The dawn awoke on the side of the mountain with the calls of birds and monkeys in the upper canopy. The 'boys' rose slowly, slung their weapons and wandered down to the stream to wash. We later organised and trekked down along the overgrown track, across gullies, over fences and across a river, coming up to a dirt road along which walked a dozen or so school girls in neat uniforms. The girls seemed familiar with this gang of longhaired guerrillas carrying automatic weapons.
This was in the hills beyond Lhokseumawe, a strongly pro-independence area. I was there as a guest of the independence movement, to get their side of the story. The night had passed safely; the paramilitary police Mobile Brigade patrol had not found us.
In Aceh, on the northwestern tip of Indonesia, some 10,000 Indonesian soldiers and around 20,000 paramilitary police had instilled in the people fear, anger and an overwhelming desire for a referendum on self-determination.
I was struck by the similarities to East Timor ahead of its own referendum in 1999. Here too, the TNI and Brimob looked like an invading army, killing civilians and feebly trying to blame the separatists, burning homes and schools and using rape as a weapon.
Also similar to East Timor, desire for independence was very strong across a range of groups and organisations. According to pro-independence leaders there was an historical claim to separation(partially recognised in Aceh's 'special region' status) and a long history of rebellion against outsiders, starting in 1873 and only pausing in 1949 and then between 1963 and 1976. The movement started in 1976 is popularly known as the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka - GAM), but prefers to be called the Aceh Sumatra National Liberation Front (ASNLF).
The TNI and Brimob were obvious in Banda Aceh and the major industrial city of Lhokseumawe, but it was the highway from Banda Aceh to near the North Sumatra border that showed their real presence. Brimob, the Siliwangi Division, Marines, and territorial troops ran numerous posts and roadblocks. South of Lhokseumawe these occurred every several hundred metres for dozens of kilometres. Burned homes were littered in between. Yet just a short distance from the highway one was immediately in ASNLF held territory.
Observers close to the TNI estimate the ASNLF's military force at 3-5,000 full-time members plus a large and active support base. What I saw was consistent with those figures - the support base is itself armed and could number around 10,000. Like any guerrilla force, the ASNLF relies on popular support. Moving from point to point near the important industrial city of Lhokseumawe, I met no one who was not as one with ASNLF. A local ASNLF leader in the region said that the ASNLF was not separate from the people. It could not otherwise function, he said.
In a violent environment few would challenge those with guns, and the becak driver who drove me out of town was visibly scared when he unexpectedly found himself among a number of ASNLF. The ASNLF has a deserved reputation for killing people it identifies as its enemies. But cooperation otherwise seemed happy and voluntary, unlike the obliged voluntarism I have seen accompanying the TNI.
The Indonesian government has portrayed ASNLF as a fanatical Islamic organisation. Two senior TNI generals made this claim to me again just days before I met with ASNLF representatives. While ASNLF and its supporters could be identified by their devout Islam, another cultural marker that sets them apart from others in the archipelago is the Acehnese language.
Language, religion, territory and a common history, especially in adversity, are the classical markers of 'nation'. There is no doubt that Aceh has these, separate from the rest of Indonesia. Similar markers could also be applied to other 'national' groups in Indonesia. One ASNLF official laughingly referred to not just Bangsa Aceh (Aceh Nation), but Bangsa Minang, Bangsa Sunda and Bangsa Bali. He acknowledged, however, that not all potential 'bangsa' might wish to have that status.
Aceh has a devout and usually tolerant form of Islam. The ethnic Chinese and Christian Bataks have lived in peace with their Islamic neighbours since the 1980s. Having said that, there is little tolerance for Javanese transmigrants, who have been attacked by the ASNLF. The ASNLF claims that it has only attacked Javanese militias, although the question of who is a combatant has become blurred in Aceh.
One ASNLF official I spoke to in Banda Aceh was keen to state that his organisation did not want to impose itself on the people of Aceh. What it wanted, he said, was a popular referendum to determine whether or not Aceh should remain as a part of Indonesia. 'Referendum' was graffitied around Banda Aceh and Lhokseumawe. The Acehnese organisations I contacted were unanimous in wanting a referendum. This popular move for a referendum reflects the squeezing of the middle ground during the escalation since 1999. Indeed, the ASNLF itself has only accepted the legitimacy of a referendum since 1999. The East Timor ballot was a critical lead.
