Background of the Current Conflict
Before becoming part of Indonesia, Aceh had been an independent sultanate with its own currency for several centuries. Even after being colonized by the Dutch, Aceh experienced a long history of resistance against colonial power. During the Indonesian war for independence against the Dutch, Aceh made significant contributions to Indonesia in terms of material and financial resources (Siedel, UNHCR WriteNet Paper, sect. 2). As a result of such contributions, Aceh was granted a ‘special region status’ by President Sukarno when Indonesia gained independence in 1949. The ‘special region status’ gave only nominal autonomy to Aceh. As of August 9, 2001, President Megawati Soekarnoputri granted ‘special autonomy’ for the region, allowing for the implementation of Islamic Law for Muslims, and a larger portion of revenue between the central government and the province.
The discovery of natural gas reserves in Aceh has contributed significantly to the central government’s revenue since the 1970s. By some estimates, Aceh has contributed one-third of Indonesia’s oil and gas exports, as well as timber, rubber, gold and silver production (Japan Times, May 25, 2000). However, Aceh itself has benefited little from its own resources, receiving less than 5% of the revenue earned from oil found in the region (International Crisis Group, Asia Report No.17, 3). However, since special autonomy has been implemented in the region, Aceh should now receive 70 percent of the total profit gained from the oil and gas reserves, as well as 80 percent of the total revenue from the province’s agricultural and fishing income.
Economic growth after the 1970s marginalized many of the Acehnese, by widening the disparity between the affluent and the poor. (Siedel, sect. 2) The rebel GAM armed movement began to gain momentum in the late 1980s and the 1990s. In 1989, the Suharto government responded to the GAM by mobilizing the national military (TNI). Special elite forces of the TNI were sent to the province to hunt down the GAM members. By 1997, clashes between the two waned, and the GAM members began underground movements (Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, January 2001).
In 1998 when, the Suharto rule ended, the GAM intensified its guerrilla activities. The promised prosecution of military personnel slowed significantly and the TNI continued with its counterinsurgency operations. As a result, significant number so of Acehnese have died and thousands have become internally displaced or become refugees. Since the fighting for an independent Islamic state in Aceh broke out in 1976, more than 10,000 people have been killed, including nearly 2,000 people in 2001, and 400 this year (AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE, April 23, 2002).
GAM (Free Aceh Movement): The GAM are the armed faction behind the Aceh independence movement. They insist that Aceh was illegally transferred to Indonesia in 1949 when Indonesia became independent. The GAM originally rejected the concept of ‘special autonomy’ within the framework of Indonesia, claiming that its goal is complete Aceh independence.
The GAM is not a homogeneous organization, but is instead fueled by many motives. Some members loyal to their leader, Hasan di Tiro, are participating in the movement to pursue independence; some seek to avenge the murders of family members committed by the TNI; others are involved simply to commit banditry at the conflict sites. (ICG, Asia Report No.18, 18) The GAM is also alleged to be divided about how the future independent Aceh should be organized – as democracy or a sultanate. (Inside Indonesia, No. 62).
Guerrilla activities have intensified, and the TNI is experiencing difficulties suppressing GAM movements. The GAM is especially active in areas where the major oil reserves are concentrated. Lhoseumawe, where Indonesia’s leading oil and gas producer Exxon-Mobile is located, is one of the most famous oil sites under GAM’s control in Indonesia.
The Indonesian government and the TNI: The TNI is the Indonesian national military. The TNI and the government continue to reject an Aceh independence referendum on the grounds that it would cause similar conflicts in other restive regions of Indonesia, leading to the disintegration of the entire archipelago (ICG, Asia Report No.17, 19). As the GAM intensifies its guerrilla activities, the TNI has responded with more troops.
Nature of the Abuses
TNI atrocities: The independent commission on violence in Aceh, created in 1998 by former president Habibie, assessed that over 90% of human rights abuses in the area were committed by the TNI and the police during the period 1989-98 (ICG, Asia Report No.17, 8). The death toll in the past three years is comparable to the total numbers during the entire decade under Suharto (Far Eastern Economic Review, 05 July, 2001). In 2001 alone, more than 1,700 people were killed. More than 400 people have been killed this year. TNI’s target continues to be GAM members and supporters. Civilians have suffered an inordinate amount of casualties during TNI operations.
The following are examples of possible crimes against humanity, massacres and discovered mass gravesites indicating the potential danger for future genocidal activities.
