Apr 24, 2024 Last Updated 1:12 AM, Apr 19, 2024

Aceh's year of living dangerously

Leon Jones

In Aceh, during 1989 and 1990, a series of violent incidents occurred, allegedly carried out by a militant ethno-nationalist group. The Indonesian military called this group the 'Gerombolan Pengacau Keamananan' (GPK), Gang of Security Disturbers. Most local people simply referred to this group as 'Gerakan Aceh Merdeka', or the Free Aceh Movement.

Some thought that the so-called GPK violence in Aceh was engineered by certain elements within the Indonesian military as a provocation to justify a campaign of terror. Another possibility was that the violence indicated conflicts within the military itself.

I was able to observe the situation in Aceh during 1989 and 1990, and the confusion and alarm it caused in the population, while placed as a volunteer development worker in the Pidie District.


The first indication I had that some form of disturbance was being planned came to my attention some time in April or May 1989. I was visiting a certain sub-district of North Aceh to see the family of a young man who had become a good friend during my early months in the province. One evening my friend told me that he would be attending an activity in the local mosque that night. He was away all night, and the next morning he came home quite excited.

Later when we were alone, in a mixture of Indonesian and English, he told me that a religious leader had just crossed over the straits from Malaysia and had been talking about an armed struggle to be launched shortly. The man asked all the young men to be patient, but to be prepared to act when the time came.

The visiting religious leader used several economic and social arguments to whip the young men into a state of eager anticipation at the prospect of a glorious holy war to liberate Aceh. He said that Aceh was rich in resources but was not getting a fair deal from Jakarta. Money was not being put back into Aceh to compensate for the resources that are being taken out. If it were independent, Aceh could be as rich as Brunei and the Acehnese could live well and not have to work hard for the benefit of outsiders.

Dead Acehnese

Upon hearing my friend's story, I was surprised that he was so enthusiastic about the ideas being propounded by the religious leader from Malaysia, and I was concerned at his eagerness for the cause of Acehnese independence. The suggestion was that a violent struggle be launched against the Jakarta government in an effort to gain independence for Aceh.

I must admit that I was rather astounded. It seemed obvious to me that any 'war', and that was the word my friend used, would just result in a lot of dead Acehnese, my friend possibly among them. Jakarta was obviously too strong and I could not understand the reasons for great discontent. In 1989, to my eyes at any rate, there were signs of economic progress and a healthy economy.

My friend did mention a range of grievances. Some of them made me feel very uneasy. Perhaps mistakenly, I interpreted some of my friend's complaints as involving radical fundamentalist religion, narrow nationalism, xenophobia and chauvinism.

Not all the students supported the Aceh Merdeka Movement, but I would say a majority at least felt obliged in public to support the cause it espoused. There seemed to be a degree of peer pressure to support it. One young man said he expressed support for Aceh Merdeka when he mixed in some circles but not when he mixed in other circles.


One view expressed frequently by young men on campus was that they were thinking of going to Libya for military training to learn how to fight the Jakarta government. It was said that hundreds of young men had already gone overseas for such training, the infer

'If I can't get a good job as a government official I'm going to Libya to train as a terrorist,' was one comment I heard.

The contradiction, on the one hand of wanting to be part of the Indonesian State system by becoming an official and on the other hand of wanting to violently oppose this system reflects the confused state of mind of many of the students.

First incident

One afternoon in late May 1989, a student friend of mine came to my room at the campus in an excited state. 'It's started,' he told me excitedly.
'What's started?' I asked.
'They've killed two policemen near Tiro,' he said.
'Who've killed two policemen?'
'Aceh Merdeka.'

I pressed him for details and he told me that two policemen had been shot and killed while riding a motorbike in the Tiro sub-district. The weapons of the police officers had been taken, and one of them had had his throat cut.

I knew that Tiro, located only about seven kilometers from the campus as the crow flies, but hard to get to directly by vehicle, was a particularly difficult area for the government. It was the home district of Hasan Tiro, the self-exiled leader of Aceh Merdeka. My boss, the Regent of Pidie District, had told me that the vast majority of the population in Tiro were anti-government and pro-Acehnese independence.


It was also an area, reportedly, where ganja (marijuana) was grown. The ganja crops were associated with Aceh Merdeka and contributed to their financial resources. In the last few months, the police, in an operation code-named Operation Nila, had launched a series of raids against the ganja growers and destroyed a good number of crops.

Later, when talking to the regent about the killing of the two police in Tiro, he told me that many people thought the police had been killed in retaliation for the raids against the ganja growers. Ganja growing was a traditional activity for some local people and they resented outside interference in their activities. It was a very lucrative enterprise and people's livelihoods would be seriously affected by the loss of this income.

Ganja had been traditionally used in cooking and the regent told me that up till about twenty years ago it was a common garden plant and used in many households as a herb.

The regent added that the raids against the ganja crops were being criticised locally on religious grounds. The holy Quran says nothing about ganja being forbidden, while on the other hand the Indonesian government allows alcohol to be sold; this shows that the Indonesian government does not follow Islamic principles.

There was a further possible reason put forward as to why these two police officers were killed near Tiro on May 30. One of the officers, Corporal Gade, was well known for his attacks on people with suspected links to Aceh Merdeka in the Tiro area. I was told that about a month earlier Corporal Gade had shot dead a local Aceh Merdeka man and that he was subsequently killed by Aceh Merdeka in retaliation for this shooting.

