leaving a new life to start afresh back home.

Aceh's causes

A conversation with an activist reveals there is more than one Aceh cause? Maree Keating Otto Syamsuddin Ishak is at once public servant, academic and activist. He lectures in agriculture at the Syiah University in Banda Aceh and is executive officer of Cordova, a non-government organisation (NGO) educating the public on civil society and human rights. He also has links with the armed section of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM). I met Otto in Melbourne during an awareness-raising tour last October. To an outsider, there seem many grounds for hope. New president Gus Dur says he is prepared to negotiate with GAM. He created the new portfolio of Minister for Human Rights, and appointed long term Acehnese human rights campaigner Hasballah Saad to fill it. More concessions have been granted to Islamic syari'ah law in Aceh. Aceh is no longer classified as a military operations area (DOM), and General Wiranto has admitted military excesses. But when I ask Otto how the Acehnese perceive these concessions he tells me bluntly: 'There is not a single policy that gives us cause for hope, because both Gus Dur and Megawati have the same principle - they want a united nation and give no indication they will free Aceh'. He is equally pessimistic about Hasballah: 'Nobody really believes that he can be successful, because he is not a popular figure in Aceh. The people in Aceh feel better represented by the PPP leader, Ghazali Abbas Adan. He is the only one in a position to speak about human rights in Aceh to Jakarta.' Hasballah's position, Otto says, is dilemmatic - he stands between the Acehnese struggle and the Indonesian military, each as determined as the other. I wonder if rejecting Hasballah on these grounds is not tantamount to ruling out any form of cooperation. But Otto puts it like this: 'Jakarta always sets up teams [to investigate abuses], without any consultation. Because of that, people have no faith in these teams. None of its members are credible.' Is Ghazali credible because PPP supports a referendum for Aceh, whereas Hasballah remains less definite on it? Otto seemed reluctant to articulate such political differences, perhaps because, as he says, human rights have become an intensely unifying issue for those championing independence. 'At the moment GAM has a human rights perspective', he says. 'Human rights are being used as a way to find a sympathetic focus. They use the issue of human rights to mobilise society.' Religion Otto is also wary of Jakarta's concessions in the area of Islamic syari'ah law. He seems to suggest it could be an attempt by Jakarta to fuel horizontal conflict. Operasi Jilbab is a recent phenomenon where Islamic officials force people to dress in accordance with strict Islamic codes, attend mosque regularly and behave in a devout manner. It is unclear whether Operasi Jilbab sprang spontaneously from a desire for more religion within the community, or whether outside forces played a role in developing an Islamic militancy which most people find oppressive. When I ask Otto to explain the role of religion in the conflict, he says: 'It is really a secular issue. People have resorted to the security of Islam as a kind of regional identity and as a means of survival.... So they would not feel they were dying in vain? It is not GAM so much as the people themselves who have turned to religion.' It is difficult for me to imagine what living in a devoutly religious society is like. Perhaps an Islamic version of Christian liberation theology I can recognise, but when people start talking about holy wars and public floggings, I realise that not all things can be translated easily for an Australian public. It strikes me as odd that Otto calls the Aceh conflict a secular issue, for how could anything be secular in a society where Operasi Jilbab can take place and where religious leaders are so powerful? I ask him about the worst case scenario, and his reply reveals the depth of religious feeling in Aceh. He says: 'The worst scenario is a face to face confrontation. The religious leaders (ulama) have declared that if there is no referendum in the next six months they will take a decision to declare a holy war (jihad). If the ulama want it, they will get the support from the community.' When asked how he and others in the NGO community feel about that, his answer implies that the power of the religious leaders is stronger than that of the non-violent civil society movement. 'They are worried about what will happen', he says. 'But they are not brave enough to say this because they will become a target for the community's anger.' The referendum movement in Aceh seems to consist of groups with sometimes opposing aims. They include the armed and unarmed sections of GAM, the religious leaders (divided into 'old' and 'new'), students, NGOs and other advocates for a civil society. There is in fact no single Acehnese movement. Some of the 'old' style ulama lost credibility in the past for aligning themselves too closely with Golkar. They now want to regain popular support by taking a strong stance on the referendum. According to Otto, ninety percent of the population want a referendum. Whereas militant GAM leaders in the past have said they will not engage with the 'Javanese' government on a referendum, Otto says this stance has recently changed. 'If the ulama call for a referendum, GAM will support it, even though previously they did not.' But if ninety percent support a referendum, it is not clear whether people want the outcome to be a sultanate or a democratic republic. Otto says: 'There are those who want democracy (who use non-violence), and those who want a sultanate (who use violence)? There is a symbiosis between the two which is mutually beneficial. Student activists and all the groups with an interest in a democratic society believe that a sultanate will not be democratic. Because of that they are taking the initiative towards a referendum.' For Australians wanting to answer Otto's call for support, the challenge remains to find a clearer understanding about what kinds of dialogue are possible within Aceh. If groups within Aceh are afraid to speak out against a violent solution for fear of unleashing the community's anger upon them, the potential for a democratic process could be a fragile one. Maree Keating ( is country program manager for Indonesia with Australian Volunteers International. The views in this article are her own and not necessarily those of AVI. Inside Indonesia 61: Jan - Mar 2000

