Apr 14, 2024 Last Updated 4:19 AM, Apr 12, 2024

Aceh will not lie down

Published: Jul 30, 2007

Lesley McCulloch

Brimob took my husband that day. I haven't seen him since. I pray he is still alive but in my sleep I dream he is dead. He was not a member of GAM and he was a good father.Now what will I do, I have two young children. (Aceh Pidie, 21 September 2000)

The Acehnese people, dispersed throughout their beautiful but remote homeland in the northern tip of Sumatra, have recognised that strength comes in numbers. In November 2000 the first 'Korban' Congress (Kongres Korban Pelanggaran HAM Aceh) was held. The word korban is usually translated victim, but also means blood offering, and sometimes refers more accurately to survivors (for which there is no Indonesian term). They came in any form of motorised transport they could find. Some who set out did not reach their final destination of Banda Aceh. The security forces ensured that terror remained their travelling companion. Friends and relatives paid tribute to those who were killed or 'taken' en route. The mood of the almost 400 who attended the congress over three days was of unity against the government in Jakarta. Long days of deliberation were followed by further strategy and tete a tete sessions into the early morning. The fact that so many had gathered was a success in itself.

The congress dismissed the argument from Jakarta that rogue elements of the military and police were responsible for the continuing violence. 'Someone, somewhere must take responsibility for the actions of a serving military officer,' said Jufri, chairman of the organising committee. The Acehnese are united in their feelings of betrayal by president Gus Dur. The congress passed resolutions calling for a UN monitoring team, for investigation of past human rights abuses, and for a special human rights court to bring to trial those accused.

The horrendous killings, torture, disappearances and rapes during Aceh's period as a Military Operational Area (DOM - Daerah Operasi Militer) 1989-1998 are well known. Since the end of DOM however, the Indonesian government has sought - and largely received - praise in the international arena for progress made towards reform in general and for their willingness to continue to strive for a negotiated settlement in Aceh. At the national level it gained itself the status of 'the world's newest democracy'.

The Aceh Refugee Forum (FPA) reported in December 2000 that there were 4,951 Acehnese refugees in North Sumatra, south of Aceh. Their latest data indicates that number has now risen to 10,972, mostly in Medan and Langkat, putting a severe strain on local resources. In Aceh itself there are almost 40,000 refugees, according to the People's Crisis Centre (PCC), a local non-government organisation.

The climate of fear is such that the mere proximity of security forces to a village often causes families to flee to the forest or farther afield. The degree to which each side is responsible is difficult to assess. No one denies that the Free Aceh Movement GAM has also been in part responsible for refugee flows and violations of human rights. It has often been argued that rumours, encouragement and threats by GAM play a not insignificant role in the refugee situation. However, my first hand experience and extensive interviews with civilians - other than those who attended the congress - suggest that it is the regular sweeping operations by the military and police which are the primary cause of the rise in numbers of internally displaced people.

The security forces under Gus Dur, and under Habibie before him, have continued to act with impunity in Aceh. The Indonesian Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) reported that 'the year 2000 has been the bloodiest in Aceh since before the military occupation which began in 1989'. Throughout 2000, almost 1,000 people died in the violence - half of those during the six months 'humanitarian pause'. The escalating violence, which was the impetus for implementing the pause in June 2000, has not abated.

Yet so far most of the international community has conveniently overlooked the situation in Aceh. As with the refugees, while no one is denying that GAM has contributed to the increasing number of deaths and atrocities, it is the Indonesian security forces that have perpetrated most of these violations. The government's hard line tactics have fuelled separatist demands. The 'new' generation of victims often supports not merely independence, but also GAM.


Swiss-brokered talks following the expiry of the pause in January 2001, while set against this background of on-going violence and verbal hostility by members of the Indonesian government, give hope that a functioning moratorium on violence may at least be a possibility. They concluded with a loose one-month 'provision of understanding', to come into effect immediately.

