Published: Jul 30, 2007

An update on events in 1999

Ed Aspinall

Partly inspired by the August poll in East Timor, massive parades around Aceh from mid-October called for a referendum. On November 8 perhaps a million people, almost a quarter of Aceh's population, filled the streets of the capital Banda Aceh.

These protests were generally peaceful. But regular gunfights between military units and combatants from GAM (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, Free Aceh Movement) were accompanied by many more mysterious murders and burnings in the dead of night.

At the same time, the infrastructure of the Indonesian state was visibly crumbling. By the beginning of October, for example, 600 of the 948 village heads in the district of Pidie had resigned. From early October, GAM called for a strike by public servants. Many sub-district (kecamatan) and even a few district (kabupaten) offices in much of Aceh simply ceased to function. In some towns the courts ceased to hear cases because all the judges had fled.

In response to some scattered attacks by GAM in the late 1980s, the Indonesian armed forces had launched a vicious counter-insurgency campaign. Most intense in the first couple of years, this lasted for much of the subsequent decade. By most estimates two to five thousand were killed.

In the Indonesia-wide euphoria after President Suharto resigned in May 1998, Acehnese strove to uncover past crimes. Mass graves were exhumed, non-government organisations (NGOs) flew widows of victims to Jakarta to testify, and the press presented stories of terrible abuses.

The Habibie government had a brief window of opportunity to resolve the 'Aceh problem'. In those first months many Acehnese were genuinely optimistic that action would be taken. In August 1998, General Wiranto visited Aceh and ordered the withdrawal of 'non-organic' troops. Habibie, too, made a visit early in 1999, and promised to investigate human rights violations. But Habibie was too beholden to the military, and too pre-occupied with the power struggle at the centre, to devote serious attention to Aceh. There were no real prosecutions, and soon violence returned. 'Unknown men' burned buses, schools and other government installations. Bodies began to reappear on roadsides and attacks on military units began.

Some attacks were presumably carried out by GAM, especially those against individuals suspected of collaborating with the military. But most Acehnese were convinced that military provocateurs were responsible, aiming to create a climate of fear. There were certainly some blatant military abuses, including the 'Simpang KKA' massacre in Lhokseumawe in May 1999 and an attack on the remote Beutong Ateuh community in July, in each of which dozens were killed.

Yet Acehnese society did not return to the terrified paralysis of Suharto's final decade. In the months after Suharto's fall, a vigorous civil society movement came into being. The local press began investigating abuses, interviewing GAM leaders and sometimes accusing the military of random violence. New human rights NGOs were formed, which investigated abuses and took their campaigns to Jakarta and abroad.

s so often in Indonesia, students spearheaded the demands. In February 1999, a conference in Banda Aceh formulated the referendum demand. They formed a group called SIRA (Sentral Informasi Referendum Aceh) to spread the referendum campaign via NGO, student and religious networks throughout Aceh. Banners and graffiti appeared even in remote rural areas.

The campaign soon spread to other social sectors. Students of religious schools (who renamed themselves from the Indonesian santri to the Arabic thaliban), and even becak drivers came out in support of a referendum. The turning point occurred in September, when a highly charged conference of religious scholars (ulama), did the same. After this, the pro-referendum rallies became truly massive.

Glory days

Many Acehnese are proud of Aceh's contribution to the Indonesian independence struggle in the 1940s. But they look further back too, to the glory days of the early 17th century Sultan Iskandar Muda, when Aceh held sway over much of northern Sumatra and beyond. Though in decline, Aceh remained independently governed until the late 19th century. It ended with the bitter 35-year war of conquest by the Dutch, which remains vivid in folklore.

There is thus a widespread sense of lost greatness, but also the feeling that today's struggle continues an earlier history. GAM consciously portrays its struggle that way. Speakers at pro-referendum rallies in late 1999 recited the Hikayat perang sabil, the 'Epic of the holy war,' written during the war against the Dutch.

This sense of historical distinctiveness makes Aceh different from other restive parts of the archipelago. In Aceh there is a ready-made set of historical myths of national struggle and sacrifice. There is also high (though not absolute) ethnic homogeneity in the territory, as well as the glue of Islam. These factors contribute to a high degree of cohesion in Acehnese society. The Indonesian military has been unable to establish East Timorese style 'pro-integration' militias there.

All of this does not necessarily mean that Aceh will become independent. The central government is determined to prevent it at all costs, and there is no significant international support for self-determination.

Another problem relates to the heterogeneity of political forces in Aceh. In East Timor there was a high degree of unity of purpose within the independence movement for a decade prior to the UN-supervised ballot. But in Aceh there are at least three other important groups, in addition to the 'civil society' movement of students, NGOs and the press.

First is the local political and business elite. This has long been integrated fairly solidly into the Indonesian national elite. Through the Sukarno and Suharto periods, many Acehnese occupied leading government positions at the national level, in a way that few East Timorese or West Papuans ever did. There have been Acehnese cabinet ministers, party leaders, senior generals, and heads of major business groups.

