Home > South-East Asia >> Indonesia

Aceh backgrounder

Jakarta November 3, 2005

[The following Aceh backgrounder was prepared by the Australian solidarity organisation Asia Pacific Solidarity Network (APSN) to provide an background to the three-decade conflict in Aceh and on recent developments in the peace process following the December 26 2004 tsunami and earthquake.]

Repression and resistance

Aceh has a long and proud history of struggle. Resource rich and devoutly Muslim, it is located 1700 kilometres northwest of Jakarta at the northern end of the Malacca Straits. Aceh's 4.1 million inhabitants, descendants of Arabic and Indian migrants and indigenous people, stubbornly resisted Dutch colonisation in the 19th century long after the rest of the archipelago.

Aceh also played a significant role in Indonesia's independence struggle after World War II. Local merchants raised cash to buy the Indonesian military's first airplane, which was used to airlift vital supplies past the Dutch, who were trying to reoccupy the province.

The Dutch were finally ousted in 1949, but within a few years Aceh began to rebel against Jakarta under the banner of Darul Islam, which sought to form an Islamic state. In 1957, Aceh became a separate province and in 1959, when the rebellion was finally crushed, it was given a special status allowing it autonomy in religion, customary law and education.

This left Aceh relatively isolated until 1965, when then General Suharto seized power in a bloody counter revolution which resulted in the deaths of at least 1 million members of the Indonesian Communist Party and its sympathisers and the internment without trial of hundreds of thousands of others. Under Suharto's New Order, Aceh's natural resources -- particularly the oil and natural gas -- were massively exploited, virtually all the profits going to Jakarta.

Aceh contributes some 11% of the national budget but receives less than 2% in return. Most of the jobs go to "skilled" migrant workers from Java, resulting in glaring social and cultural inequities between the migrant employees of the big industries and local people. By the late 1980s, 40% of Acehnese villages were officially "poor".

Free Aceh Movement

As centralised control of the archipelago increased in the 1970s, Aceh's special status became meaningless.

In 1976, the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), led by Hasan di Tiro (now exiled), proclaimed independence and initiated an armed struggle. The struggle was quelled after several years, but re-emerged in 1989, this time with more popular support and better-trained and equipped forces.

The Indonesian military (then known as ABRI but now called the TNI) quickly found itself on the defensive, many army and police posts being overrun and parts of the province under GAM control. By mid-1991, the North Sumatra military commander, Major General Pramono, conceded that the guerillas "had a concept, had guns and, on the ground, had the masses".

In June 1990, troops from Indonesia's elite special force, Kopassus, were called in. They forced locals to participate in "fence of legs" operations (similar to those used in East Timor) to flush out guerillas.

In a November 17 interview with Indonesia's Tempo magazine, Pramono admitted that people were being killed every day in Aceh. He urged locals, "If you see a GPK ["security disturbance gangs", Jakarta's term for GAM], you should kill him. There's no need to investigate, just shoot him or knife him."

That year, Aceh was declared a "military operational region" (DOM), which gave the military almost unlimited powers to conduct house-to- house searches, roadblocks, ID checks and body searches.

In its 1992 report, the US-based Human Rights Watch/Asia said: "As many as 1000 may have died since mid-1989 in a combination of separatist guerrilla attacks and army reprisals, disappearances remain unresolved, suspected guerrillas continue to be shot on the spot rather than taken into custody, large numbers of people are believed to remain in unacknowledged detention and trials which violate international norms of fairness continued to take place".

Other sources have put Acehnese deaths at more than 2000. Hundreds have been jailed for being alleged members of GAM, and thousands more have been forced to flee to Malaysia.

According to a dossier sent by GAM to the British human rights group Tapol, there were numerous horrific human rights abuses during this period. For example, at the notorious Rancong detention centre in Lhokseumawe, 300 kilometres east of the provincial capital Banda Aceh, 56 Acehnese were stripped and shot dead; their bodies were thrown down a ravine where they were found by villagers three days later.

The dossier described prisoners being held in barbed wire cells with their hands tied behind their backs. One form of torture was to unleash dogs on the prisoners.

Despite many such reports, Jakarta refused to allow international human rights organisations into the region. Even the International Red Cross was denied access.

Corporate links

Multinational corporations, such as Mobil Oil, which has been operating in Aceh since the 1970s, have also been implicated in human rights abuses. The complicity revolves around the cozy relations between these companies and their protectors in the military.