The ASNLF official stressed that Aceh had historical and religious links with other Islamic communities, but was not funded by them. He was at pains to point out that ASNLF was horrified by the terrorist attack in the US on 11 September 2001, allegedly conducted by Islamic extremists. The ASNLF, he said, looked to the rest of the international community for support, including the United Kingdom and the United States, with which Aceh once had diplomatic relations.
The ASNLF official did acknowledge that their guerrillas had received training in Lybia until 1999, much later than usually thought. But the link was no longer necessary as the ASNLF had its own training bases, and Lybia's standing could adversely affect how the ASNLF was internationally perceived. The ASNLF receives some support from sympathisers and Acehnese refugees abroad, especially in Malaysia, but its financial component is negligible compared to its internal capacity to raise income.
The ASNLF raises 'taxes'. The Indonesian government and some NGOs call this extortion, in some cases extracted with threats of violence. The ASNLF justifies it on the grounds that as a legitimate government it needs to levy taxes. The TNI and Brimob also demand payments for 'protection', although as institutions of a government that already levies taxes this extra-financial activity cannot claim the legitimacy of 'tax'.
All local businesses pay a tax to ASNLF, as a percentage of profits, according to the ASNLF up to and including the giant Exxon-owned and operated Arun liquid natural gas plant at Lhokseumawe. The ASNLF is well funded and consequently well equipped.
The ASNLF's high level of organisation also presented itself in other ways. In meeting a regional ASNLF commander, the network of drop-offs, pick-ups and exchanges was extraordinary, complicated and perfectly timed. Everyone along the route knew what was going on, and many had cellular two-way radios.
I was finally deposited in a small and remote village and told to wait on a pavilion under a palm-thatched roof. I had only just begun to get my small pack off when, through a bamboo gate, came a young man wearing a baseball cap and a clean white T-shirt over which was black military webbing containing clips of ammunition. In his belt was a pistol and in his left hand an AK-47 assault rifle. He held out his right hand to me and said: 'Hello, I am Jamaica,' indicating his code-name. Out of the undergrowth came around twenty young men similarly dressed, carrying AK-47s and M-16s.
Jamaica wanted Hasan di Tiro to return as Aceh's sultan, but in a political system that included elected parties. We discussed the UK's constitutional monarchy, and that of Thailand, which he thought were suitable models. Others I spoke to said they wanted an elected US-style executive president and separate legislature, although with Islamic ethics, and within a local federalist system.
The idea of a referendum on self-determination logically led to a vote for representative government, and what policies should be followed. Jamaica, the local guerrilla leader, did not want to see one repressive system replaced by another. Again, there were similarities to East Timor.
I was introduced to 'Grandfather', who was in his 70s. Grandfather had been fighting since the early 1950s as, he said, had his father before him. Grandfather was still enthusiastic. He later led Jamaica, myself and a group of the 'boys' into the jungle to hide overnight from a Brimob patrol.
I later met other old men, drinking sweet tea in the half-light of the open shop front by the intersection of a small town. The town was mostly deserted. Some of the boys sat drinking black coffee and tea with ice, their radios crackling with intermittent traffic, exchanging banter with the old men. With guards posted at intervals and bombs set on three of the four roads in and out it was as safe as anywhere in Aceh. The army and Brimob had come here, but had each time been beaten back, which was why none of the buildings here were burnt.
A ten-year-old boy stood around, self-consciously part of this group of hardened men. His father had been shot dead by Brimob a few days previously. This boy was already the next generation of the struggle, waiting his turn. One might hope the people of Aceh have the opportunity to vote on their future in an internationally supervised referendum before this boy also has to pick up a gun.
Dr Damien Kingsbury (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Senior Lecturer in International Development at Deakin University, Geelong, Australia. His most recent book is the second edition of 'The politics of Indonesia' (Oxford).