Nov 17, 2018 Last Updated 12:17 PM, Nov 15, 2018

The structure of military abuse

Are the military lying when they say a Military Operations Area never existed in Aceh? Yes and no.

Bambang Widjajanto & Douglas Kammen

Since Suharto's fall from power, the political role of the Indonesian military has been an ongoing topic of debate in Indonesia. In recent months these debates have intensified. Pressured over the ongoing violence in Aceh, in November the national parliament questioned several senior officers about the existence of a Military Operations Area and the atrocities committed there during the 1990s. In December, the National Human Rights Commission questioned a host of officers about human rights abuses committed in East Timor both before and after the August referendum. In the face of continuing violence in the Moluccas there have been calls for a declaration of martial law. And in January Jakarta was abuzz with rumours about a military coup.

In the course of these debates about the military's past and present political role, a number of issues have been widely misunderstood, none more so than the so-called Military Operations Areas, known by the acronym DOM. For this reason, it is useful to clarify the status of military operations, the legal status of the 'troubled' (rawan) provinces during the New Order, and now the prospect of martial law as a mechanism for responding to the worrisome tide of new regional violence.


During the 1950s the young republic was threatened by a series of regional rebellions on Java, Sumatra, and Sulawesi. The state sought a legal basis on which to respond, particularly by building on the Dutch-era 'state of war' law, the Regeling op de Staat van Oorlog en van Beleg, commonly known as SOB.

The first such step was taken in 1950 when the SOB was replaced by new government regulations (Perpem No. 7 1950) and emergency laws (UU Darurat No. 8 1950). These, however, were soon considered to be legally inconsistent, and four years later were replaced by a new law on military powers (PP No. 55 1954). In 1957, SOB and its successors were withdrawn and replaced by another new law on 'state of danger' (keadaan bahaya) and 'state of war' (keadaan perang) (UU NO. 74 1957).

These measures were adopted for two reasons. First, in the context of repeated constitutional change, it was deemed necessary to coordinate the legal status of military powers with the constitution. Second, and of greater importance, these legal changes were understood as being necessary for the state to combat regional rebellions. At the same time, of course, regional military commanders exploited these new laws to increase their political authority vis--vis civilian officials and the political parties.

The changes culminated in 1959 when the authorities adopted law No. 23 on the 'state of danger' (keadaan bahaya). This law distinguished between three distinct conditions: civil emergency, military emergency, and state of war. As the supreme commander of the armed forces, the president was empowered with the legal authority to declare any of these emergency conditions in all or part of the country.

The state had been created via legitimate means. During the early years of the republic the use of special military powers was legally suspect. For that reason, new laws were required to accommodate military authority.

For the New Order, however, the opposite was the case. Established through the illegitimate seizure of power and amid anti-communist massacres, new legal measures were never adopted to accommodate increased military authority or operations. While Law No. 23 1959 concerning the 'state of danger' was still in force, Suharto's military regime did not seek a legal basis for its military actions. For the new regime, the issue had become one of legitimating the status of civil and political rule, not that of military force. This was done first via the mysterious Letter of March 11 (Supersemar), then in 1967 by formally appointing Suharto as president of the republic.

After coming to power, the Suharto regime faced (and, more often than not, created) a number of regional rebellions. The first of these involved military operations in Java and West Kalimantan against communist sympathisers. Additional regional troubles were the result of military occupation and forcible 'integration' -- first in Irian Jaya and then in East Timor. Still further regional problems emerged in Aceh, where Jakarta's rapacious attitude towards the province's natural resources fuelled resentment, and soon armed resistance.

The last three of these provinces -- Irian Jaya, East Timor and Aceh -- are commonly referred to as 'daerah rawan,' or troubled provinces. The New Order responded to these rebellions with brutal military operations characterised by the use of torture, rape and murder.


Over the past year there has been extensive discussion about the Military Operations Areas (DOM) long said to apply in these three provinces. Late last year a number of generals, both retired and on active duty, were questioned by parliament about the alleged DOM in Aceh. All firmly denied its existence. NGO and human rights activists were outraged at what they took to be blatant lying.