Soon after the setting up of two military posts, one near one of Mobil's operations (Post 13), the other near the PT Arun plant (Camp Rancong), witnesses say that evidence of the military's gruesome handiwork was strewn everywhere.

According to a media statement issued by NGOs on October 10, 1998, the facilities for Post 13, provided by Mobil Oil, were used for interrogating local people. The statement added that the company's excavators were used to dig mass graves in the Sentang and Tengkorak hills, and that its roads were used to bring victims to the mass graves.

Some 12 mass graves were identified. One is on land owned by Indonesian oil company Pertamina less than four kilometres from a Mobil gas-drilling site. Other suspected graves close to Mobil operations, such as at Rancong, have not yet been investigated.

Pertamina's public relations general manager, A. Sidick Nitikusuma, said, "Incidents connected to human rights violations were beyond Pertamina and Mobil Oil's authority and knowledge". Mobil's chief executive officer, L.A. Noto, told the Jakarta Post in November 1998 that the corporation should not share the blame for abuses.

But locals interviewed by Business Week argued that the military operation was too big and the talk of killings too widespread for the company not to know. "There wasn't a single person in Aceh who didn't know that massacres were taking place", said H. Sayed Mudhahar, a former public relations manager for PT Arun.

Fall of Suharto

Following the overthrow of Suharto on May 21, 1998, and the increased political and press freedoms that followed, the scale of the atrocities in Aceh began to be unearthed -- literally. For the first time, Indonesians outside Aceh began to learn the truth.

Hundreds of people came forward to testify. The July 28 issue of Waspada quoted Maimun Fidar from the Aceh non-government organisation Forum as saying that an estimated 39,000 people had disappeared since 1989. Fidar said Forum had identified nine mass graves containing between 30 and 300 bodies each. He said that most of the disappearances occurred in 1991 and 1992.

A member of a parliamentary fact-finding team which visited Aceh on July 28 was quoted in the newspaper Suara Karya as saying that they had seen thousands of skeletons in mass graves and suspected that more than 5000 people were missing.

By August 1998, the Indonesian National Human Rights Commission (Komnas HAM) had gathered evidence of the murder of 781 people by the military, 163 disappearances, 368 cases of torture and at least 3000 women widowed. The number of children orphaned as a direct result of military activity has been estimated at 15,000 to 20,000.

On July 29, the Straits Times reported that Abdurrahman Yakub, an executive at the Aceh Legal Aid Foundation, who told the parliamentary team that 625 women had been raped and tortured in 1990-98, many by military personnel.

A woman named Khatijah told the team that in February 1998 she was detained, beaten, tortured, stripped naked and subjected to other atrocities for 15 days. In April that year she was again arrested after troops came to her house looking for weapons. Although none were found, she was not released until June.

Empty gestures

Desperate to salvage its reputation in the wake of these revelations, on August 8, 1998, Indonesia's armed forces chief, General Wiranto, made a hurried visit to Aceh to apologise publicly for "past" military violations.

Wiranto announced that DOM would be lifted and that all "non-organic" (mostly Kopassus) troops would be withdrawn within a month. Several reports later suggested that, although some troops were withdrawn, they were quickly replaced and, if anything, the total number actually increased.

Despite Wiranto's apology, military violence continued through 1999. On January 3, as many as 17 people were killed, 23 were seriously injured and 123 were arrested when troops fired on "separatists" after a crowd attacked a government building in Kandang, near the industrial centre of Lhokseumawe.

On January 5, troops opened fire to disperse a crowd during a raid on the house of the alleged leader of GAM, Ahmad Kandang. On January 9, troops raided a village near Lhokseumawe suspected of harbouring Kandang and arrested 40 residents. Later in the day, 50 soldiers forced their way into the detention centre where the arrestees were being held. According to witnesses, up to 100 soldiers tortured the detainees. Five detainees died and 19 were hospitalised.

On February 4, scores were killed and wounded in an apparently unprovoked military attack on a peaceful crowd. According to a preliminary report by the chairperson of the Iskandar Muda Legal Aid Institute, Mohd Yacob Hamzah, 53 Acehnese were killed, 97 are missing and 150 were wounded. The attack occurred after a GAM meeting of several thousand people in the village of Matang Ulim, Idi Cut, in the Nurussalam subdistrict of eastern Aceh.