Whither Aceh?

An update on events in 1999 Ed Aspinall Partly inspired by the August poll in East Timor, massive parades around Aceh from mid-October called for a referendum. On November 8 perhaps a million people, almost a quarter of Aceh's population, filled the streets of the capital Banda Aceh. These protests were generally peaceful. But regular gunfights between military units and combatants from GAM (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, Free Aceh Movement) were accompanied by many more mysterious murders and burnings in the dead of night. At the same time, the infrastructure of the Indonesian state was visibly crumbling. By the beginning of October, for example, 600 of the 948 village heads in the district of Pidie had resigned. From early October, GAM called for a strike by public servants. Many sub-district (kecamatan) and even a few district (kabupaten) offices in much of Aceh simply ceased to function. In some towns the courts ceased to hear cases because all the judges had fled. In response to some scattered attacks by GAM in the late 1980s, the Indonesian armed forces had launched a vicious counter-insurgency campaign. Most intense in the first couple of years, this lasted for much of the subsequent decade. By most estimates two to five thousand were killed. In the Indonesia-wide euphoria after President Suharto resigned in May 1998, Acehnese strove to uncover past crimes. Mass graves were exhumed, non-government organisations (NGOs) flew widows of victims to Jakarta to testify, and the press presented stories of terrible abuses. The Habibie government had a brief window of opportunity to resolve the 'Aceh problem'. In those first months many Acehnese were genuinely optimistic that action would be taken. In August 1998, General Wiranto visited Aceh and ordered the withdrawal of 'non-organic' troops. Habibie, too, made a visit early in 1999, and promised to investigate human rights violations. But Habibie was too beholden to the military, and too pre-occupied with the power struggle at the centre, to devote serious attention to Aceh. There were no real prosecutions, and soon violence returned. 'Unknown men' burned buses, schools and other government installations. Bodies began to reappear on roadsides and attacks on military units began. Some attacks were presumably carried out by GAM, especially those against individuals suspected of collaborating with the military. But most Acehnese were convinced that military provocateurs were responsible, aiming to create a climate of fear. There were certainly some blatant military abuses, including the 'Simpang KKA' massacre in Lhokseumawe in May 1999 and an attack on the remote Beutong Ateuh community in July, in each of which dozens were killed. Yet Acehnese society did not return to the terrified paralysis of Suharto's final decade. In the months after Suharto's fall, a vigorous civil society movement came into being. The local press began investigating abuses, interviewing GAM leaders and sometimes accusing the military of random violence. New human rights NGOs were formed, which investigated abuses and took their campaigns to Jakarta and abroad. s so often in Indonesia, students spearheaded the demands. In February 1999, a conference in Banda Aceh formulated the referendum demand. They formed a group called SIRA (Sentral Informasi Referendum Aceh) to spread the referendum campaign via NGO, student and religious networks throughout Aceh. Banners and graffiti appeared even in remote rural areas. The campaign soon spread to other social sectors. Students of religious schools (who renamed themselves from the Indonesian santri to the Arabic thaliban), and even becak drivers came out in support of a referendum. The turning point occurred in September, when a highly charged conference of religious scholars (ulama), did the same. After this, the pro-referendum rallies became truly massive. Glory days Many Acehnese are proud of Aceh's contribution to the Indonesian independence struggle in the 1940s. But they look further back too, to the glory days of the early 17th century Sultan Iskandar Muda, when Aceh held sway over much of northern Sumatra and beyond. Though in decline, Aceh remained independently governed until the late 19th century. It ended with the bitter 35-year war of conquest by the Dutch, which remains vivid in folklore. There is thus a widespread sense of lost greatness, but also the feeling that today's struggle continues an earlier history. GAM consciously portrays its struggle that way. Speakers at pro-referendum rallies in late 1999 recited the Hikayat perang sabil, the 'Epic of the holy war,' written during the war against the Dutch. This sense of historical distinctiveness makes Aceh different from other restive parts of the archipelago. In Aceh there is a ready-made set of historical myths of national struggle and sacrifice. There is also high (though not absolute) ethnic homogeneity in the territory, as well as the glue of Islam. These factors contribute to a high degree of cohesion in Acehnese society. The Indonesian military has been unable to establish East Timorese style 'pro-integration' militias there. All of this does not necessarily mean that Aceh will become independent. The central government is determined to prevent it at all costs, and there is no significant international support for self-determination. Another problem relates to the heterogeneity of political forces in Aceh. In East Timor there was a high degree of unity of purpose within the independence movement for a decade prior to the UN-supervised ballot. But in Aceh there are at least three other important groups, in addition to the 'civil society' movement of students, NGOs and the press. First is the local political and business elite. This has long been integrated fairly solidly into the Indonesian national elite. Through the Sukarno and Suharto periods, many Acehnese occupied leading government positions at the national level, in a way that few East Timorese or West Papuans ever did. There have been Acehnese cabinet ministers, party leaders, senior generals, and heads of major business groups. To be sure, the local political elite has, to an extent, responded to