Date: July 23, 1999
Place: Beutong Ateuh, West Aceh
Victims: At least 50
Police surrounded a religious school on the report that there were weapons inside. Over fifty bodies were founded, “mowed down by bullets”. All the students and teachers were killed. No TNI soldiers were killed or wounded. Only four weapons were found on the site (Human Rights Watch, August 27, 1999).
Date: November 3-10, 2000
Place: Banda Aceh, provincial capital
The security forces opened fire on convoys
of Acehnese traveling to participate in a pro-independence rally.
Thirty people were “extrajudicially executed”. Those prevented
from going to the rally were tortured, treated brutally, or intimidated
(Amnesty International, January 31, 2001).
Date: December 6, 2000
Place: Lhokseumawe, North Aceh
TNI soldiers abducted three humanitarian volunteers working for Rehabilitation Action for Torture Victims in Aceh (RATA). The workers were deemed GAM supporters despite written permission from the Indonesian government to do their work. They were then taken to military posts, stripped, beaten and executed (Amnesty International, 31 January, 2001).
Date: July 21, 2001
Place: Aceh Timur
At least 21 people were shot dead during a military-police
joint operation, after a raid in a village in Aceh Timur seeking
a GAM member. The TNI spokesman claimed that the victims were
all GAM members, but the GAM denied the allegation, saying only
one belonged to the GAM and the rest were civilians. Witnesses
said the troops opened fire on residents who were rying to flee
(Jakarta Post, July 22, 2001).
Date: July 31, 2001
Place: Menderek village, Central Aceh
A gunfight between security forces and the GAM left 27 people dead. Nineteen of the victims burned to death, while others were shot. The TNI stated the dead were all GAM members (AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE, 02 July, 2001).
Date: August 9, 2001
Place: East Aceh
Victims: at least 31
Plantation workers lining up to receive their monthly payment were gunned down. GAM and the Indonesian military blame each other for the killings. According to GAM official Teungku Amri bin Abdul Wahab soldiers retaliated in response to an attack on a security post the previous day. Thirty-one people died (Reuters, 10 Aug 2001).
TAPOL, the Indonesia Human Rights Campaign, blames the military for the shooting, asserting that several men survived the attack and that they have been interviewed. According to survivors, the shooting did not occur as people were assembled to receive payment; on the contrary, around 7:30 AM Acehnese men workers were ordered to assemble in a yard, strip to the waist, squat in rows, and then were summarily shot dead. TAPOL insists that the soldiers made sure that all the victims were Acehnese (TAPOL, Oct 2001).
Date: August 18 and 19, 2001
Place: Idi Rayeuk and Idi Tunong, East Aceh
TAPOL reported that soldiers shot and wounded a student in the village of Simpang Tomon. The same troops later opened fire on people on the road, fishing in the river, and nearby shops, killing three fishermen, and leaving one in critical condition (Tapol, October 2001).
The next day in Idi Tunong, nine people, including five boys, were killed by troops. The boys were ordered to show their identity cards and strip to the waist. Two days later, members of the Red Cross and NGO Coalition found four shallow graves in Kayu Tiga, containing the bodies of the nine males, which were “covered with injuries caused by stabbing, slicing with knives, beating with blunt instruments, and strangulation” (TAPOL, Oct 2001).
Date: January 3, 2002 – January 19, 2002
Place: Kuala Batee, South Aceh; Bukit Hagu, North Aceh; Nisam,
Grong-Grong, Pidie; Blang Seureke, North Aceh; Kuala, West Aceh;
Glumpan Tiga, Pidie; Aceh Besar; North Aceh;
Muareudu, Pidie; Seunebok Tengoh, East Aceh.
Victims: at least 62
In the course of these 16 days, security forces and police killed at least 62 civilians and GAM members in isolated shootouts and house raids around Aceh (AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE, January 4 though 22, 2002; Jakarta Post, January 18, 2002).
Date: February 7, 2002 – February 26, 2002
Place: Kutamakmur, North Aceh; Sinkil; Pidie; Ulee Gle; South
West Aceh; Krueng Seumideun, Pidie; Lhokseumawe; Tanah Pasir,
North Aceh; Awe Geutah, Bireuen.
Despite peace talks between GAM and TNI representatives in Switzerland on February 2nd and 3rd, 30 people, including “suspected rebels” and civilians were shot and killed this month by the TNI (AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE, February 7, 12, 21, and 26, 2002).
