Indonesia: The Post-Soeharto Period FREE    Join the HRW Mailing List 
Indonesia: Civilians Targeted in Aceh
A Human Rights Watch Press Backgrounder

Human rights conditions have taken a significant turn for the worse in Aceh in the past six months. Civilians continue to be caught in the middle of conflict between government troops and rebels belonging to the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka or GAM). Recent months have witnessed not only intensification of the fighting, but increasing reliance by both sides on tactics that put civilians directly at risk.

The Indonesian government has taken some tentative steps to address deep-seated public grievances in the province, but there has been no decisive break with past practices. The government's methods have continued to include brutal counterinsurgency measures that fail adequately to distinguish between combatants and civilians. According to Acehnese monitoring groups, over fifty noncombatants are being killed each month, some singled out for suspected sympathy to the rebels, others killed when soldiers open fire on vehicles at checkpoints or raid homes in search of rebels. Over the past year, activists, students, and volunteers delivering aid to encampments of Acehnese villagers displaced by the conflict have also faced army and police aggression.

Related Material

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A Human Rights Watch Press Backgrounder, August 1999

Indonesia: The May 3, 1999 Killings in Aceh
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On the rebel side, there is evidence that GAM guerrillas, who have significantly stepped up ambush killings of police and military, have physically threatened non-Achenese communities in Aceh, leading thousands to flee the province. The guerrillas have also reportedly summarily executed suspected informers and prisoners.

This briefing provides an overview of the conflict and describes the recent increase in attacks on civilians, giving particular attention to attacks on humanitarian aid workers. It concludes with specific recommendations for combatting the continuing deterioration of civilian safety.


Twenty-three years ago, a small group of separatists declared Aceh's "independence" from Indonesia and have been fighting a guerrilla war ever since. Although the rebels have grown stronger over the past two years as exiles returned from abroad and the political climate within Indonesia has allowed more channels for expression of popular support, the rebels have never been particularly respectful of other people's rights and are by no means universally well liked in Aceh.

Starting in the late 1980s, the rebels, using weapons acquired largely from raids on Indonesian military posts within Aceh, carried out attacks on soldiers and non-Acehnese migrants to the region. The Indonesian army's response was disproportionate to the threat. Using indiscriminate force, the army killed 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 Acehnese disappeared.

When Soeharto was forced to step down as Indonesia's President in May 1998, Acehnese expected rapid change. Soeharto's successor, B.J. Habibie, apologized for past abuses and established an investigative team which, in meetings with Acehnese, eventually received some 1,700 reports of "disappearance" and were presented with extensive evidence of military atrocities. In 1999, however, there was a string of new military attacks and civilian casualties, this time fueling a massive civilian response.

Responsibility for one of those attacks, a massacre of a religious teacher and over fifty of his pupils at an Islamic boarding school, is now the subject of a trial in the provincial capital Banda Aceh. In court sessions in early May 2000, a series of soldiers testified that they summarily executed twenty-six students who had been apprehended during attacks on the school. The soldiers testified that they had been ordered by their commanding officer to "school" the youth, a term the soldiers said was often used by local troops as a euphemism for executing a detainee. The commanding officer in question, Lt. Colonel Sudjono, originally named as a key suspect in the massacre, has been missing for several months and is not present at the trial. Without his testimony, it is unlikely that the trial will produce significant evidence on the chain of command involved in the decision to open fire.

Since Soeharto's fall, the situation in Aceh has become increasingly complex. A broad-based coalition of students, clerics, intellectuals, civil servants, and entrepreneurs--though opposed to the violent methods of the rebels-- have become outraged at the government's failure to put an end to the military's dismal record of abuses in the province and now share the insurgents' anti-Jakarta sentiment. Distrust of Jakarta runs deep, as do demands for justice for the perceived wrongs heaped on Aceh for more than a decade, and demands for more equitable sharing of the substantial revenues produced by oil, natural gas, and other extraction industries. Greater political, social, and economic autonomy are objectives now widely shared among Acehnese.

Although there has been an overall increase in support for the rebel movement, the popularity of the rebels among ordinary Acehnese has continued to wax and wane depending on the perceived viability of other means of achieving greater autonomy.

One particularly disturbing aspect of the conflict has been the increasing frequency of "mysterious shootings" and assassinations by unknown third parties. Although a few such acts may be the work of local thugs settling scores, most appear to have a political objective, and rumors abound that most of the recent killings are the work of rogue soldiers or former soldiers seeking to destabilize the situation. Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid has conceded that former soldiers are to blame for much of the violence but has said that security forces have so far been unable to apprehend the suspects.

The Wahid Administration's Response

The government of Abdurrahman Wahid, which took office in October 1999, inherited the morass in Aceh and is trying a carrot and stick approach. President Wahid has called on security forces to use peaceful means wherever possible, rejected what would have been a disastrous declaration of martial law for the province, and supported dialogue between civilian leaders and parties to the conflict. In pursuing such policies, he has had to oversome significant resistance from military leaders who still wield considerable political power in Indonesia. The Wahid government has also proposed greater political autonomy and pledged a significant increase in Aceh's share of the enormous natural gas revenues in the province. The pledges are significant, but a long history of broken promises has created deep-seated suspicion in Aceh that will not easily be overcome.