Popular understanding of what exactly constitutes a DOM varies widely, however. Some view DOM as a military command, others see it as a military operation, and still others believe that it is a legal status. But in contrast to its predecessor, the New Order regime was never concerned about the legal status of military operations or military authority in Irian Jaya, East Timor or Aceh. The military has its own names for combat commands, of which DOM is not one. DOM, in fact, never did exist, in Aceh or anywhere else. For this reason, the generals' responses were technically honest and correct, though deceitful for not providing proper clarification on the status of military operations.

While DOM never existed, the military of course did have combat commands and conduct military operations in a number of provinces. In East Timor the military had what it called the Operations Implementation Command for East Timor (Kolakops Timor Timur), and in Aceh the Red Net Operations Implementation Command (Kolakops Jaring Merah). Under these were one or more combat sectors responsible for local combat operations. Curiously, no Kolakops was ever established in Irian Jaya, though there are to this day several combat sectors.

The experience in East Timor illustrates the changes in the structure of these military commands during the late New Order. In response to the Santa Cruz massacre, in 1993 the Kolakops command in East Timor was formally abolished. This, however, was a purely cosmetic change, for the two combat sectors (A and B) were maintained. Further changes were made in 1995-96 when these combat sectors were taken over by the Special Forces (Kopassus), then under the command of Brig-Gen Prabowo Subianto, and run by special teams. In East Timor this special Kopassus team to run the combat sectors there was called Team Rajawali, while those in Aceh and Irian Jaya were called Tribuana Units.

It is therefore essential to distinguish between Military Operations Areas (DOM) and areas in which there are military operations. The former never existed, while the latter were in fact commonplace, found in Aceh, Lampung, West Kalimantan, East Java, East Timur, Irian Jaya, and most recently the Moluccas. This is not simply a question of semantics. For activists in Indonesia as well as abroad, improper identification of military structures and activities will facilitate evasion and denial on the part of those responsible.

Bambang Widjajanto ( is director of the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation (YLBHI). Douglas Kammen ( is lecturer in political science at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand.

Inside Indonesia 62: Apr - Jun 2000

A widow's notes

As told to Syarifah Mariati

Once again I am transfixed, cold. Another victim has been found this morning. I see several villagers hurrying towards the rice fields, wanting to know whether it's one of their own. I have just heard the news that another corpse has been found by the dyke. A man. From the village nearby. From the people I hear that a bullet pierced his chest on the left, and that marks of torture cover his whole body.

Quickly I enter my house. I can no longer lift the pail of water I've drawn from the well, even though it's only two metres from the house. My heart races irregularly. Fear. God, whose turn is it this time? Will people always be killed? What has this man done to earn this tragic death? How big a sin has he committed?

I am still traumatised by what I witnessed almost three months before. That afternoon I had been sitting in front of the house when I heard a commotion in the street. Soldiers in uniform, brandishing weapons. More than twenty of them. I prepared to step inside my house. 'Get out all of you! Quick, get out, all of you inside. Don't pretend that you don't know we've come. See this. This is an example of what will happen to those who dare join the GPK rebels. You'll become pigs.'

I panicked. People emerged from their homes. Bang Nurdin, my mother in law, and all the other village folks. In shock I saw what one of them carried... a human head. Had my eyes tricked me? No. That was a human head. Cut off at the neck. By a machete? I couldn't bear to see. Blood spattered. Nausea rose.

'Ayo, look at this. Who else wants to end up like this? Who else? Pigs!'

Parading the head down the village road, they hurled insults. People were forced to look. All manner of emotions swirled within me. Fear, terror, nausea and pity.

Azwar. The handsome youth. Loved by the village because he was obedient, humble and quick to help. 'Poor Azwar,' said Bang Nurdin, overwhelmed by emotion.

I could remember clearly when the village folk wished to bury a corpse they'd found lying in the street. We didn't know from which village he came. Then, five armed soldiers appeared. One of them said arrogantly, 'Do you know who this is? A creator of chaos. GPK. Do you know? These GPK people are not human beings but pigs. You don't need to bury them because they're pigs.'

The people fell silent and hurried home.