Date: March 10, 2002 – March, 24, 2002
Place: Tanah Jambo Aye, North Aceh; Simpang Ulin, East Aceh; Bireun;
Simpang Nenas, East Aceh; West Aceh; Lambaro Angan, Aceh Besar;
Syamtalira Bayu, North Aceh; Matangkuli, North Aceh; Jangka, Bireun;
Labuhan Haji, South Aceh; Samadua, South Aceh.
TNI troops continued raiding houses, torturing, and shooting GAM rebels, killing civilians in the mix. For example, when 14 people were killed in East Aceh March 13 and 14, a civilian and a local Muslim leader were found dead “riddled with bullets and marked by signs of torture” (AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE, March 13, 2002). On March 17th, when 16 people were killed in Aceh Besar, six GAM rebels were shot dead, the rest were reported by local residents to be “civilians, all farmers who had nothing to do with the GAM,” shot in their ricefields by police (AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE, March 17, 2002). Fifty-eight people were killed, both GAM members and civilians in these 14 days of March (AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE, March 10, 13, 17, 19, and 24, 2002).
Mass Graves Discovered
Two mass graves have been discovered in Aceh. One, on July 1, 2001 in Bandar subdistrict, Central Aceh, with an estimated 50 bodies (AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE, July 2, 2001). The second, discovered on July 6, 2001, in Lhokeseumawe, North Aceh, held 30 bodies (BBC, July 7, 2001).
GAM tactics and abuse: The GAM show less military prowess than the TNI. Most members arm themselves with homemade firearms or explosives. The GAM have also acquired weapons by stealing from the TNI, in addition to obtaining the smuggled arms through Malaysia and Thailand provided by expatriate supporters. For funding, the GAM engages in marijuana cultivation and trading, in addition to monetary contributions from Acehnese within and outside of the province (ICG, Asia Report No.17, 7).
The GAM employs guerrilla strategies, such as ambushes and raids on military posts. They have destroyed government facilities and police spots with homemade bombs. The GAM have also committed human rights violations against local civilians in order to blame such violations on the TNI to discredit its authority. Furthermore, the GAM has disrupted Exxon-Mobil’s production by cutting pipelines (ICG, Asia Report No.17, 9).
Date: December 19, 1999
Place: Geureutee, near Banda Aceh
GAM members ambushed a convoy of trucks carrying police officers. At least three policemen were reported to be killed. The GAM claimed that they killed at least 20 people, saying the ambush was retaliation for the TNI’s military operations (Jakarta Post, December 20, 1999).
Date: January 15, 2002
Place: Bireuen, East Aceh
A woman, age 49, was shot by GAM members after she witnessed them placing a bomb under a bridge near her house (AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE, 16 Jan 2002).
Date: January 16, 2002
Place: Pidie; North Aceh; Perlak, East Aceh
At least 10 people, including security officers and GAM members,
were killed on the first day of the general strike called by GAM(AGENCE
FRANCE PRESSE, 16 Jan 2002).
Date: January 17, 2002
Place: Bayeun, East Aceh
According to district police chief Gaguk Sumartono, GAM rebels attacked a public phone center and killed a policeman and a civilian (AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE, 18 Jan 2002).
Date: March 22-24, 2002
Place: Kuta Blang, North Aceh; Peusangan, Bireun; Jangka, Bireun
GAM rebels attacked military stations in Kuta Blang and Peusangan using bazooka and automatic rifles, completely destroying the security forces headquarters. The “guerrillas also ambushed a convoy of three trucks transporting soldiers on patrol in Jangka.” GAM rebels claimed to have shot dead 18 TNI soldiers over these three days in March (AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE, March 24, 2002).
Present Situation Analysis — Danger of the Situation
Aceh represents a very volatile situation. The central government has attempted to address the Aceh independence movement in several different ways including peace talks, special autonomy status, and an independence referendum.
Peace Talks: Previous negotiations between the GAM and the central government concluded with a ceasefire called “The Joint Understanding on Humanitarian Pause for Aceh”, which was signed in May 2000, came into effect in June 2000 and was extended until January 15, 2001. This pause failed to abate violence on either side, however. On the contrary, the violence has escalated since last year with both sides blaming each other or unknown third parties. After the pause expired, a moratorium was agreed upon, but the violence did not cease. The humanitarian pause was then replaced with a ‘Peace through Dialogue’ approach including a ceasefire and consultations to end armed conflict in Aceh on March 10, 2001. At the beginning of July 2001, peace talks were held again in Geneva, but to no avail (AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE, July 2, 2001). After the February 2nd and 3rd, 2002 peace talks, the GAM agreed to accept special autonomy as a basis for negotiations, but denied dropping their claim for independence (AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE, February 15, 2002).