the popular mood. The Aceh chapter of the Islamic United Development Party PPP, for example, early in 1999 endorsed the referendum demand. Some of its leaders, like legislator Ghazali Abbas Adan, have been fearless advocates for Acehnese rights. Later in the year, even establishment figures were partly swept along by the popular enthusiasm. During the wave of mobilisation in October-November, leaders of the provincial and district parliaments, regents (bupati) and even the governor himself signed statements endorsing a referendum. But overall, this layer still view themselves as part of a greater Indonesian national elite. None of the parties, which won significant votes in last June's election, has demonstrated that it seriously contemplates an independent Aceh. Nothing symbolises this continued elite Indonesianness so much as the appointment of Hasballah M Saad, an outspoken and respected Acehnese leader of the National Mandate Party PAN, as Minister for Human Rights in Wahid's cabinet. Yes, this elite is presumably in a state of flux. A significant gulf certainly separates it from popular opinion. But the point remains that an influential group in Acehnese society will likely be amenable to a compromise which keeps Aceh within Indonesia. Islam, whose leaders constitute the second important group, is obviously crucial to Acehnese identity and contributes greatly to the strength of the movement. Since the 1950s and until today, a feeling that Acehnese Islamic sensitivities were being ignored by a secular-oriented national government has partly fuelled discontent. During the popular ferment over the last 18 months, there have been many expressions of renewed Islamic assertiveness. Ulama and thaliban have been prominent in the pro-referendum movement, and there have been widespread demands for Islamic syariah law to be applied. There have also been new expressions of Islamic public morality. During 'jilbab raids' outside the city, bands of men have cut the hair of women not wearing the Islamic headscarf. Transsexuals, too, have suffered the same fate and been forced to wear men's clothing. Individuals caught in extra-marital sex have been publicly whipped, in accordance with syariah law. Sex-workers have been humiliated by being paraded about the streets of Banda Aceh. Such phenomena have the potential to, if not split Acehnese society, at least highlight incipient differences in the pro-referendum ranks. They have certainly alarmed many in the more-or-less secular urban NGOs and student groups. Acehnese women's NGOs have condemned the 'jilbab raids'. More importantly, they indicate a potential opening for the central government. In attempting to keep Aceh within the Indonesian fold, both Habibie and Abdurrahman Wahid have demonstrated great willingness to offer concessions to Islam. President Wahid has held out the possibility of a referendum, not on independence but on syariah law. He has also focused most of his attempts at negotiation on the ulama. Clearly, the aim is to split the Islamic leadership away from the students, GAM and other pro-independence forces. GAM GAM, the third group, represents both a strength and a weakness of the Acehnese struggle. Most observers estimate it has several hundred armed combatants in the field. It has demonstrated a capacity to damage the army and police, although mostly in ambushes involving a few gunmen. The organisation has significant popular support, strongest in (but by no means confined to) the countryside of Pidie, and North and East Aceh, where the counter-insurgency operations of the late 1980s and early 1990s were most intense. Numerous flag-raising ceremonies culminated in large shows of strength for the GAM anniversary last December. The organisation also has the capacity to bring Aceh to a halt by ordering transport and public service strikes. However, much mystery continues to surround GAM. It is led by Hasan di Tiro, an exile from Aceh for over four decades, who claims descent from Aceh's sultans and whose health is reportedly fragile. The organisation appears to be deeply factionalised, with incessant squabbling among the major groups in exile. Its aims are also not always clear. Early in 1999 GAM leaders strongly rejected referendum proposals, suggesting that Aceh was 'already independent.' But after the ulama came out in favour of such a process, they moderated this position. Uncertainty also surrounds GAM's blueprint for an independent Aceh. Some leaders have been quoted favouring the return of the sultanate (presumably with oil-rich Brunei as the model), while others have claimed to be aiming at a modern democratic state. Likewise, Hasan di Tiro has rejected negotiation with the Jakarta government. He has been repeatedly quoted suggesting that 'the Javanese' are stupid and not to be trusted. But other factions have some contact with the Wahid administration. On the ground in Aceh the picture is even less clear. Most field commanders seem to be aligned with the Hasan di Tiro leadership. But some rural armed groups have only a loose affiliation with the organisation. Others are simply gangsters who claim GAM credentials in order to extort money from the unfortunate locals. Some seem to be military deserters, while, as noted above, most Acehnese believe that disguised military units are provoking much of the worst mayhem. Out of this chaotic picture, it seems obvious that there can be no effective military solution to Aceh's problems, even though sections of Indonesia's armed forces still hunger for one. It was Indonesian military brutality which transformed GAM from an isolated handful in the 1970s into the serious force it has become today. Reluctance to prosecute past abuses has been similarly crucial to escalating popular discontent the last 18 months. President Wahid faces a daunting challenge if he is to keep Aceh within the national fold. Pro-referendum sentiment has great momentum. Although the fissures in Acehnese society suggest possibilities for him, controlling the military and punishing human rights abusers must be central to any settlement. Ed Aspinall ( teaches at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. Inside Indonesia 62: Apr - Jun 2000

