(August 27, 1999, New York)—The twenty-four year conflict in East Timor may be nearing the end game with voters there choosing on August 30 between autonomy under Indonesian sovereignty and independence. But a potentially much more dangerous conflict is spiraling out of control in Aceh, the resource-rich region on the northern tip of Sumatra. The international community should be pressing Indonesia to address three of the key underlying causes of the conflict: failure to prosecute past abuses; failure to reduce a hated military presence; and diversion of locally-produced revenues to Jakarta.
It's worth a try, but it may already be too late to stop a low-level insurgency from turning into what may be the most serious threat to Indonesian unity since it gained independence from the Netherlands in 1949. A quick comparison with East Timor is worth noting:
There are three main reasons that the conflict has erupted so virulently, and that popular support for Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM or Free Aceh Movement) guerrillas has grown so fast: popular anger, the return of hundreds of guerrillas to Aceh from exile following the fall of Soeharto, and Indonesian military excesses.
The anger stems from the Habibie government's refusal to address a near-universal demand in Aceh for justice. Between May 1990 and August 1998, Aceh was designated an area of military operations (daerah operasi militer or DOM) so that intensive counterinsurgency operations could be carried out against GAM. In 1989, a handful of guerrillas returned to Aceh from Libya where they had received training but no arms. Using weapons acquired largely from raids on military posts within Aceh, they carried out a series of attacks on soldiers and non-Acehnese migrants to the region. The Indonesian army responded with ferocious and indiscriminate force, killing more than a thousand civilians, often leaving their mutilated bodies by the side of roads or rivers. Many more were arrested, tortured, and arbitrarily detained for months, sometimes years. Hundreds of men disappeared. Many women whose husbands or sons were suspected of involvement with the guerrillas were raped. Aceh was under what amounted to total military control until late 1998, with civilian administrators effectively marginalized.
Almost every family in the three districts of Aceh where military operations were concentrated was affected. In late July, I met with eleven young people, now in their twenties, whose fathers disappeared in 1990 and 1991. One of them remembers soldiers coming to his house and making him lead them to the ricefields where his father, suspected of giving food to the guerrillas, was working. When they got to the fields, his father wasn't there. As punishment, the soldiers put the boy's hand on the ground and systematically smashed all the fingers on one hand with a rock. He was twelve at the time; his hand remains misshapen today. His father was arrested shortly thereafter and has never been seen since.
The cumulative impact of the DOM-era abuses was not felt until after President Soeharto stepped down in May 1998, and the political climate opened up. Then from June to August 1998, revelations of atrocities filled local newspapers and nightly television broadcasts, leading to expectations that military forces would be withdrawn, perpetrators prosecuted, and victims compensated. In August, General Wiranto, commander of Indonesia's armed forces, announced the formal ending of military operations, but a ceremony on August 31 to mark the withdrawal of troops turned into an ugly riot, as angry Acehnese stoned the soldiers, then went on a rampage through the city of Lhokseumawe. While the initial stoning may have been spontaneous, there is some evidence that the violence which followed involved local officers, unhappy at leaving lucrative extra budgetary sources of income, such as illegal logging and marijuana cultivation.
Between August 1998 and the end of the year, not a single move was made to hold Indonesian soldiers accountable for atrocities, despite all the new information that had emerged. At the end of January 1999, an all-Aceh student congress proposed a referendum on Aceh's political status, and the idea caught fire across the province, taken up by activists, local government officials, and candidates for parliament in the June 1998 election. Moderate Acehnese leaders told Human Rights Watch in February 1999 that one trial of an officer for abuses during the DOM period could have halted the referendum movement in its tracks, but it didn't happen. Instead, GAM effectively took over from the students the task of popular mobilization, and the demand shifted from a referendum to independence.
At the same time that more and more atrocities were coming to light, more and more GAM rebels were returning to Indonesia. Some of the top field commanders apparently returned to Aceh in a shipload of 545 Acehnese deportees, sent back from Malaysia in late March 1998. But many more returned following Soeharto's fall that May, mostly from Malaysia but also from Libya; some also emerged from hiding in Aceh itself. They began organizing throughout the districts of North Aceh, Pidie, and East Aceh and in some parts of West and South Aceh. According to residents of those areas we interviewed in late July, the main vehicle for getting the independence message across was the khotbah or sermon at the local mosque, and the message was simple: Aceh has been oppressed too long, and with independence, all citizens will have guaranteed employment, free education, and a free pilgrimage to Mecca. GAM leaders are also reportedly telling their followers that they have the support of twenty-three countries, and if East Timor could get as far as it has with the support of just one (Portugal), the prospects for Acehnese independence are bright. An activist who questioned the extent of GAM's international support found himself threatened several days later.