Interestingly, I knew that the best and safest suppliers of ganja on the campus were in fact some young police officers who were also students. Not that the use of ganja was either widespread or conspicuous but according to students, the local police were involved in the area's ganja trade. The order to move on the ganja crops may have come from outside Pidie District and may have upset some cosy relationships between the local police and the ganja growers.

Further trouble

A key incident for me in the sequence of violent occurrences in 1990 was the shooting of two policemen on the grounds of the campus where I taught. This happened at about 11.00 pm on the night of March 17, 1990. The shootings happened less than 300 meters from where I normally slept at the campus so it was a little too close to dismiss as something that did not touch me.

The men shot at the campus were Police Sergeant Kurnia Jaya and Police Sergeant Murtitino. They were stationed at Mila, the local village bordering the campus. These two policemen were on duty at the campus on a Saturday night to keep an eye on a pop music concert supposed to have been held that night. For some reason the concert did not go ahead, but quite a lot of people turned up in the belief that a performance might happen. By 10.30 pm nearly everyone had gone home.

The two policemen were returning to Mila when they were shot. They were walking along the main road out of the campus. At this spot there are a pair of huge trees and a lot of scrub close to the road.

Why were they shot and by whom? The speculation indicated to me that local people did not know the answers.

Mysterious The words 'mysterious shootings' were bought into play for the first time, but not for the last. One theory had it that they were shot by people involved in the ganja trade, in retaliation for the police raids. Another theory was that one of the policemen had an illicit relationship with a local woman and that he and his colleague had been shot to defend family honour.

The old chestnut of blaming Aceh Merdeka was also put forward, although this was an explanation favoured by a minority. After all, why should Aceh Merdeka be bothered with these two innocuous policemen?

One other theory was that they had been shot by the army or by other police, but this opinion was too controversial to be given much of an airing publicly, although it was guardedly admitted that relations between soldiers and police could get strained and that these groups did have guns and knew how to use them.

After the incident at the campus, people expressed some concern for my safety, saying that I should not walk or ride around the campus area at night. A police officer discreetly suggested that I sleep in Sigli rather than at the campus, at least for the time being.

The regent invited me to live at the pendopo, his official government residence. This arrangement pleased me because it was more comfortable and there was more entertainment in town. It also meant that I did not have to ride my little motorbike the fifteen or twenty kilometers to the campus from Sigli late at night. This trip through Pidie District was always an adventure.

Locals clearly thought I was a bit strange for riding around the back roads in the middle of the night. When I asked them why they were concerned they usually made references to ghosts that could waylay the unwary. I was more concerned about falling off or breaking down. It was only after the shootings started that I realised people were concerned about other things besides ghosts.

Many younger Acehnese I knew were becoming very excited about the perceived success of the heroic Aceh Merdeka fighters. These were heady days for many of my friends. Students were eagerly awaiting the next incident. There was talk that the Americans, or perhaps even the Russians, would help the Acehnese cause.

I became just as much an aficionado and collector of macabre and violent tales as any of my local acquaintances. I was fascinated by these events and constantly amazed by such bizarre goings on.

By early 1990, stories were circulating that several soldiers had been attacked and killed in North Aceh over the previous months. Also, some bodies had turned up in the bush, the victims of violent deaths.

Climate of fear

The police and the army were being subjected to terrorist attacks and they began to respond in kind. Some people believed that the military's repressive response was understandable, even legitimate, given the provocation.

The practice of the army rounding-up local people after an apparent Aceh Merdeka incident became a regular occurrence.

Virtually anyone was liable for detention. Wives and relatives of suspects who were known Aceh Merdeka supporters were arrested. Sometimes, village heads and local religious leaders were detained. Other times it was unclear why a particular person was arrested.

It seems that detention was often arbitrary and that there was no legal recourse available to those arrested, or to their families. Worst of all, some people were killed in detention and their bodies dumped in the country side.


The Commander of the Lilawangsa Regiment, Colonel Sofian Effendi, based in Lhokseumawe, intimated that there were people deliberately spreading rumours that security in Aceh had broken down. 'We urge the public not to believe such groundless rumours', Colonel Effendi was reported as saying.

Major General Djoko Pramono was the commander of the whole northern Sumatra region, including Aceh. After only twenty-two months he was replaced by Brigadier General Haji Raden Pramono. It was announced that Djoko Pramono was shortly to embark on a pilgrimage to Mecca. It is quite likely that he was replaced because it was perceived in Jakarta that his approach to the security disturbances was not firm enough.

Certainly, in the days before the change in command there were many Aceh Merdeka disturbances. Subsequently, people suggested that the so-called 'Aceh Merdeka' incidents were orchestrated by Raden Pramono and his supporters to undermine confidence in Djoko Pramono.

July saw the violence that had plagued Aceh in May and June continue. However, there began to be a shift in the proportion of violence attributed to Aceh Merdeka compared to that attributed to the military. In May and June, it was violence carried out by Aceh Merdeka that attracted the highest profile. By July, in contrast, it was violence carried out by the military that predominated.

This shift happened within weeks of H. R. Pramono gaining command of the Aceh region. The new commander seemed to inspire the units under his command to greater efforts and he seemed to have a mandate to apply a more repressive and heavy-handed approach.

On July 11, 1990, there was a widely reported meeting at the presidential office in Jakarta, between President Suharto and the Governor of Aceh, Ibrahim Hasan. Following this meeting it was announced that more troops would be sent to Aceh.

Leon Jones teaches English in a small town in Peninsular Malaysia. Sub-editing was done by Kathy Gollan.

Inside Indonesia 49: Jan-Mar 1997

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