Dec 01, 2023 Last Updated 8:29 PM, Nov 27, 2023

Aceh's causes

Published: Jul 30, 2007

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.'


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

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