Published: Sep 11, 2007

An Australian team finds no euphoria

Vanessa Johanson

The streets of Aceh's capital Banda Aceh seemed quiet as I strolled outside the grand white mosque at dusk on Sunday 6 June 1999. We had tried to do our duty that afternoon as official election observers, roaming town looking for polling booths. But we had only managed find one - in the same suburb as the office of the provincial election committee (PPD1). Other booths, its reticent staff told us, would be set up at the last minute for security reasons. As I stood admiring the mosque, a young man on a motorbike pulled up at the curb.

'You journalist,' he exclaimed in English. 'Tomorrow is going to be a big war in Aceh!' Bemused, I managed a half-smile at this alarmist cry. But he was in earnest, as if he'd been given a job to do and was determined to do it. 'You stay in hotel! Tomorrow is going to be war!' He sped away.

At the same moment, only a few hours drive from the capital, similar rumours were burning through the villages. Thousands of people were leaving their more isolated homes and heading for larger towns where they felt safer. The exodus continued early into the morning of election day, June 7, and by that afternoon was estimated to have reached 50,000 people near the border of Pidie and North Aceh regencies alone.

There appeared to be some to be evidence of impending conflict. The Indonesian military, determined to ensure that the elections were carried out, moved through the villages in tanks and trucks. This was a bad omen for ordinary people. In the months before, there had been several mass shootings by the military; dozens of 'mysterious shootings' of individual civilians and police; and a pattern of arson attacks targeting schools, government offices, inter-city buses, military vehicles, private vehicles, polling booths, ballot boxes, and private houses. Worst hit were the 'vulnerable' regions of Pidie, North and East Aceh, considered strongholds of the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, GAM).

The military's task was not easy, as proportionally less voters had registered to vote in Aceh than in any of Indonesia's 27 provinces, apparently due to a combination of fear, intimidation and fraud during the registration process, cynicism about the value of participating, and outright boycott of the process. Community reluctance sprang in part from disappointment in broken promises by Habibie and Wiranto to rectify the human rights situation. Voter boycott was fuelled by groups opposing Indonesia.

Aceh has never easily tolerated outside domination. Within living memory, Aceh has fought hard for Indonesian independence from the Dutch, and then for Acehnese independence from Indonesia. Many think incorporating what was the Sultanate of Aceh into Indonesia after independence was a mistake. After a period of conflict with the Indonesian army in the 1950s, Aceh received only minimal recognition for the special role it had played in the struggle for Indonesian independence, and for what it regards as its cultural uniqueness. This year 1999 marks the fortieth anniversary of the law which declares Aceh a 'special district' (daerah istimewa) with broad autonomy in religious, educational and customary matters.

In administrative matters Aceh is treated like other Indonesian provinces, including the proportion of local wealth it gets to keep. Through oil and agricultural exports, Aceh contributes 11% of foreign capital to Indonesian coffers, but only 4.6% of that remains in the province. These historical differences and modern inequities have kept alive the small armed Free Aceh Movement, which in turn provided the justification Indonesia's government gave for sending in the troops in 1989 to tackle the 'guerillas.' This military occupation area status (Daerah Operasi Militer, DOM) lasted almost ten years. It resulted in thousands of dead, disappeared, raped and tortured.

'Unknown men'

It was thus not altogether unbelievable that the election day climate of fear should have been created by the very troops sent in to secure it. Provocateurs and 'unknown men', who are said to abduct and shoot people and burn property, raising the GAM flag behind them, add to the fear and give the military justification for a heavier presence. Our interviews with local non-government organisations, media, political parties (including Golkar), police, and GAM representatives revealed a common view: these 'unknown men' were not - as claimed by the army - GAM, but in fact un-uniformed or decommissioned troops, including 200-300 Kopassus personnel.

Our sources proffered a number of reasons why 'provocateurs' would want to sabotage the elections, but could not explain their chain of command, nor their relationship with the regular military. Why would uniformed military want to secure the election while un-uniformed 'provocateurs' were simultaneously tasked with disrupting it? Is this an attempt to stimulate conflict in order to justify a continued military presence in Aceh so as to clamp down on 'separatists' and protect the plethora of military business interests including timber and marijuana?

