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

Not a romantic movement

Kirsten E Schulze

Since the 1999 referendum in East Timor and subsequent independence of that territory, many in the international community have shifted their focus to Aceh. However, well-founded sympathy with the plight of the Acehnese has often gone hand in hand with less well-founded support for the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, GAM). This support for the insurgent movement has often been based on a simplistic equation of Aceh with East Timor.

GAM is idealised, romanticised and hailed as the underdog. Rejection of Jakarta’s policies and loathing of the behaviour of its security forces has sometimes translated into an identification with GAM. It’s as if there is no choice but to support either Jakarta or GAM.

Aceh is not East Timor. GAM is not a romantic group of freedom fighters guided by noble principles and gallant actions. And supporting GAM is certainly not the only option if one disagrees with Jakarta, dislikes the Indonesian military, or even if one believes Aceh should be independent.

Let’s be clear: supporting GAM means supporting or at least condoning GAM’s actions. These actions include the kidnapping and killing of civilians and the burning of schools, local government offices and health centres, as well as a campaign of ethnic cleansing waged against Javanese migrants.

Not East Timor

There are significant reasons why the case of Aceh should not be seen in the same light as the struggle for East Timorese independence. East Timor was taken by force in 1975, some 30 years after the establishment of the Republic of Indonesia. It was first invaded, then incorporated and kept under control by more force. Few states recognised East Timor as a legitimate part of Indonesia.

Aceh, in comparison, was at the forefront of Indonesia’s struggle for independence from the Dutch in 1945-49. Aceh was an integral part of the new Indonesian Republic from the start, willingly and enthusiastically.

It was only later that Aceh became disillusioned, giving rise first to the Darul Islam (Abode of Islam) rebellion in 1953 and then the GAM insurgency in 1976. The histories and legal statuses of Aceh and East Timor are fundamentally different, as are the causes of conflict. To equate them is not just ahistorical, it is simply wrong.

National liberation movements are often seen in highly idealistic and romantic terms, particularly in societies where politics has become mundane and uninspiring. In the case of Aceh, such views fly in the face of reality. GAM’s ideology is parochial, intolerant and ethnically exclusive. Its actions are undemocratic, discriminatory, and in violation of international humanitarian law.

Most notably, GAM has not respected the rights of non-combatants. During the period of martial law in 2003-2004 GAM was responsible for some 300 kidnappings. The hostages were not members of the Indonesian security forces but civilians — civil servants, teachers, businessmen, journalists, and wives of security forces members.

During this period GAM also confiscated Acehnese identity cards to provide its own members with freedom of movement while placing the Acehnese who ‘lost’ those cards at risk. GAM hid among the population, turning them willingly or unwillingly into humaý shields. GAM uses children to run errands or as spies. And GAM has resorted to indiscriminate bombings within Aceh such as the 17 August 2002 Indonesian Independence Day bombings in which several school children were seriously wounded. All these actions constitute human rights violations.

One of the saddest aspects of GAM’s insurgency has been the movement’s attacks on the education system. In an effort to loosen Indonesia’s grip over Aceh, GAM has attacked the state’s infrastructure — local government offices, health centres, and schools. In May 2003 alone some 600 schools were torched. Not only is targeting civilian buildings against international law, GAM’s actions are effectively targeting children.

The burning of schools and the intimidation and shooting of teachers, often in front of the eyes of their pupils, has set back education in Aceh by at least a generation. It has traumatised children and teachers alike.

Javanese victims

One reprehensible aspect of GAM is its treatment of Javanese migrants in Aceh. Javanese have been migrating to Aceh since the colonial period when they worked on Dutch coffee plantations in the Gayo mountains. More Javanese came with the discovery of the Arun natural gas field and industrialisation in the 1970s. Others were part of Suharto’s official transmigration program. They were families searching for a piece of land on which to create a better life for their children.

Since 1999, GAM has terrorised some 120,000 Javanese — men, women and children — into leaving Aceh. They have been threatened, robbed, and in many cases literally burnt out of their homes.

GAM justifies its actions by stating that these Javanese are neo-colonial settlers who have taken land from the Acehnese, that they are potential army collaborators, and that they receive preferential treatment from the Indonesian authorities.