In March 1999, Suharto's protege, President B.J. Habibie, ordered the release of 40 Acehnese political prisoners just ahead of a much-publicised visit to the province. At the Baituraham mosque in Banda Aceh, Habibie delivered "an apology for what has been done by the security forces, by accident or deliberately, to all the people of Aceh".

As he spoke, thousands of protesters pushed against a security cordon 50 metres from the mosque. "Through a referendum our problem will be solved", one banner declared. As Habibie called for the people to "let parliament decide" on a referendum, police fired warning shots in the air and tear gas into the crowd. One hundred and eleven people were injured.

Renewed calls for independence

In the biggest demonstration of the Acehnese people's support for independence, on November 8, 1999 (according to estimates by all of Indonesia's major newspapers), some 2 million people (almost half the population) took to the streets of Banda Aceh calling for a referendum on whether Aceh should remain part of Indonesia or succeed.

Hundreds of thousands of people filled the massive grounds of the Masjid Raya (great mosque), the surrounding area and the adjoining streets to hear mostly student speakers who demanded a referendum and independence. Hundreds of thousands more flooded the streets with convoys of trucks, vans and motorbikes carrying banners and wearing headbands, most with only one word -- "Referendum" -- others with the symbol of GAM.

The action was organised by a coalition of the umbrella front Aceh Referendum Information Centre (SIRA) led by Muhammad Nazar, Student Solidarity with the People (SMUR) and other student and traditional Islamic student (Taliban) groups. Mainly regular student and Taliban activists did the building at the grassroots. The bulk of those attending were peasant farmers or other ordinary Acehnese.

'Peace accord'

Following a rejection of Habibie's accountability speech and in the face of massive public sentiment for him to be replaced, on October 20, 1999, the Indonesian legislator "elected" moderate Muslim scholar Abdurrahman Wahid (popularly known as Gus Dur) as Indonesia's forth president. Presidential hopeful Megawati Sukarnoputri, who's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle had won the largest number of seats in the parliament in the previous general election, was chosen as vice-president.

The election of Gus Dur signaled renewed efforts to resolve the Aceh question peacefully. On November 4, following a series of large demonstrations in Aceh calling for a referendum (one of which ended with troops opening fire and injuring 19 people), Wahid told a press conference in Jakarta that Aceh had the right to an East Timor style referendum but that his government would not be pushed into a vote. He added however that he himself did not believe the Acehnese wanted to quit Indonesia and that they could be satisfied if a solution could be found to the "injustice and military malpractice" they had suffered.

On the same day Indonesia's new military chief Widodo AS promised to abandon the military's tough methods in the province saying he had already pledged to withdraw troops from Kopassus. "I truly understand that maybe the security approach alone is quite incorrect", said Widodo at a ceremony to mark the hand over of power from former armed forces chief Wiranto (who Wahid had recently sacked over human rights violations in East Timor). He called for better communication to create an atmosphere for dialogue.

On May 12, 2000, the Wahid government and GAM signed a three-month "peace accord" in Geneva in which a cease-fire would come into effect on June 2 and be reviewed regularly. A statement by the Indonesian government said two joint committees would be set up to oversee the cease-fire. One committee would coordinate humanitarian aid deliveries while the other sought to ensure the reduction of tension and the cessation of violence. Although the deal requires both sides to "return to the barracks", it does not include the withdrawal of Indonesian troops.

The deal came however as Wahid seemed to be backing away from his earlier remarks about a referendum and repeated public assertions that Jakarta would not bow to Acehnese demands for independence. Instead, he promised more autonomy and a greater share of the province's wealth.

The agreement was greeted cautiously by GAM and rights groups, but with warnings that the pact could be sabotaged by "rogue elements" that do not want to see an end to the conflict. On May 13, the Straits Times said that NGOs have pointed to a spate of recent bombings in Banda Aceh which they say were carried out by elements in the military opposed to the trial of 13 soldiers charged with the murder of 58 Acehnese in July 1999.

Saifuddin Bantasyam, executive director of Care Human Rights Forum, was quoted in the May 13 South China Morning Post as saying the agreement "is a step forward, however small. It may enable the humanitarian situation to improve... But I have the impression that the military does not want there to be a dialogue with GAM. In truth, there has been no meaningful change in the intensity of the conflict. The battle is still between GAM and the Indonesian military and police."

Cessation of hostilities agreement

Growing tensions between Wahid and the parliament and military were eventually to lead to his removal and replacement by Megawati on August 9, 2000. Although known as a staunch nationalist with close ties to the military, the Megawati government continued the negotiations initiated by the previous government.