News of villagers shot, kidnapped, tortured - almost everyday I heard it. Sometimes in this village, sometimes in other villages. News of corpses disposed by the wayside, in gutters, in ponds, in rivers - everywhere. It could be a man from my village or from other villages, thrown out like rubbish here. Left unburied because the villagers were too afraid to collect the corpses.

I didn't know why village folk were being killed. Some said they were killed because they were members of the Aceh Liberation Movement. Like the corpse of the man disposed on the dyke this morning. The old man had lived in the village next to mine; he was a gardener who had cared for the school principal's plot of land. He'd been accused of membership in the GAM, of hiding weapons.

I was born 43 years ago, in the village of Cot Geuleumpang, about three kilometres from the sub-district centre Peureulak in East Aceh. My name is Maimunah.

My father was the teungku imeum, a respected man in the village. My mother too was well known; villagers would come to her with their problems. To fulfill their everyday needs, my parents had a small rice field.

One day, I was informed that someone planned to ask for my hand in marriage. His name was Nurdin. Eventually, Bang Nurdin asked me to come and live in his village, Uteun Dama, about four kilometres from my own village. We worked as paid agricultural hands during the planting and harvesting seasons. We went to the glee together when we didn't go to the rice fields.

Friday, 2 March 1991

This day is the 15th day of the month Sya'ban. It is a tradition in our village to hold a feast in the meunasah (small mosque). We call this the khanduri nifsu sya'ban - the feast of sya'ban. Around noon, Bang Nurdin went to the meunasah, returning in the evening. Suddenly, we heard the sound of trucks passing in convoy.

'It is our village's turn tonight; the soldiers have just entered,' Bang Nurdin said. 'Bang, there's an operation tonight. You shouldn't sleep in the house; go and hide in the jungle. Many of the men in the village have gone into hiding in the jungle.' But Bang Nurdin refused. 'I have nothing to fear. Why should I hide in the jungle? They are looking for members of the Free Aceh Movement. We aren't GAM. We don't need to hide.'

Perhaps he was right. But I continued to worry. Friday, almost midnight. Half asleep, I soothed Sukri to sleep. He'd woken up crying. Perhaps he was thirsty. Hasnah and Muhadir were fast asleep. In the next room, Bang Nurdin slept with Yusda. Suddenly there was a knock at the front door. 'Bang Nurdin, come out,' I heard a voice saying from outside. I wondered who was coming at such a late hour. Anxiously, I woke Bang Nurdin to tell him someone was calling him out. 'Who's there?' asked Bang Nurdin. 'It's me, Sidik. I live in the Uteun Dama village. Please come out; someone's looking for you.' Bang Nurdin, wearing only pants and a sarong around his shoulders, opened the door to meet the person, who was escorted by a man standing straight, his hair short, wearing a white t-shirt.

'Let me see your ID and Family Card.' The man spoke bad Acehnese. We could see that he was not Acehnese. Bang Nurdin went to get his ID and family card. From inside the room I could hear the conversation. 'They only want to see my ID card and our family card,' explained Bang Nurdin. 'Be careful, Bang.' He nodded and took the ID and Family Card to show to the soldier outside.

The man returned the family card but retained his ID. I heard him telling Bang Nurdin to get dressed to go because there was some business to take care of. Hearing that, I emerged from the room. 'Where are you taking my husband at such a late hour? Why are you taking him?' I asked the man. 'We're taking him to the guard post for a little while. Go back to sleep.' Outside, there were many other men, all wearing camouflage gear, holding rifles. In the moonlight I could make out ten people. Some stood near the fence, others surrounded the house. I grew suspicious when I saw my husband forced to go with the man in the white t-shirt. Ten other men followed them out. Bang Nurdin wore a white shirt; his red-checkered sarung was slung over his shoulder. I did my ablutions and prayed, sending up a plea for the safety of my husband. I got the Al-Quran and softly recited the verses through the night.

