May 30, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Elusive truth

Published: Jul 25, 2007

Michelle Ann Miller

In Aceh, like most conflict areas, the truth is hard to find. The main arena for airing political grievances is the battlefield. In the propaganda war for Acehnese hearts and minds, the Indonesian military (TNI) and Free Aceh Movement (GAM) repeatedly blame each other for human rights violations against the civilian population, attacks on state facilities and other crimes.

Both sides often wildly distort numbers of civilian victims, participation levels in demonstrations, and GAM and TNI troop levels, to name just a few. The two most basic challenges for outsiders are finding out who is responsible for the violence, and its extent.

Since martial law began in May 2003, the TNI has monopolised ‘the truth’ in the province through strict censorship of the mass media, forced closure of local NGOs and a ban on international observers. Aceh’s regional military commander, Major General Endang Suwarya, says that ‘limited’ coverage of the conflict helps to promote the ‘spirit of Indonesian nationalism.’ The military’s media campaign emphasises defence of territorial sovereignty against ‘terrorists’, community development projects and ‘humanitarian’ treatment of GAM prisoners.

GAM, however, claims that the TNI has never told the truth. They say the military’s ‘foreign occupation’ of Aceh has resulted in ‘extermination’ of the Acehnese people, which the TNI conceals by controlling information. GAM also denies TNI accusations that it is responsible for burning down hundreds of schools. GAM blames this on the Indonesian military and its militia proxies.

It is difficult to ascertain ‘the truth’ about developments in Aceh when Acehnese society is being held politically captive by the two warring parties. Urban areas, where about 25 per cent of population live, have been subject to military control for well over a year. The pro-referendum movement, humanitarian NGOs and liberated press that briefly flourished after the fall of Suharto have largely disappeared, along with their leaders. In rural Aceh, where the worst human rights violations occur, GAM support has traditionally been strong. For those not on the ground, it’s hard to know what is happening in the countryside amidst the fighting between GAM and security forces.

It is especially hard for outsiders to cut through the ambiguities that arise in a climate of fear. Voicing opinions that go against one of the two sides can lead to violent reprisals. It’s not surprising that many Acehnese people distrust the ‘real’ intentions of outsiders. They often don’t know whether outsiders whom they take into their confidence will betray them or if their information will fall into the wrong hands. They’ll judge what they tell you on the basis of what they know about you, or who brought you to their district. Fearful conditions don’t encourage honest conversations, and in Aceh, where the stakes are so high, trust is given sparingly and words are weighed carefully.

Outsiders are often targets of the propaganda war and need to be cautious about information they receive. The TNI claims its security operations are only against GAM. Yet in Aceh’s countryside one encounters countless stories about military atrocities against civilians. Often, the stories are supported by physical evidence, like widows’ villages and incinerated market places.

GAM’s leaders in Sweden have only ever claimed responsibility for attacks on security forces. But a local GAM commander in Aceh Besar district told the author in December 2000 that he had ‘cleaned’ entire streets of non-Acehnese transmigrants. The same GAM commander, a gracious and talkative host despite a dose of malaria, also said that the house that he occupied had previously been inhabited by ‘traitors’ who had fled to Jakarta. It later turned out, however, that the house was the former family home of an Acehnese friend whose father, not a GAM member, had been assassinated by his GAM relatives after he refused to give them money.

There is no doubt that the TNI has been responsible for most of the suffering of the Acehnese people. Military abuses have created fertile conditions for the regeneration of GAM. Yet, when ordinary Acehnese say they are more afraid of TNI than GAM, this does not necessarily mean that GAM’s struggle has been waged humanely. From this outsider’s perspective, fear continues to overshadow ‘the truth’ in Aceh.

Michelle Ann Miller ( is writing a PhD on the Aceh conflict at Charles Darwin University

Inside Indonesia 81: Jan-Mar 2005

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