Although there were continued armed clashes between the TNI and GAM and continued reports of human rights violations through 2001, despite the ongoing conflict, on December 9, 2002, Indonesia and GAM signed the historic Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (COHA) in Geneva, facilitated by the Geneva-based Henry Dunant Centre (HDC). The agreement required both sides to begin demilitarisation within two months. GAM was to start storing weapons at secret designated sites, while the military was supposed to relocate its forces and change its role "from a strike force to a defensive force". A Joint Security Committee (JSC) was tasked with monitoring the peace process. Its members were drawn from the TNI, GAM and 50 foreign monitors who represent the HDC.

Although there were numerous violations of the agreement, the first two months saw a dramatic decline in violence. Jakarta however complained that GAM was taking advantage of the ceasefire to recruit new members, reinforce its positions, collect taxes and take control of government institutions.

Ceasefire sabotaged

On March 3, 2003, a mob of around 1000 people attacked the JSC offices in Takengon, the main town of Central Aceh, injuring two representatives. The military claimed the crowd had accused the monitors of failing to respond to complaints about GAM. A similar attack occurred again on April 7 in East Aceh.

GAM and human rights organisations accused the military of being behind the attacks. According to a March 7 report by the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras), the March attackers included 500 TNI militiamen and members of the TNI's Strategic Reserves Command (Kostrad).

In response to the attacks, peace monitors were forced to withdraw to Banda Aceh. When asked at the time if the incidents were part of an organised campaign to wreck the peace deal, David Gorman, the head of the HDC in Indonesia, told Reuters on April 9: "It's clear these demonstrations, threats and attacks against the teams are organised and they all have a consistent message. That message has been anti-GAM, anti-JSC and anti-peace process." He declined to name who was behind the attacks.

In late April, Jakarta seized on a request by GAM for a two-day postponement of on-going negotiations in Geneva, scheduled for April 25, to call off talks altogether. GAM was given until May 12 to agree to lay down its arms and renounce its goal of independence for Aceh.

Under increasing international pressure, particularly from Washington and Japan, on May 13 Megawati reluctantly allowed government negotiators to meet GAM leaders in Tokyo on May 18. Just one day before the meeting however, police arrested five GAM negotiators in Banda Aceh as they were leaving to catch their flight to Tokyo. Initially, GAM's exiled leadership in Sweden threatened to boycott the talks, but the May 18 meeting went ahead with the Aceh-based negotiators participating by cellular phone.

After 13 hours of talks however, government negotiators walked out claiming that GAM only wanted to talk about "technicalities" rather than the "substantive issues" put forward by the government. Then coordinating minister for security and political affairs Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said GAM had refused to drop its independence demand.

But it soon became clear that the government had consciously set out to sabotage the talks when it set three new conditions that GAM could not possibly meet: that GAM accept special autonomy within the republic of Indonesia; that GAM disband; and that its armed wing lay down its weapons and disband. This was despite the fact that COHA was only intended to achieve an end to hostilities. No part of the agreement specified that GAM or Jakarta had to agree on the question of independence or autonomy for Aceh.

The next day then Megawati signed a decree declaring a status of martial law and launching a six-month military offensive including the deployment of some 30,000 extra troops.

Martial law

The massive military operations which followed -- including rocket and bomb attacks, air, land and sea assaults, and the use of tanks -- were launched in six regions of Aceh where GAM was believed to have military strongholds.

The government claimed its assault was part of an "integrated operation", which would include "humanitarian" aid and the restoration of local government administration. Health minister Achmad Sujudi said his department planned to spend US$6 million during the first six months of the operation, a fraction of the estimated $200 million the military operation would cost.

Part of the TNI strategy at this time was to "separate" civilians from GAM guerrillas, moving civilians out of "strategic" areas. Troops enter villages and order the women and children to come out from their homes, followed by unarmed men. Theoretically, only GAM fighters then remain.

Journalists were told of soldiers ordering young unarmed men and boys from their houses and shooting them. Radio Australia reported on May 22 that journalists from Agence France Presse (AFP) witnessed 11 bodies near Cot Batee and Cot Ijeuh; several of the victims had been shot in the head. The majority of stories told of men and boys being ordered from their homes and led away; they are executed nearby or just disappear.