In the early dawn some neighbours came. 'Has Bang Nurdin come home?' they asked. 'No,' I replied. They told me they had heard the sound of gunfire on the glee. I became weak. Was it Bang Nurdin they had shot? O God, don't let it be. My younger brother came and talked with the folks. They went to Desa Punti, the next village, where the command post was located, to ask permission to see the victim of last night's shooting in the glee. I heard that they had also taken Teungku Adam, the village elder. I wanted so much to go, but they said no. I obeyed and let Yusda join the group.

They found Bang Nurdin in the glee, lying on our plot of land. He'd become a corpse. The villagers continued searching for Teungku Adam but didn't find him.

Not long after, Bang Nurdin's corpse arrived at home. Weakness overcame me when I saw my husband's corpse. His throat had been cut through, leaving but a bit of skin attaching the head to his body. The checkered sarong had been stuffed in his mouth by his murderers-all the way down so that it emerged from his slit throat. I saw a hole in his chest. Bruises covered his face. The white shirt and pants he had worn were now red. Blood from the throat, blood from the chest. Then everything went dark and I no longer knew what happened after that.

In our simple house, Bang Nurdin's corpse was laid out. Only a few people came to pay their respects, and even they stayed only a short while before hurrying home. Normally, when someone dies, almost all the villagers come to mourn. They pray for the deceased and for the family. Now all this had changed. Bang Nurdin's corpse was bathed and buried by the few people who dared to come. After prayers, the people recited the Al-Quran and prayed for the soul, but they left long before midnight. My sorrow grew when I heard my daughter, Hasnah, praying, 'Allah, I beg of You, may the murderers of my father quickly die.'

Syarifah Mariati is a lecturer in Banda Aceh and on the board of the women's group Flower Aceh ( Sylvia Tiwon was the translator. Excerpted from 'Catatan seorang janda' in 'Nyala panyot tak terpadamkan' (Banda Aceh: Flower Aceh, 1999).

Inside Indonesia 62: Apr - Jun 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, 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

From heroes to rebels

Jakarta's Aceh policy suddenly looks remarkably colonial

Sylvia Tiwon

'From Sabang to Merauke the islands stretch, linking up to make one; that is Indonesia' proclaims a well-known patriotic song all Indonesian school children are taught to sing. In Jakarta, the names of important streets enumerate heroes from all over the islands, reinforcing the same symbolic claim: Jalan Tengku Cik Ditiro, Jalan Pattimura, Jalan Sisingamangaraja, Jalan Diponegoro.

The city seems constructed according to a historical masterplan revolving around its heart at Merdeka (Independence) Square, as though to teach all those travelling its congested roadways an object lesson in the national motto 'unity in diversity'. Yet today, events conspire to reveal that unity as a fiction maintained through often violent indoctrination. 'Merdeka' has become a rallying cry for provinces who experience Indonesian nationhood as a new form of colonial oppression. These movements for independent statehood have reached a crescendo in the wake of Suharto's fall from power. None has been as threatening to the state as Aceh's.

Aceh is important to the Indonesian national imagination in many ways. Spatially, it marks the northwestern boundary of the great archipelago. Historically, Aceh's long war against the Dutch - 1873-1903, a war the Dutch never really won - makes it a critical reference point for Indonesia's anti-colonial struggle.

The province is known as Tanah Rencong, a reference to the dagger that took the lives of many Dutchmen in the 'Aceh murders' that continued to plague the Dutch even after the war had ended. Out of the Aceh War comes the name Cut Nyak Dien, the only fighting woman Indonesia claims in its pantheon of national heroes. She is often contrasted with Kartini, the Javanese princess who engaged in a different battle from within the confines of her father's mansion.

After the fall of the Japanese in 1945, the Dutch did not bother to return to Aceh, knowing they would never be welcomed. Aceh's contributions to the nationalist cause during the years of revolution following World War II, most notably by donating Indonesia's first aircraft, made it a significant example of non-Javanese support for the Republic.