Special Autonomy: President Megawati granted special autonomy to Aceh on August 19, 2001.] The government’s objective in giving special autonomy to Aceh is to alleviate Acehnese resentments over economic exploitation of the province, thereby hoping to reduce support for independence (ICG, Asia Report No. 18, ii). The law states that the province receive 70 percent of the total profits gained from gas and oil revenues, as well as 80 percent of the total profit for agriculture and fishing. The special autonomy law also allows Aceh to administer all legal matters within the province based on shariah, the Islamic law for Muslims and Indonesian criminal law for non-Muslims. In addition, Aceh is allowed to raise its own provincial flag alongside the Indonesian national flag (Jakarta Post, July 3, 2001; July, 16 2001).
Referendum: Although former President Wahid had reiterated the idea of the referendum for Aceh, he never carried it out. It is believed that he made this statement assuming that the Acehnese would vote for remaining within Indonesia if the referendum was carried out (PBS online NewsHour Report, 12 November, 1999). It is clear that the government’s objective is still to uphold the sovereignty of Indonesia. In Aceh, student groups like SIRA, and Ulama groups have expressed their support for a referendum, assuming the result would be independence. Even the GAM has shifted its position into supporting a referendum as a precursor to independence after Ulama groups publicly called for a referendum (Inside Indonesia, No.66).
A parallel is often drawn between the recent independence activities in East Timor. However, there are some significant differences between the two cases: Aceh lacks a strong, charismatic leadership as East Timor had; there is no widespread international support for Aceh (Time, 13 December, 1999); GAM has received weapons and training from foreign countries, while factions in East Timor had not; and most importantly, natural resources are in greater abundance than in East Timor (Human Rights Watch, 27 August,1999). Without doubt, the rich resources in Aceh have been a substantial swing factor in the central government’s resistance to Aceh’s independence, in addition to the fear of the disintegration of the archipelago. Accordingly, given the hard-line view between the TNI and the central government’s firm rejection of granting independence for Aceh, the possibility of a referendum that may lead to independence is quite unlikely.
What International Laws Are Being Broken?
As of March 2002, the violence in Aceh constituted
crimes against humanity largely at the hands of the TNI, including
the murder of civilians. The following crimes against humanity
are being committed in Aceh: extra-judicial killings and execution,
torture, other inhuman treatments of people, abduction, forcible
disappearance of people, arbitrary arrest and detention, destruction
of property, enforced transfer of population, rape, disruption
of transportation, death threats, and disruption of the media.
Unlike the violence in Sulawesi and Maluku, where Muslims and Christians are fighting each other, the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) is in conflict with the central government. The US State Department, in its Indonesian country report for 2001, stated that security forces “were responsible for numerous instances of, at times indiscriminate, shooting of civilians, torture, rape, beatings and other abuse, and arbitrary detention in Aceh,” as well as West Timor, Papua, and elsewhere in the archipelago (US State Department, March 2002). Of all Indonesian hotspots, Aceh has proven itself to be the most volitaile and likely to erupt into genocide.
International Crisis Group
International Crisis Group. “Aceh: Why military force won’t bring lasting peace.”
ICG Asia Report No.17, June 12, 2001.
International Crisis Group. “Aceh: Can the autonomy stem the conflict?”
ICG Asia Report No.18, June 27, 2001.
Human Rights Watch
Human Rights Watch. “Indonesia: Civilians Targeted in Aceh.” May, 2000.
Human Rights Watch. “Why Aceh is Exploding,” 27 August, 1999.
Human Rights Watch. “Indonesia: Sole Survivor of Attack on Humanitarian Aid Workers Speaks,” 13 December, 2000.
Human Rights Watch. “Indonesia: Sole Survivor of Attack on Humanitarian Aid Workers Speaks,” 13 December, 2000.
Amnesty International. “Briefing on the current human rights situation in Indonesia.” ASA 21/ 006/2001, 31 January, 2001.
Amnesty International. “Activists at risk in Aceh.” ASA21/61/00, November 2000.
McCulloch, Lesley. “Whither Aceh?” Inside Indonesia. No.62. Apr.-Jun. 2000.
McCulloch, Lesley. “Aceh will not lie down.” Inside Indonesia. No. 66. Apr-Jun 2001.