To be sure, the local political elite has, to an extent, responded to the popular mood. The Aceh chapter of the Islamic United Development Party PPP, for example, early in 1999 endorsed the referendum demand. Some of its leaders, like legislator Ghazali Abbas Adan, have been fearless advocates for Acehnese rights.

Later in the year, even establishment figures were partly swept along by the popular enthusiasm. During the wave of mobilisation in October-November, leaders of the provincial and district parliaments, regents (bupati) and even the governor himself signed statements endorsing a referendum.

But overall, this layer still view themselves as part of a greater Indonesian national elite. None of the parties, which won significant votes in last June's election, has demonstrated that it seriously contemplates an independent Aceh. Nothing symbolises this continued elite Indonesianness so much as the appointment of Hasballah M Saad, an outspoken and respected Acehnese leader of the National Mandate Party PAN, as Minister for Human Rights in Wahid's cabinet.

Yes, this elite is presumably in a state of flux. A significant gulf certainly separates it from popular opinion. But the point remains that an influential group in Acehnese society will likely be amenable to a compromise which keeps Aceh within Indonesia.

Islam, whose leaders constitute the second important group, is obviously crucial to Acehnese identity and contributes greatly to the strength of the movement. Since the 1950s and until today, a feeling that Acehnese Islamic sensitivities were being ignored by a secular-oriented national government has partly fuelled discontent.

During the popular ferment over the last 18 months, there have been many expressions of renewed Islamic assertiveness. Ulama and thaliban have been prominent in the pro-referendum movement, and there have been widespread demands for Islamic syariah law to be applied.

There have also been new expressions of Islamic public morality. During 'jilbab raids' outside the city, bands of men have cut the hair of women not wearing the Islamic headscarf. Transsexuals, too, have suffered the same fate and been forced to wear men's clothing. Individuals caught in extra-marital sex have been publicly whipped, in accordance with syariah law. Sex-workers have been humiliated by being paraded about the streets of Banda Aceh.

Such phenomena have the potential to, if not split Acehnese society, at least highlight incipient differences in the pro-referendum ranks. They have certainly alarmed many in the more-or-less secular urban NGOs and student groups. Acehnese women's NGOs have condemned the 'jilbab raids'.

More importantly, they indicate a potential opening for the central government. In attempting to keep Aceh within the Indonesian fold, both Habibie and Abdurrahman Wahid have demonstrated great willingness to offer concessions to Islam. President Wahid has held out the possibility of a referendum, not on independence but on syariah law. He has also focused most of his attempts at negotiation on the ulama. Clearly, the aim is to split the Islamic leadership away from the students, GAM and other pro-independence forces.


GAM, the third group, represents both a strength and a weakness of the Acehnese struggle. Most observers estimate it has several hundred armed combatants in the field. It has demonstrated a capacity to damage the army and police, although mostly in ambushes involving a few gunmen.

The organisation has significant popular support, strongest in (but by no means confined to) the countryside of Pidie, and North and East Aceh, where the counter-insurgency operations of the late 1980s and early 1990s were most intense. Numerous flag-raising ceremonies culminated in large shows of strength for the GAM anniversary last December. The organisation also has the capacity to bring Aceh to a halt by ordering transport and public service strikes.

However, much mystery continues to surround GAM. It is led by Hasan di Tiro, an exile from Aceh for over four decades, who claims descent from Aceh's sultans and whose health is reportedly fragile. The organisation appears to be deeply factionalised, with incessant squabbling among the major groups in exile.

Its aims are also not always clear. Early in 1999 GAM leaders strongly rejected referendum proposals, suggesting that Aceh was 'already independent.' But after the ulama came out in favour of such a process, they moderated this position.

Uncertainty also surrounds GAM's blueprint for an independent Aceh. Some leaders have been quoted favouring the return of the sultanate (presumably with oil-rich Brunei as the model), while others have claimed to be aiming at a modern democratic state. Likewise, Hasan di Tiro has rejected negotiation with the Jakarta government. He has been repeatedly quoted suggesting that 'the Javanese' are stupid and not to be trusted. But other factions have some contact with the Wahid administration.

On the ground in Aceh the picture is even less clear. Most field commanders seem to be aligned with the Hasan di Tiro leadership. But some rural armed groups have only a loose affiliation with the organisation. Others are simply gangsters who claim GAM credentials in order to extort money from the unfortunate locals. Some seem to be military deserters, while, as noted above, most Acehnese believe that disguised military units are provoking much of the worst mayhem.

Out of this chaotic picture, it seems obvious that there can be no effective military solution to Aceh's problems, even though sections of Indonesia's armed forces still hunger for one. It was Indonesian military brutality which transformed GAM from an isolated handful in the 1970s into the serious force it has become today. Reluctance to prosecute past abuses has been similarly crucial to escalating popular discontent the last 18 months.

President Wahid faces a daunting challenge if he is to keep Aceh within the national fold. Pro-referendum sentiment has great momentum. Although the fissures in Acehnese society suggest possibilities for him, controlling the military and punishing human rights abusers must be central to any settlement.

Ed Aspinall ( teaches at the University of New South Wales, Sydney.

Inside Indonesia 62: Apr - Jun 2000