The latest agreement has only two provisions. The first is that it establishes a 'moratorium on violence' during which time both parties will 'work to substantially revise the security situation'. Second, further talks will include four substantive elements relating to security arrangements, democratic consultations, humanitarian law and human rights, and socio-economic development.

At the time of writing in January 2001, the common ground for any future agreement has yet to be identified. Dr Zaini Abdullah, head of the GAM negotiating team in Switzerland,said in a telephone interview with this author: 'for us the issue is quite simple. We (GAM) are united with the Acehnese people in their desire for independence. The first phase of any meaningful negotiations must be a cessation of violence.' This has proven to be elusive, as both the government and GAM have favoured, at varying times, a security approach to the Aceh dilemma.

Each of the four broad substantive areas constitutes a myriad of issues, and presents a possible hurdle to agreement. When pressed during the interview about such obstacles to progress, Dr Zaini said that GAM has recognised that the process by which the core demand of independence is likely to be achieved may include - by necessity - components to which historically they have been opposed. Zaini cited the following issues as central to the success of any future negotiations. They illustrate GAM's willingness to mix force with diplomacy:

GAM demands - in the first instance - the withdrawal of all non-organic troops from Aceh. The Indonesiangovernment (RI) continues to deploy increasing numbers of troops (now around 30,000). RI demands that all weapons in 'civilian' (GAM) hands must be surrendered. GAM demands at least a vote for independence monitored by international independent observers. Initially this was a demand by SIRA (the Information Centre for Referendum in Aceh), long resisted by GAM, who said it meant dealing with the enemy, but, according to Dr Zaini, GAM are now ready to consider this option if civil society demands it assuming it is a precursor to independence. RI rejects such a vote (though Gus Dur once offered one), and has lobbied hard to prevent international support for GAM. GAM demands the trial and punishment of those members of the security forces thought to be guilty of human rights violations. RI has convicted some low-ranking soldiers, but the process has stalled due to military obstruction. In January 2001, Komnas HAM announced it was establishing a long-delayed commission to investigate human rights violations in Aceh, and there are some indications of military and police support for it. GAM demands that profits from natural resources remain in Aceh. However, a degree of flexibility may be possible at least for an initial transition period. The details of RI's 'special autonomy' package on offer to Aceh have still to be fine-tuned. It seems unlikely that RI will agree to give the 80% of natural resource revenues demanded by the Acehnese provincial parliament.

The Indonesian government goes into these negotiations knowing it is dealing with a more politicised Acehnese populace, and also it seems with a more sophisticated GAM. The growing support for civilian mass movements such as the student-led SIRA as well as for GAM reflects this newfound legitimacy. The Indonesian government is divided on how much compromise is appropriate to reach a workable agreement. The pause was always a Gus Dur project, while the military and police favoured a security solution. However, government actors are united in their claim that the loss of resource-rich Aceh would have serious consequences and could lead to the wholesale break-up of Indonesia.

The international community has its own reasons for fearing the disintegration of Indonesia, and is moreover reluctant to get on the wrong side of the world's fourth largest nation-state. There has been almost universal support for the efforts of the Gus Dur administration aimed above everything at preventing the break-up of this vast archipelagic state. The European Union (EU) for example has 'repeatedly stressed its support for a strong, united, democratic and prosperous Indonesia'. Japan, Australia and the US have made similar statements, which reflect concern for upheavals in investment, trade and security. Aceh is located at the entry to the Straits of Malacca, one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world.

The prospect of a 'domino effect' resulting from an independent Aceh is limited. Yet precisely the fear of 'disintegrasi' is often used both domestically and abroad to garner support, no matter at what cost in lives, for the continued unity of the state. The international community must realise that this cost can be too high, and that in the long term it may not be possible to maintain Indonesia as it exists today.

Lesley McCulloch (mcculloch_lesley2@hotmail.com) is a Research Associate at the Centre for Defence Studies, Kings College, London, and was in Banda Aceh during the congress.

Inside Indonesia 66: April-June 2001

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