Major-General Endang Suwarya, the commander overseeing the campaign insisted however that: "Absolutely no civilians were killed. We have a list of targets that we want killed or captured. We don't miss or make mistakes." Foreign minister Hassan Warialda however, admitted that because rebels were longer wearing military uniforms, it was difficult to distinguish them from the local population.

BBC journalist Orlando de Guzman visited the northern village of Mapa Mamplamsome (also known as Cot Rabo), a GAM stronghold. Villagers described how soldiers arrived before dawn on May 21, coming across a group of seven boys and men who were sleeping in a hut near a prawn farm. The soldiers dragged the boys out, lined them up on one of the dykes dividing the ponds and shot them one by one at close range. Three or four others were then told to run, before being shot in the back.

Massive disruption, abuses

The operation created massive disruption to ordinary people's lives. Only a month into the offensive, more than 23,000 people were reported to have fled their homes. In many parts of Aceh, there were food shortages, health services had collapsed, inter-city transport was paralysed, telecommunication and electricity services disrupted, public buildings destroyed and some 300 schools burned to the ground. The UN warned that a massive humanitarian disaster was in the making.

In contrast to this, on May 28 Jakarta claimed that the operation has been "nothing but a success" and is "moving faster than expected". Officials said that 84 GAM members had already been killed and 22 arrested -- including several GAM leaders who surrendered -- with only seven TNI soldiers and three police officers killed. GAM on the other had, said that more than 50 civilians had been killed. The main hospital in Banda Aceh received more than 80 bodies, most having suffered "traumatic deaths" and many showing signs of beatings and torture.

Media restrictions

Reports of this kind quickly prompted Jakarta to severely restrict journalists reporting in Aceh. In one case, reporters from Indonesia's largest television network, Metro TV, were firmly warned by the TNI after footage showed a group of people wearing GAM symbols helping residents extinguish a fire at a school in Bireuen, North Aceh. Metro TV was told that its reporters would be expelled from Aceh if it continued to air such footage.

On May 27, the British Independent reported: "Journalists are being routinely prevented from entering villages where alleged military atrocities have taken place. A crew car from Metro TV... was fired on when it tried to reach one settlement by a back road. The Independent was questioned for two hours at a military checkpoint and threatened with detention after visiting a village where five men had been shot dead."

The TNI also threatened to sue the Koran Tempo daily newspaper for allegedly publishing "incorrect reports" over the killing of 10 civilians -- including several young boys -- in a village near Bireuen on May 21. It also said it would sue AFP, which Tempo quoted in its story. The AFP report had been independently verified by journalists from the BBC and the Melbourne Age who interviewed local people at the site. Not surprisingly, the TNI later chose not to pursue legal actions against the two newspapers.

Civilian deaths

Contradicting government claims that there were few civilian deaths as a result of operations, a May 25 Amnesty International statement said that grave human rights abuses, including the extra-judicial killing of children and other civilians, had been widespread. It said that in nearly all the recent cases of extra-judicial execution, the victims were young men aged between 12 and 20. Responding to the statement, the People's Forum pointed out this was not new and that this age group is always the first to be targeted in TNI sweeps since they represent the next generation of GAM fighters.

Like journalists, Jakarta sort to also restrict the work of humanitarian organisations claiming it could not guarantee the safety of international NGOs. Then coordinating minister for people's welfare, Jusuf Kalla, told Kompas on May 28: "[You] remember [what happened in] Atambua don't you? When there were UNHCR members who were shot, then it became an international issue and Indonesia was blacklisted by the UN." Kalla was referring to the murder of three UNHCR workers in West Timor after a rampage by pro-Jakarta militia in September 2000. Responding to letter sent by Kalla, the head of UN's Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Michael Elmquist said: "It didn't directly say a ban, but we have been firmly advised that it would be better for us to cease our functions in Aceh for security purposes."

Aid workers were understandably suspicious of Jakarta's motives and expressed concern that worse human rights abuses would take place if foreign aid workers were barred from the province. Indonesia's most renowned human rights defender, Munir (who was murdered on September 6, 2004), then head of Kontras agreed, telling Reuters on May 27: "This is not about the safety of NGO workers. Without the international NGOs the military will have more space to attack the people." Munir added that the TNI must not stereotype NGOs as GAM sympathisers, as many of them work in the area of human rights, and had no political motives.

Rights activists targeted

The authorities also used the cloak of martial law to crack down on students and human rights workers, who they also regard as sympathisers. Kompas reported that, as of May 29, 66 people had been arrested for being "directly linked" to GAM -- some in sweeps conducted as far away as Jakarta.