Women and the war in Aceh

These women want to silence all the guns, whether Indonesian or Acehnese Suraiya Kamaruzzaman Aceh is rich in natural resources. Large corporations moved into North Aceh following the discovery of natural gas. Related industries spread through the Greater Aceh region (Aceh Besar). Outsiders dominated these huge corporations. Their displays of wealth alienated the Acehnese, who were largely excluded from the economic gains of industrialisation. Even in North Aceh, referred to in jest as the petro-dollar region, 70% of villages remained officially in the 'backward' category (desa tertinggal). According to some sources, Aceh's natural resources supplied Jakarta's coffers with Rp 33 trillion each year, of which only one percent was returned to the province. Locals who live around these companies are just spectators who watch the prosperity inside from their poverty outside. This has gone on for decades. This was the context in which the armed struggle for Acehnese independence, GAM (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, Aceh Freedom Movement) was established under the leadership of Hasan di Tiro. In 1990 the Suharto government launched its Operation Red Net (Operasi Jaring Merah) to root out what the New Order chose to call a Movement to Disturb Peace and Order, or GPK. The operation continued for eight years, but failed to resolve the Aceh problem. Instead, innocent civilians faced state-sponsored brutality. Anyone who refused to support the Indonesian military effort was labelled GPK. Thousands of women were widowed, their husbands murdered or kidnapped. Children were orphaned. Some women faced sexual violence from soldiers, in part as a deliberate instrument of terror against their communities. The women became pariahs in their own communities, which did not want to associate with anyone dangerously tainted by GPK suspicions. These single women, with children to support, could no longer go out safely to work in the fields. In late 1998, after the fall of Suharto, and with many human rights abuses well documented, the commander of the armed forces General Wiranto revoked Aceh's status as 'special military operations area' (DOM). Data from the Coalition of Human Rights NGOs had documented 7,727 cases of human rights abuse between 1990-98. But the situation did not improve when DOM status was revoked. From January 1999 to February 2000 the coalition documented nine cases of 'massacre' in which 132 civilians were killed and 472 wounded, 304 arbitrary detentions, 318 extra-judicial executions, and 138 disappearances. Refugees From February 1999, the Indonesian army started deliberately displacing inhabitants from some parts of Aceh. From June to August 1999 there were 250,000 to 300,000 internally displaced persons in Aceh. No human rights investigation has been conducted so far on this tragedy. Then the numbers of refugees fell, with only a few hundred remaining displaced by May 2000. However, in the following two months, despite the relative reduction in armed conflict, the numbers of displaced rose rapidly again into the thousands. In one camp there were 4,110 refugees, including 712 infants, 818 children less than five years, 52 pregnant women and 112 women who were still nursing infants. The following is a summary of their reasons for seeking refuge: Frequent searches for GAM members carried out by the Indonesian army in villages. These searches were inevitably brutal, involving beatings, forcible removal of individuals from their home, and destruction or forcible removal of property. Continued armed contacts between GAM and the army in rural areas, threatening the security of villagers. In some villages, the Indonesian armed forces and other unidentified groups burnt homes. Kidnappings carried out by both the military and civilian militia, the latter suspected of being supporters of GAM. Certain groups prohibited the refugees from returning to their village, even though the refugees themselves considered the situation safe. Some wealthier villagers such as business people found themselves openly harassed by alleged armed GAM members demanding money. One witness said a man had his house burnt down after refusing to contribute. However, such cases were relatively few and these people could usually afford to make a permanent move and start business elsewhere. Also, it is not entirely clear whether such attackers were always GAM members, or Indonesian soldiers or even ordinary criminals taking advantage of the chaotic law and order situation