Yet GAM makes no effort to differentiate between Suharto-era transmigrants who received land and fifth generation migrants who have long intermarried with the local population. Neither has GAM differentiated between Javanese who have joined self-defence militias — and thus qualify as combatants — and those who haven’t. Under the surface of GAM’s anti-colonial ideology lies ethnic hatred. GAM’s actions against the Javanese are no less than ethnic cleansing to ‘purify’ Aceh.

Ethnic exclusivity, however, is not the only form of intolerance practised by GAM. The organisation has intimidated civil society organisations that disagree either with its ideology or its methods, as well as journalists whom it accuses of being biased in their reporting. GAM has threatened and killed politicians who supported Jakarta or promoted autonomy and teachers who taught the wrong kind of history, namely that Aceh is an integral part of Indonesia.

Internal dissent has been dealt with equally brutally. After GAM leader Hasan di Tiro fell ill, factionalism within the exiled GAM leadership came into the open. In 2000, the secretary-general of a GAM splinter group was killed. In 2001 GAM brutally put down a combined popular uprising and internal challenge in South Aceh. According to witnesses whom I have interviewed, GAM imprisoned its opponents in cages and tortured them. One man is said to have been dismembered by a chain saw while others were forced to watch. Several mass graves still hold the remains of GAM’s victims in the area of Manggamat.

GAM claims it wants to establish a democracy in a future independent Aceh. Their behaviour on the ground, however, places these claims in a dubious light. So does GAM’s history and its leadership. Until recently GAM was openly feudalistic, aiming to reinstate the sultanate of Aceh. Only in 2002 was this aim changed. Yet GAM remains fundamentally undemocratic.

Its core leadership in exile is self-appointed and has not changed since 1976. Its military commanders in Aceh are selected by the same leaders in exile. Major decisions, too, are made from abroad with no popular input from, or accountability to, the average Acehnese. Women, who in Aceh outnumber men and are often held up as heroines, are completely absent from leadership positions. There are no internal elections like those conducted by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation when it was in exile.

GAM claims it represents the people of Aceh but has yet to prove this claim. It would be wrong to translate popular disappointment with Jakarta in Aceh into support for GAM. Even Acehnese who support independence don’t necessarily support GAM. What the people of Aceh want above everything is an end to violence, including that perpetrated by GAM.

Simplistic equations

Disliking Jakarta’s policies in Aceh or the behaviour of the Indonesian security forces does not mean one has to support GAM. Similarly, believing that Aceh should be independent does not mean one has to support GAM.

For members of the international community, who are not themselves trapped in the violence in Aceh, there are other options. Not exercising those options only reinforces the conflict’s zero-sum dynamic. It also closes off the possibility of helping to open a moderate middle ground, based in civil society. Opening up a middle ground, however, means also criticising GAM and putting pressure on it to change its treatment of non-combatants.

It is often argued that it is the Indonesian security forces who commit most human rights abuses in Aceh and that it is here that international pressure should therefore focus. Surely this is not a question of numbers but of principle? It shouldn’t matter who the perpetrator is. A Javanese family burnt out of their home is no less traumatised than an Acehnese one. A wife whose husband was killed by GAM suffers no less than a wife whose husband was killed by the Indonesian security forces.

National liberation movements and militaries alike should be subject to the same rules of engagement and the same humanitarian laws. It cannot be the case that the killing of civilians by the military is condemned as a human rights abuse while the killing of civilians by a national liberation movement is condoned as a necessary evil.

Turning a blind eye to GAM abuses does not help the people of Aceh. The idea of ‘deferring’ criticism of GAM until after Acehnese independence is equally misguided. Undemocratic liberation movements seldom produce democratic states.

Kirsten E Schulze (K.E.Schulze@lse.ac.uk) is senior lecturer in International History at the London School of Economics. She is the author of Che Free Aceh Movement (GAM): Anatomy of a Separatist Organization (http://www.eastwestcenter.org/stored/pdfs/PS002.pdf).

Inside Indonesia 81: Jan-Mar 2005

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