On the weekend of May 24-25, police raided a university in Banda Aceh and arrested a number of students who they claim were "probably political members or from clandestine movements [linked to GAM]". According to the May 26 British Guardian, students who witnessed the raid -- which was a two-hour-long violent attack on the students' union -- said 15 people were arrested and that none were connected to Aceh separatists. "The students' version is given credibility by the fact that when they visited the students' union most of the eight rooms in it had clearly just been vandalised", reported the Guardian.

On May 27, some 100 members from a nationalist youth organisation attacked the Kontras office in Jakarta and assaulted five staff members, in retaliation for its critical stand over Aceh. The mob identified themselves as the Pemuda Panca Marga, a staunchly nationalistic group whose members are children of veteran soldiers. The group used to be affiliated with the state party Golkar during the Suharto period. Kontras had been listed by the TNI as one of the NGOs that would be monitored for alleged separatist activities.

100 women raped

According to a report by the Friends of Aceh (FOA) evaluating the first 100 days since martial law was declared, which was presented to Komnas HAM on August 28, 2003, as many as 100 women were raped over this period. The report said most of the victims were too frightened to take legal action; only 21 cases of rape or sexual harassment had been reported to police. In July that year, three solders in Aceh were convicted of rape but given short jail terms by a military court.

In one particular case, FOA cited the gang rape of a 16-year-old woman by five TNI personnel in the sub-district of Keramat in North Aceh. Following the incident, the victim and her family were threatened by members of the district military command (Koramil) and warned not to report the attack to police.

In response to the report, Komnas HAM chairperson Abdul Hakim Garuda Nusantara told Kompas that, if the report is correct, it represents a gross violation of human rights and that Komnas HAM will be sending its Ad Hoc Team for Aceh to investigate. Nusantara added that, regardless of who the perpetrators were, the attacks must be given serious attention, as women often become the victims in armed conflicts. He said the general picture being painted in Aceh was one of ongoing and widespread violence against civilians.

Martial law extended

Despite claims by the TNI that hundreds of GAM members had been killed, arrested or surrendered, in November 2003, the Megawati government extended martial law for another six months. Once again, the TNI and police stepped up their campaign against student activists and rights workers.

Amnesty International reported that on February 19, 2004, the Police Mobile Brigade (Brimob) arrested a man on suspicion of being a member of GAM. Three days later, another human rights worker was detained by Brimob. On February 22, Brimob made a series of raids on the homes of members of the Acehnese Democratic Women's Organisation (ORPAD), arresting three members of the human rights organisation. Later that day, the police arrested an activist with SMUR.

Although the Aceh military emergency command initially denied the abductions it later admitted they were being "questioned" by the military in Lhokseumawe in northern Aceh. Military spokesperson Colonel Ditya Sudarsono told the February 25 Kompas that the activists were "not being questioned because they are non-government organisation activists, but because there are indications that the are involved with GAM or at the very least are GAM sympathisers".

Sudarsono went on to say that the police and the military would continue to go after NGO activists in Aceh, claiming that many of them are accomplices of GAM. He also admitted that many NGO activists in Aceh had fled to Jakarta and other provinces, and that the military would seek to arrest them wherever they were.

Citing "improvements" in the security situation, in May 2004 the Megawati government downgraded the state of martial law to a civil emergency. Thousands of soldiers, however, remained in the province and continued operations against GAM. Home affairs minister and interim coordinating minister for politics and security, Hari Sabarno, told reporters after a cabinet meeting that GAM's strength had dwindled since martial law was declared. The military's figures at the time claimed that some 2,000 rebels died and another 3,000 had been captured or surrendered during the year.

Yudhoyono betrays the Acehnese

On November 19, 2004, the government of newly elected President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono announced it would extend the state of civil emergency in Aceh until May, the only change being it would be reviewed monthly and if there were significant but undefined improvements, the order may be reviewed and adjusted accordingly. This was dispute earlier promises by Yudhoyono during his election campaign to seek a peaceful solution to the prolonged conflict.

In making the announcement, Yudhoyono said that while "seeking a new approach", the operation will be carried out in a way which is "of a better quality, more concrete, with clear aims, implemented transparently and free of distortions and corruption". The status will be maintained to "safeguard the 'momentum' and continuity of the recovery in Aceh", Yudhoyono told Tempo Interactive on November 18.