Siapno, Jacqueline Aquino. “A different freedom.” Inside Indonesia. No. 64. Oct.-Dec. 2000.
Hajari, Nisid. “Anger in Aceh.” TIME. vol. 154. No.23. 13 December, 1999.
Djalal, Dini. “Silencing the voices of Aceh.” Far Eastern Economic Review.
July 5, 2001.
Siedel, John T. “Indonesia Update: Trends Toward Consolidation, Threats of Disintegration.” WriteNet Paper No.18/1999, December, 1999.
“WFP Western Seram Mission 7-10 August 2000.” World Food Program (WFP). August 2000.
04cde41256782007493b8/23C9EA3B14CB3796C1256959002C3017/$file/Wester n+Seram+Mission.pdf >
“Aceh emerges from years of state terror.” TAPOL, the Indonesia Human Rights Campaign.
“Jakarta’s New Military Operations Will Propel Aceh Into A State Of All-OUT War.” TAPOL. Memorandum, 23 April, 2001.
“Political History of Aceh.” US Committee for Refugees (USCR). 9 September, 1999.
“Project Ploughshares – Armed Conflict Report 2000.” Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies at Conrad Grebel College. January 2001.
Agence France-Presse. “Indonesia rules out foreign mediator in talks with Aceh rebels.” 4 Jan 2002.
Agence France-Presse. “Eight killed in Indonesia’s restive Aceh provice.” 7 Jan 2002.
Agence France-Presse. “Seven killed in fresh violence in Indonesia’s Aceh province.” 8 Jan 2002.
Agence France-Presse. “Indonesia gives Aceh rebels one last chance to negotiate.” 10 Jan 2002.
Agence France-Presse. “Six killed in continuing violence in Indonesia’s restive Aceh.” 10 Jan 2002.
Agence France-Presse. “At least 13 killed in fresh violence in Aceh.” 11 Jan 2002.
Agence France-Presse. “Ten more deaths as general strike hits Indonesia’s Aceh.” 16 Jan 2002.
Agence France-Presse. “Eight more deaths as rebel strike grips Indonesia’s Aceh.” 18 Jan 2002.
Agence France-Presse. “Five more killed in latest Aceh violence.” 21 Jan 2002.
Agence France-Presse. “Violence in Indonesia’s restive Aceh claims 15 more deaths.” 22 Jan 2002.
Agence France-Presse. “Indonesian military kills Aceh rebel leader in shootout.” January
Agence France-Presse. “Indonesia extends military operations in Aceh.” February 7, 2002.
Agence France-Presse. “Nine more killed in Indonesia’s restive Aceh as US envoy visits.” February 12,
Agence France-Presse. “Eight people killed in Aceh, residents hold special prayers for peace.” February
Agence France-Presse. “Rebels kill policeman in Indonesia’s Aceh province.” February 25, 2002.
Agence France-Presse. “Indonesian troops kill six rebels in restive Aceh province.” February 26, 2002.
Agence France-Presse. “Aceh violence claims seven death on the weekend.” March 10, 2002.
Agence France-Presse. “Violence in Aceh leaves 14 more dead.” March 13, 2002.
Agence France-Presse. “At least 16 killed in weekend violence in Aceh.” March 17, 2002.
Agence France-Presse. “New violence claims 15 lives in Indonesia’s Aceh.” March 19, 2002.
Agence France-Presse. “Indonesian forces, rebels, claim more killings in restive Aceh.” March 24, 2002.
Agence France-Presse. “Seven killed in Aceh ahead of peace talks.” April 23, 2002.
The Jakarta Post
The Jakarta Post. “Impunity increasingly a habit in Aceh.” December 20, 1999.
Noor, Ibnu Mat. The Jakarta Post. “GAM’s strike call gets no response from big companies.” 18 Jan 2002.
Reuters. “Indonesian police: at least 31 killed in Aceh shooting.” 10 Aug 2001.
Indonesian Government Sources
Soekarnoputri, Megawati. “State Address by H.E. the President of the Republic of Indonesia Megawati Soekarnoputri Before the House of People’s Representatives on the Occasion of the 56th Independence Day.” August 16, 2001.
Soekarnoputri, Megawati. “Speech by the President of the Republic of Indonesia Delivered at the Annual Session of the People’s Consultative Assembly.” November 1, 2001.
US Government Sources
United States Department of State. “Indonesia: Country Reports on Human Rights Practices – 2001. March 4, 2002.
Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). “The children held hostage to war in Aceh.” February 18, 2002.