As the movement gathered strength, fueled in large part by ham-handed army efforts to crush it, GAM leaders gradually took over some government functions. One woman from Lhokseumawe said when people want to get married in and around Kandang, a GAM stronghold on the outskirts of the city, they don't go to the Office of Religious Affairs any longer; they get GAM witnesses instead. It is the local GAM commander who settles disputes and signs documents for sale and purchase of land. The district court in Lhokseumawe has stopped functioning, all cases have been postponed, and most of the judges have moved to Medan, capital of North Sumatra, the province to the south.
GAM has never been particularly respectful of human rights, and it's not now. More than one hundred "executions" of suspected informers or cuak have taken place in Aceh since late 1998. While many in Aceh accuse the army of the killings in an effort to discredit GAM, many of these killings do appear to be the work of the guerrillas. One GAM rebel told a man who questioned the practice, "We don't have resources to build a prison, so our prison is the ground." Dozens of government installations, including schools and subdistrict government offices, have been burned, and government employees attacked or threatened, and some people forced from their homes.
Not all of the attacks attributed to GAM have necessarily been carried out by them; GAM has vigorously denied the school burnings, and reports abound of soldiers disguising themselves as members of a "false GAM" and carrying out actions designed to look the real GAM look bad. Nevertheless, GAM abuses are real, and no one should romanticize the movement.
But those abuses pale beside Indonesian army and police excesses. It's as though all the latter know how to do is open fire, and as the casualties mount, so does support for GAM. On May 3, security forces opened fire on a pro-independence rally, killing more than 40. On July 23 in West Aceh, a combined police and army force surrounded a religious school where it believed weapons had been hidden. The followers of the charismatic religious leader there, Teungku Bantaqiah, were mowed down by bullets as were the teungku and his wife. Over fifty bodies have been recovered from the site. Not a single soldier was wounded, suggesting the followers were unarmed, and reportedly only four weapons were found in the school. The army had earlier suggested that the school was a major ammunition and weapons depot for GAM.
On August 1, the police commander for Aceh announced that a major new counterinsurgency operation, called Operation Sadar Rencong II, was being initiated that would involve at least 5,000 new police and army, added to the 5,000 troops already in place. The operation would also involve civilian militias, known as Wanra or Kamra, another virtual guarantee of human rights abuses if past experience is any guide. The operation, according to a local newspaper, was designed to secure the key road from Banda Aceh to Medan as well as the Strait of Malacca, and to hunt down arrest, and punish GAM members(1). That operation, given past history of botched operations and terrorization of the civilian population, is likely to mean disaster for ordinary Acehnese.
The Indonesian government has a right to quell insurgencies and protect citizens within its borders, but that right does not mean license to kill, torture, or arbitrarily detain. In January, when soldiers beat to death several suspected GAM detainees, some of whom had no connection whatsoever to the movement, the army was quick to arrest and punish those responsible. But such quick action has not been repeated, and as the insurgency has grown stronger, the army's tendency has been to ignore or explain away human rights violations by its own members.
What can the international community do? First, it can continue to press both President Habibie and General Wiranto for prosecutions of officers responsible for grave abuses during DOM. Habibie formally apologized to the people of Aceh for the abuses earlier this year, but such apologies carry no weight unless some form of redress, including prosecution in court, takes place.
Second, it can urge the Indonesian government to reduce troop strength in Aceh. Such a reduction would be a huge confidence-building measure by the Indonesian government toward the Acehnese. True, the conflict is escalating, but in the past, more troops have just meant more massacres, and that pattern appears to be continuing. Moreover, fewer troops might force the government to explore non-military solutions.
The Acehnese we interviewed also want a third party to mediate the conflict. The government thus far has rejected it out of hand; it does not want to give legitimacy to GAM.
(1) "Kapolri Nyatankan Perang Terbuka dengan GBPK Aceh," Waspada, August 2, 1999.
- East Timor was never considered part of Indonesia until its forcible annexation in 1976. Aceh, the westernmost part of the Dutch East Indies, was integral to the Indonesian nationalist movement from the beginning.
- East Timor has some 800,000 people and few resources, although it produces coffee, and exploration for oil is continuing offshore. Aceh has four million people and is rich in oil, gas, timber, and minerals, as well as being an extremely fertile agricultural region.
- East Timor's guerrillas had no known international assistance in terms of arms or training. Aceh's guerrillas are reportedly receiving arms through Malaysia and Thailand, and some have received training in Libya.
- East Timor is overwhelmingly Catholic, and its people had strong support from the Catholic church worldwide and from the West, through the presence of large expatriate communities in Portugal and Australia. Aceh is overwhelmingly Muslim, and its sufferings, if not its independence struggle, have generated strong sympathy within Indonesia, and to some extent from Muslim communities abroad. There is a large expatriate community of Acehnese in Malaysia.
- East Timor's armed resistance had strong popular support from the outset. Aceh Merdeka's support in the late 1970s was largely restricted to one district, Aceh Pidie. From 1980 to 1989, it was quiescent. When it flared again in 1989, its guerrillas were present in more districts but its popular support was still limited. It has only emerged as a genuinely grassroots insurgency in the past six months.