Army chief of staff General Ryamizard Ryacudu meanwhile was quoted by the November 17 Jakarta Post as saying "We are only trying to bring about peace in Aceh and the decision to impose the emergency was taken to ensure the security of the people". He added that GAM still posed a threat so military operations would continue until they were eliminated.

The government also ruled out any foreign role while at the same time offering amnesty to rebels who give up their struggle. GAM spokesperson Abdullah Zaini has dismissed the offer and called on the government to return to the negotiating table.

Writing in the November 19 Jakarta Post, Damien Kingsbury, a senior lecturer from Deakin University said, "What the Indonesian government also seems not to realize is that opposition to Jakarta's authority in Aceh is not just from a handful of [exiled Acehnese] men in Stockholm and misguided idealists in Aceh. It is keenly felt by an overwhelming majority of Acehnese.

"This explains why, although GAM has suffered some losses over the past 18 months, it has been able to draw on a large reservoir of volunteers waiting to step up and fight. Martial law might have been intended to crush GAM, but as many predicted, it has not significantly diminished GAM's military capacity, and has only hardened the resolve of Aceh's population against the TNI [armed forces] and the government it represents."

Kingsbury pointed out that trapped by TNI-backed demands that GAM surrender and accept special autonomy as a precursor to peace, the government has imposed preconditions that make peace talks impossible. GAM on the other hand, had dropped most of its preconditions recognising that its claims will have to be negotiated -- the very thing talks are about.

A November 20 editorial in the Jakarta Daily lamented, "It's appalling to see a golden opportunity slip through the fingers of former general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and prove to the nation that he is true to his word. People are asking, why did Susilo make a decision that, in effect, froze investigations into corruption cases in Aceh province, and cut into efforts to organise direct elections for local government? Isn't this counter to his own image as a reformer?" "...It now looks as if Susilo's administration does not differ much from its predecessor, and Susilo seems to have forgotten the campaign promise he made a couple of months ago when he said he would bring change to Aceh once he became president."

On November 24, the defence commission of the House of Representatives told the Jakarta Post that the house did not agree with the extension and those parliamentary leaders who supported it did so in an "individual capacity". Acehnese legislators also responded coldly complaining that they were not involved in the decision and called for a peaceful settlement.

At a press conference in Jakarta on November 18 (by which time the decision was known), AWG, Cetro and Imparsial said the decision was "disappointing" and indicated that Yudhoyono's position is inconsistent with his campaign promises. "We condemn the extension of civil emergency in Aceh. Although the decision has been issued and it is too late to be reversed and has made us ashamed, disappointed and angry, we demand that the government open up access to information in order to monitor efforts to uphold human rights and the law as well as access for humanitarian aid", AWG coordinator Rusdi Marpaung was quoted as saying by the Kompas on November 20.

On the same day Kontras issued a similar statement. "SBY [Yudhoyono] promised to resolve [the conflict in] Aceh peacefully and through dialogue with GAM. But not one of these promises has been fulfilled by SBY and this will definitely increase the Acehnese people's disappointment with the government", Kontras member Edwin Partogi told Detik.com on November 18. "So Kontras is urging the government to review the decision... and that the government and GAM return to the negotiating table", said Partogi.


The massive tsunami and earthquake that struck Aceh on December 26 -- leaving as many as 130,000 people dead and 35,000 missing -- brought a temporary halt to fighting between GAM and the TNI. It also resulted in mounting pressure from the international community on Indonesia to resolve the conflict peacefully in order that reconstruction and rehabilitation could proceed smoothly.

GAM immediately declared a ceasefire so that relief agencies could safely deliver relief supplies and the TNI and police said they would concentrate on helping the survivors, not hunting down rebels. The government also eased regulations imposed during the conflict preventing foreign journalists and relief workers from travelling to the province.

Despite a unilateral ceasefire offer by GAM, military operations against the rebels soon resumed. The TNI also tried to use the humanitarian disaster to pressure the US Congress to restore military ties which were suspended after the 1991 Dili massacre in East Timor, claiming that it needed spare parts for US-made Hercules C-130 transport planes to deliver aid.

Human rights groups refuted the claim and saying that the C-130s and other US equipment were still being used for military operations in Aceh. In a press release issued by the East Timor Action Network (ETAN) on January 13, ETAN said "The Indonesian military's behavior during the current crisis in Aceh shows it hasn't reformed. Brutal operations also continue in West Papua. The TNI wants to use assistance for political ends and should not be allowed to distribute aid. The people of Aceh fear the soldiers, and entrenched TNI corruption will siphon off much needed assistance".