in Aceh. The camps did not always provide the safety the refugees sought. On 13 October 1999, in the Abu Beureueh Mosque camp in Pidie, the army, allegedly in search of GAM activists, fired several rounds. The shooting scattered 10,000 refugees in fear of their lives. Several women were sexually assaulted. On 29 December, 150 refugees in the Seulimun Mosque camp were poisoned and had to be hospitalised. Living conditions in many camps remain appalling. Many have only plastic sheets as shelter. Malnutrition is rampant among pregnant women and children. Dozens of babies have been born in the camps, with little or no medical facility. Sickness due to lack of clean water and exhaustion is commonplace. Even in the camps no gender equity has been established. The women's 'double burden' continues to operate! Like the men, they face the brutality of the state. But they also continue to be repressed by patriarchal social practices. In Acehnese norms, the woman's place is at home. While many women work in the fields and in the markets, they are always seen as only 'helping their husbands'. It was therefore normal for the women to assume food preparation as their function in the camps. However, that was regarded as a public activity, so men took over the work. This deprived women of the one function that legitimised their existence as social beings. Men make all decisions in the camps. Women, many of them war widows with no access to any particular male, are deprived of information and other facilities. Children have been severely traumatised by their experience of the war and by being displaced. Hundreds of schools have been burnt. According to one report the war has disrupted schooling for more than 11,000 Acehnese children. When a group of women activists provided paper and pen to children in a refugee camp, their drawings visualised the violence they had experienced. There were pictures of marching Indonesian soldiers, of battle between GAM and the Indonesian army, of weapons, dead bodies and mutilated corpses. The armed struggle between the Indonesian army and the Aceh Freedom Movement has been disastrous for the civilian population. There are villages where only women and children remain. Some of these women are working for other people in return for a few kilos of rice. Others are feeding their family on boiled trunks of banana trees. Women for peace The armed conflict in Aceh must be brought to an end - by whatever means. And women must be included in that peaceprocess. This is not only because women constitute 53% of Aceh's population. It is because women have suffered grievously throughout this conflict. As citizens, they have suffered at the hands of the state, having been raped and abused by the Indonesian army. Culturally, they have been repressed by patriarchy and through the wrong interpretations of Islamic law (such as the forcible imposition of dress codes). Even at home, they have faced domestic violence, being beaten and raped by their husbands. Women must be included in any decision making process. Data from the provincial government shows there are no fewer than 460,000 female heads of households, of whom 377,000 are widows. Women are organising for peace. They are praying, marching in the streets, distributing flowers and the message 'stop violence against women'. Women have held discussions with President Gus Dur and even with the army. They have also proposed to the commander of the Aceh Freedom Movement army that a special zone of peace for women should be set up. They have taken their campaign to the United Nations. With the cease-fire arranged in May this year, there are new hopes for peace. But there is no peace yet in Aceh. Violence continues, from both the Indonesian army and GAM. New sweeps as the army searches for GAM members are starting a fresh movement of refugees in East Aceh. Women want all weapons to cease fire, whether they belong to the Indonesian army or to the soldiers of GAM. We hope that the current agreement between the combatants for a humanitarian cessation of hostilities is not just rhetoric for the Indonesian army and Aceh Freedom Movement. Suraiya Kamaruzzaman is executive director of Flower Aceh ( Established in 1989, this was the first women's group set up by Acehnese women to deal with the consequences of the Indonesian army's brutal crackdown on the Aceh Freedom Movement (GAM). This article is extracted from her passionate presentation at the recent conference on Indonesian violence held in Melbourne. Inside Indonesia 64: Oct - Dec 2000