Some claimed such an intention does indeed exist, and that other motives include these: to prevent progressive and possibly pro-independence candidates from the parties PPP and PAN from winning seats; to prevent a stable situation in which those guilty of human rights abuse could be prosecuted; and to eliminate witnesses to abuse during the DOM period.

However, much has changed in Aceh. Human rights problems here came to national - and to some extent international - attention in the middle of 1998, shortly after President Suharto stepped aside. Journalists flooded in, as did NGOs, human rights organisations and representatives of the National Human Rights Commission (Komnasham). Mass graves were exhumed, and survivors were interviewed. The new openness regarding these abuses - and eyewitness reports that they had largely been perpetrated by Indonesian soldiers - was accompanied by diplomatic protest and student demonstrations. All of this led Defence Minister Wiranto to 'unconditionally withdraw' the decade-long military operation (DOM) in the province on 7 August 1998, and to apologise for the DOM policy and military brutality.

Local NGOs which had previously been gagged began more thoroughly to investigate human rights violations of the previous decade.

At the same time, Aceh's intellectuals, NGOs and party activists continued to discuss ways in which Aceh could recover from the past, as well as ways of changing its relationship with Jakarta. Suggestions included forming independent commissions to hear human rights cases and prosecute those responsible, and inviting international human rights investigators into Aceh.

When President Habibie visited Aceh on 26 March 1999 he signed several commitments, among them to help rebury the dead and bring greater economic equity to Aceh including building new port and rail facilities. The Indonesian government plans to open a branch of the National Human Rights Commission in Aceh this month. New laws on regional government and financial equity between the centre and the regions are being designed.

However, as of March 1999 only five soldiers had been prosecuted for killing civilians during the DOM period. Prosecutions were based on investigations by the military police, and trials were held in military courts which are not considered impartial. And the abuses go on.

According to police, those killed in political violence in May and June 1999 in Aceh include: 69 civilians; 29 army and police personnel; 8 members of GAM. On 2 July Wiranto blamed the killings and burnings on GAM, and declared that their activity had reached the level of an 'insurgency'. His proposed solution is to establish a new military command in Banda Aceh.


A new government under Megawati's PDI-P looks unlikely at this point to be willing to reign in the military or to allow any more loosening of the centralist government leash. However, Amien Rais' party PAN which won less than 8% of seats nation-wide has shown much concern for Aceh and is prepared to discuss a federal government model. The winner in Aceh is the Islamic party PPP. It also has members willing to offer a more decentralised approach, and certainly to address the human rights problems there. But if it forms a coalition at the national level with Golkar, it is less likely that Acehnese aspirations will be championed.

Early on the morning of June 7 our two carloads of local and Australian election monitors and a German journalist seemed to be the only vehicles plying the road from Banda Aceh into Pidie regency. Both police and GAM had stated there should be no buses on that day, and nobody else seemed willing to risk their vehicle on the road. Dawn vistas across deep green mountains, and even sightings of wild elephants and monkeys, did little to cheer us.

In Pidie, however, we found no war. In fact Pidie's usually bustling little capital Sigli was shut down. At 9 o'clock in the morning political party representatives had hastily erected a few booths - the required non-partisan volunteer committees having fled or never been formed. The few dozen voters were panicky and anxious to get it over with.

We found out later that in Pidie only 13 booths had opened out of an intended 858. Similarly small numbers had opened in North and East Aceh. Half of Aceh's four million citizens had no opportunity to cast their ballot.

There was no feeling, as there was in many parts of Indonesia, of euphoria, or that this was really 'the people's election'. But there was also no real evidence that GAM and the military intended a violent showdown to settle things in Aceh, as had been rumoured. The rumours all seemed like a very dirty game played with the people of Aceh. Several days later a member of PPD1 in Banda Aceh said that he thought things would calm down now that 'they have achieved what they wanted' to disrupt the elections. One of the hardest tasks for the new government will be to deal with whoever 'they' are, not only in Aceh but also in East Timor, Kalimantan, Ambon, and the dozens of other areas across the archipelago where 'provocateurs' and 'unknown men' roam free.

Vanessa Johanson ( works in the Human Rights Office, in Melbourne, of the Australian Council for Overseas Aid.

Inside Indonesia 60: Oct-Dec 1999