Reports also began to emerge that the TNI was hoarding supplies and selling them to hungry and desperate victims. In an interview with Radio Australia on January 10, Nurdin Abdul Rahman, a liaison officer for the Australian Acehnese Community said soldiers were selling instant noodles that should be distributed free. Rahman also said the TNI is banned people from going to vegetable gardens in the hinterland to gather food where many GAM rebels are based. "People are desperately in need of food but the Indonesian military have the nerve to prevent or ban people to go to their farm for food - this is so inhumane. They say they want to keep people from contact with guerrillas".

A report by Asia Forum also listed a host of abuses and incompetence. "In some cases, those who fail to present their identity cards are harassed and even beaten up. It is assumed that such incidents are more prevalent in remote areas", the groups said at a press conference on January 6. It claimed local NGOs were being prevented from distributed their own aid, while military-held supplies were left stockpiled in airports.

Civil emergency ends

On May 18, 2005, the Yudhoyono government finally declared an end to the civil emergency. But calls by GAM and human rights groups for troops to be withdrawn were ignored. Some reports even suggested that the government was planning to increase its troop numbers in Aceh.

Widodo, who by then had been appointed as the coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs, said that returning Aceh to a "normal status" was aimed at assisting reconstruction following the December's earthquake and tsunami. But he added that the security operations would continue.

Indonesia's parliament also supported the continued presence of some 40,000 troops and paramilitary police in Aceh with Yudhoyono stating that the huge troop numbers must be retained, arguing that otherwise the Acehnese will not feel "secure" and the post-tsunami reconstruction wouldn't be implemented. Yudhoyono did however say that his government would continue to talk with GAM, but that the proposed special autonomy status for Aceh and the constitution were non-negotiable. He said that a deadline would be placed on the negotiations.

Acehnese and human-rights organisations responded positively saying it represents an opportunity to involve broader layers of society in the peace process but expressed concerns about the failure to withdraw troops. The Human Rights Working Group for example said troop numbers to be halved as a sign that the TNI supports the peace process. "Unfortunately, the TNI's commitment to be subordinate to the civilian government is still limited to statements by TNI chief General Endriartono Sutarto", they said, adding that officers in the field justify the TNI's presence because GAM's forces remain strong in the districts.

Acehnese groups in Jakarta also welcomed the move, but warned that little would change for the Acehnese unless the TNI was withdrawn. The Solidarity Movement with the People of Aceh (SEGERA) and the Acehnese Popular Democratic Resistance Front (FPDRA) described the decision as "positive", claiming that it would assist reconstruction. They warned, however, that like the period of civil emergency, unless troops are withdrawn human rights abuses would continue and reconstruction efforts would be disrupted.

Peace agreement

Under increasing pressure from the international community and Indonesian and Acehnese rights groups, in late May the government agreed to begin a series of "informal" peace talks with GAM in Helsinki. Despite strong objections from the parliament, following a fifth round of negotiations that ended on July 17, a historic peace agreement was finally reached between the two sides.

On July 20, Yudhoyono ordered the TNI to halt its military operations against GAM and suggested that TNI troops should remain in their barracks while the peace agreement is being finalised.

In a joint statement, the two sides said the preliminary agreement would cover political participation, human rights issues, an amnesty for GAM members, security arrangements and a disputes settlement body. It also includes the establishment of a monitoring mission of 300 unarmed observers from the European Union and the Association of South-East Asian Nations. Early in the talks, GAM dropped its demand for independence for the province and agreed instead to "self-governance" within the Republic of Indonesia.

Despite reservations from the TNI and outright opposition from Indonesia's parliament, on August 15, GAM and Indonesian government representatives in Helsinki signed the historic Memorandum of Understanding (MoU). Although questions remain over some aspects of the deal and rights groups have warned that TNI backed Timorese style militia groups may undermine the peace process, most observers agree that the deal may be the best chance yet to resolve Aceh's three-decade long conflict.

[Compiled by James Balowski.]

See also:

  • Indonesia
  • Indoleft Archive
  • Indonesia links
  • Indonesia News Digest
  • News services on Indonesia
  • Publications & videos on Indonesia
  • Reports & articles on Indonesia
  • Statements & press releases on Indonesia