Tribute to a proud Acehnese

Jafar Siddiq Hamzah died defending dialogue and human rights

Reformasi and Riau's forests

A weak government struggles with 'people power', poverty and pulp companies

Indorayon's last gasp?

Popular protest closes a huge paper and pulp mill in Sumatra, but others go on polluting

Suharto's fires

Suharto cronies control an ASEAN-wide oil palm industry with an appalling environmental record

Aceh will not lie down

A new generation of victims speaks out. Will Indonesia now negotiate?

The return of 'Shock therapy'

Overseas friends stand by persecuted Acehnese human rights workers

With Aceh's guerrillas

A rare visit with the Free Aceh Movement shows them confident and well organised

Aceh negotiation ups and downs

Mar 1998 - Acehnese students join anti-Suharto protests by highlighting military abuses in Aceh

Between war and peace

An insider speaks about peace negotiations on Aceh

Combat zone

Aceh is the military's stepping stone back to power

Brawling, Bombing, and 'Backing'

The Security Forces as a Source of Insecurity

Security Disorders

Sending Troops is not Going to Solve Regional Conflicts

How to make peace

Civilians demand a part in Aceh's peace process

The life and death of Aceh's peace process

The collapse of the peace process has seen Aceh return to a cycle of violence

Surf Aid groundswell builds

Surfers rally to help the people of the Mentawai Islands

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