On 29 March 2001 Tengku Al-Kamal, a member of the team monitoring the 'Peace through Dialogue' agreement between the Indonesian government and the Free Aceh Movement GAM, was shot dead in South Aceh. Also killed were Suprin Sulaiman, a lawyer with the Aceh NGO Coalition for Human Rights (Koalisi NGO HAM Aceh), and their driver Amiruddin. They were returning from a police station where Tengku Al-Kamal had given testimony about his alleged involvement in a defamation case launched by the police against several human rights workers. Members of the Mobile Police (Brimob) said they had been falsely accused of raping five women in South Aceh. Eyewitnesses have stated that after leaving the police station, the car in which the three were travelling was followed by a vehicle carrying members of the security forces.
Inspired by the more open political climate in 1998, Acehnese activists began to organise. However, in exposing some of the truth about the conflict in Aceh and identifying some of the perpetrators of torture, killings and 'disappearances' that had haunted Acehnese society for the past decade, they soon found themselves facing intimidation.
The South Aceh killings were not the first tragedy to hit those working to improve the humanitarian and human rights situation in Aceh. The emerging community of non-government organisations (NGOs) had been reporting growing levels of threats for more than a year. Other tragedies reported internationally included: the killing of three volunteers with Rata (Rehabilitation Action against Torture in Aceh) as well as the torture victim they were accompanying in December 2000; the torture of three Acehnese staff members of the British-based humanitarian agency Oxfam in August 2000; and the disappearance that same month of Jafar Siddiq Hamzah, the founder of the International Federation for Aceh (IFA). But these were only the tip of the iceberg. From at least February 2001 onwards, activists say, everyday threat levels have escalated so seriously that they are prevented from carrying out much of their routine work outside the provincial capital Banda Aceh. Some activists have even been forced to leave the province, fearing for their lives.
The threats affect not only these individual human rights defenders but also the communities they are trying to help. These activists bring much more than rice and plastic sheeting to the civilian population hit hardest by the violence. They bring alternatives to the violence that has become part of everyday life for too many men, women and children in the province. Their presence is a source of hope in a conflict too often portrayed only in grim statistics and military terms.
Banda Aceh is considered a calm oasis compared to the areas outside of town. Still, even here the situation has deteriorated significantly since President Wahid issued a decree in April 2001 that cleared the way for a 'limited' military operation. Between April and June the security forces carried out almost daily road checks around town. Ostensibly to check driving licenses and vehicle registration, the checks raised popular fears of a return to the bad days between 1989 and 1998 when Aceh was classified a military operations area (Daerah Operasi Militer, DOM).
During the DOM, few civil society organisations were able to operate in Aceh, and most human rights violations went unnoticed by the outside world. All this changed with 'reformasi' in 1998, when Acehnese began to speak out against human rights violations in their province. With students at the forefront, activist began working on many issues ranging from environmental rights to humanitarian relief. They criticised both sides of the armed conflict for excesses and worked towards the promotion of human rights, an end to violent conflict and the rule of law.
The political opening in Aceh proved short-lived. Since early 1999 the armed conflict has intensified and civilians have once again become its victims. Today activists say that `shock therapyhas returned. The brutal phrase was first used by the military to justify its bloody operations in 1989-92 against the separatist Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, GAM). The counter-insurgency campaign resulted in widespread human rights violations during the early years of DOM.
The pro-referendum organisation SIRA (Sentral Informasi Referendum Aceh) had its office raided in May 2001. YAB (Yayasan Anak Bangsa) followed in June. Afterwards, several heads of organisations received explicit warnings that their offices might also be targeted. On 20 July activists were taking part in a non-violent protest against militarism in Aceh at the offices of the Legal Aid Institute (Lembaga Bantuan Hukum, LBH). Security forces turned up, took a number of LBH staff to the police station for questioning, and confiscated the office computer, other office appliances, photos and legal documentation. On the same day some of those representing GAM in the peace talks with the Indonesian government that had been ongoing since May 2000 were arrested at the hotel in which the talks were taking place. This last outrageous violation of all international norms cast the possibility of future talks in doubt.
Working outside Banda Aceh is even more difficult. Humanitarian and human rights workers in villages are almost invariably viewed with suspicion. On 17 July two activists who had been carrying out investigations into human rights violations in Central Aceh were detained for two days and their research results confiscated as they were returning to Banda Aceh. Others delivering humanitarian aid to displaced people have been accused of cooperating with GAM, because of their 'free access' to villages where GAM operates. Meanwhile, GAM has consolidated its structures at the village level. There have been reports of members of GAM extorting and intimidating some NGOs, in particular those who choose not to come out in support of a referendum for Aceh.
'If a lawyer in South Aceh can be killed, anyone can be next.' This sentiment has been expressed by a number of activists in Banda Aceh. Some of them are now being questioned in connection with the same defamation case as Tengku Al-Kamal. This appears to be an attempt by the police to gather more information about the activities of NGOs in Banda Aceh.
In spite of the difficult environment in which they operate, Acehnese activists say they are determined to continue their work. At the same time, they are developing strategies to enable them to carry out this work without being harassed, detained, tortured or killed.
There are some positive signs in this respect. One is the establishment of formal and informal networks throughout the province. Women's organisations were perhaps the pioneers in this respect, establishing networks at the village level already during the DOM. Students have also been pro-active. Meanwhile, following a conference of torture victims in Aceh in November 2000, survivors formed a network headed by SPKP (Solidaritas Persaudaraan Korban Pelanggaran HAM Aceh, Association of Victims of Human Rights Abuse).
At the national level, the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) has established a branch office in Banda Aceh, as have national human rights organisations Kontras and LBH. These organisations are playing an important role in impressing the human rights situation in Aceh on the national conscience.
The number of international organisations in Aceh is relatively small compared to other Indonesian trouble spots. One initiative is the 'protective accompaniment' carried out by Peace Brigades International. By providing a physical presence, PBI aims to deter threats against Acehnese human rights defenders, thereby creating a space for them to continue to carry out their work. For example, when one activist was informed that his life was in danger because his name was on a list of high profile Acehnese sympathetic to GAM, members of PBI's team in Aceh stayed with him for forty-eight hours, until he was able to leave the province. PBI volunteers have maintained a presence outside NGO offices, and accompanied activists to meetings, the airport, the police station or their homes. This not only helps to deter threats but is also a very visible show of solidarity and support of the work done by Acehnese human rights defenders.
In spite of these initiatives, as of July 2001 the prevailing feeling is that the space in which activists in Aceh are operating is becoming smaller and smaller. Yet no sustainable solution to the armed conflict in Aceh can be reached only by the power brokers. It has to involve all levels of society. Acehnese NGOs represent many voices of civil society at the grassroots level. They are still the key to ending the violent conflict. Their security must be protected and their work should be seen not as a threat, but as a vital part of any functioning democratic society.
Signe Poulsen is a volunteer with Peace Brigades International (www.peacebrigades.org).