Aceh is also known as Serambi Mekkah, the doorway to Islam's holy land, partly because in the days before air transportation pilgrims from all points in the archipelago going to Mekkah on the haj by steamer had to stop at the Acehnese port of Sabang before crossing the Indian Ocean. Even more important is Aceh's own strong Islamic identity, rooted in the history of the spice trade and intellectual activity in the Acehnese courts. Darker

Strangely however, these same qualities of heroism, Islamic identity and strategic importance have also been refashioned by the central government in Jakarta to construct a darker image of Aceh. From Jakarta's perspective, Aceh's rebellious tradition and its strong adherence to an Islamic identity also constitute a threat to progress and national unity. In order to understand this paradoxical construct of Aceh, it is necessary to look at another factor that has made Aceh so crucial to the republic.

For in addition to its cultural and political value, Aceh also represents great economic value. Its vast natural resources include oil, gas, timber, coffee and palm oil. It is to protect its stakes in this wealth that Jakarta has deployed the spectre of separatism and Islamic radicalism, mounting a policy of control through military force and manipulation that ironically harks back to the callous 'Aceh policy' of the Dutch colonial government.

The greatest share of the revenue from Aceh's resources has been siphoned off by Jakarta-based interests. In the midst of all this natural wealth, the region has the highest percentage of poor villages in the island of Sumatra. Poor infrastructure leaves large portions of the hinterland inaccessible, while most public education and health services are located in the industrial cities and the provincial capital, Banda Aceh. Only about 5% of total export revenue remains within Aceh, and most of that is in the hands of mid-sized enterprises owned mainly by non-indigenous Acehnese.

In the wake of economic expansion directed from Jakarta, indigenous peoples have been evicted from traditional land-holdings, while fisherfolk fight a losing battle against modern fishing concerns. The extractive nature of large enterprise coupled with a lack of public supervision has led to serious environmental degradation. Grassroots protests generally go unreported and do not register on the national consciousness.

A significant part of Aceh's current problems may be attributed to the fact that the New Order moved swiftly to co-opt traditional leadership, disrupt indigenous structures of community governance, and nurture a small group of the Acehnese elite. Through the laws on regional administration, the central government imposed a uniform structure on villages, using the Javanese model to replace Aceh's gampong, mukim and meunasah, and undermining the traditional authority of the keucik, the village head. The religious teachers (ulama) were similarly brought under centralised control through the Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI).

Worse still, the armed forces' territorial command permeated all levels of Acehnese society, in effect creating a parallel structure of armed power in which the Acehnese had no say. The people thus saw their traditional community structures dismantled and replaced by an essentially alien bureaucracy controlled from a distant centre.

After the Aceh War, the Dutch colonial government sought to diminish the threat it perceived from the ulama who had led the war. They did this by co-opting the local chieftains (uleebalang), granting the latter rights to land and taxes in return for loyalty to the colonial masters.

In similar style, the New Order brought important members of the Acehnese elite under its influence by offering them a significant share in the wealth of the region. For example, George Aditjondro identifies Ibrahim Risyad, who is allied with Liem Sioe Liong and Suharto. Under a joint venture with Robby Sumampouw, a Benny Murdani financier, Risyad expanded his business to Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines. Another powerful Acehnese is Bustanil Arifin, former minister and head of the rice distribution agency Bulog, whose wife is related to the late Mrs Suharto. He has been a major player in the Bogasari flour mill Berdikari, a state enterprise that he managed to turn into a private company, and is involved in several Suharto foundations.

The central government has yet to learn the full lesson of the failure of Dutch colonial policy. In l946, Aceh witnessed a bloody social revolution against the uleebalang who were perceived to be deeply corrupt. Yet Jakarta continues to focus on Islamic radicalism as the root of the upheavals in Aceh. In a bid to neutralise calls for a referendum on independence or autonomy, the government has introduced legislation intended to enhance Aceh's autonomy by granting it the right to enact syari'ah law. This is clearly not enough.

A more equitable sharing of revenue is necessary. More crucial - and far more difficult - is to bring to justice the perpetrators of the most outrageous human rights violations. The people of Aceh have had to pay with their lives and the honour of women for the business interests of the few. It is time to right the moral balance.

Sylvia Tiwon ( is Associate Professor of Indonesian at the University of California at Berkeley. George Aditjondro, 'Tragedi Aceh' will shortly appear with Pijar, Jakarta.

Inside Indonesia 62: Apr - Jun 2000
Page 2 of 2

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