At the same time, security forces have stepped up counterinsurgency efforts in response to attacks on patrolling security forces by rebels. These operations include house-to-house sweeps and checkpoint searches that have been accompanied by arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, extrajudicial killings, and other serious abuses. Although de facto martial law, in effect for a decade, was revoked with great fanfare in August 1998, there have been a succession of police and military operations since then, often involving the presence of numerous troops from outside the province. Operation Wibawa [Authority] quickly followed the end of martial law in August 1998. This was followed in June 1999 with the arrival of contingents of special troops to "safeguard" the June 1999 elections.

Since late 1999, Aceh has been the focus of a counterinsurgency operation called Operation Sadar Rencong [Acehnese Ceremonial Dagger]. Phase I of the operation, unannounced, appears to have been simply the continuation of Operation Wibawa, described above. Phase II began in August 1999 with at least 5,000 new police and army added to the several thousand troops already in place. The operation was also said to involve civilian militias, a practice that has led to serious human rights abuses in the past.(1) In addition to the above operations, hundreds of other troops have been brought in to protect sensitive areas such as foreign oil and gas installations.

Sadar Rencong III

Under President Wahid, counterinsurgency operations have expanded. Since early February 2000, the security forces have mounted Sadar Rencong III, an operation reportedly designed to find and arrest some 800 GAM members. The operation was launched following a spate of killings of security forces in ambushes. According to police figures, fifty-three policemen were killed from July to December 1999 alone, and many more were injured. The counterinsurgency operations initiated in response, however, have relied heavily on roadblocks and brutal house-to-house searches often accompanied by indiscriminate violence against unarmed civilians. Activists and local humanitarian aid workers, whom many soldiers see as siding with the rebels, have been directly targeted. Acehnese contacted by Human Rights Watch in March and April claimed that the government is targeting civilians believed sympathetic to the rebels. Citing field research and information from hospitals and morgues, the Indonesia human rights organization Kontras recorded a surge in violence from December 1999 to March 2000, including 74 disappearances and 232 killings, most of whom were said to be noncombatants.

The rise in abductions and killings in the first months of 2000 prompted the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to issue a rare public statement strongly condemning the escalation and its impact on civilian populations, including thousands of internally displaced people. The ICRC director-general described the situation as "very critical," and noted that up to thirty people asked the Red Cross for help each week in finding family members who had disappeared.(2)

An incident in March vividly demonstrated the inconsistencies in the government's approach, suggesting the difficulties the Wahid adminstration is having in controlling the army. On March 16, 2000, an unprecedented meeting took place between Indonesian acting State Secretary Bondan Gunawan, a key advisor of Wahid, and the GAM field commander Abdullah Syafi'ie. Although the meeting was said to have been constructive, and to have laid the groundwork for greater trust between the warring parties in the future, it was followed by army actions that negated any of the gains that had been achieved. Despite army promises not to conduct "sweeps, arrests, or violence" in the area, the leading Indonesian daily Kompas reported that before dawn on the morning of March 17, security forces moved into four villages near where the meeting had taken place in Glumpang Tiga subdistrict, Pidie district. Pounding on doors, the security officer examined the papers of every resident and asked where Syafi'ie was hiding. Many were punched or threatened with rifle butts. "My chin needed stitches after being hit with a rifle butt," said Asnawi Jusuf (22), a farmer accused of being a member of GAM. Jusuf, found sleeping in a village hall in Meunasah Keupula, was beaten together with six other youths.(3) A military spokesman first denied that the event had ever occurred, and then backtracked, stating that further inquiry was necessary.

Internal Displacement

Whole villages have been displaced by the fighting. Displacement in Aceh tends to be a short-term, localized phenomenon. Typically following a nearby clash between security forces and separatists, or simply the appearance of troops in the area, rural inhabitants travel to the nearest market town, often the subdistrict capital. They typically stay on the grounds of the mosque for days or months until they feel it is safe to return.

Displacement reached a peak in June and July 1999, with an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 internally displaced people (IDPs).(4) The numbers have since gone down, with a big drop when people went home for the fasting month of Ramadan in December and January. Continuing clashes and sweeps, however, mean that a new round of displacement could occur at any time, just as fighting in January produced new waves of displaced persons in Pidie and South Aceh.

Although Human Rights Watch has not been able to confirm or deny the allegations, there have been reports that both army and GAM combatants have manipulated flows of displaced persons. Aid workers have alleged that soldiers have prevented villagers in some cases from leaving their homes and, in other cases, have emptied camps by force. There have also been allegations that GAM has caused or at least directed displacement, discouraging people from going to stay with relatives instead of in a large, centralized camp. Possible reasons include the greater visibility that large displaced populations give the Aceh problem, and the opportunities camps provide for GAM to recruit and travel among the wider community.

Attacks on humanitarian aid workers

There are increasing numbers of student groups, NGOs, journalists, and others traveling to investigate and assist displaced populations and victims of human rights violations. Activists and student volunteers have been subject to arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, physical assault, and in several cases disappearance or extrajudicial killing. Attacks on activists have been well documented.(5) There has been less attention paid to aid workers and volunteers who have also been targeted.

There are a small number of international or national aid agencies operating in Aceh, including Oxfam UK, MSF, Save the Children, and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Most have begun operations only recently, and must contend with the obstacles inherent in a conflict situation with quickly shifting populations.

In this context, numerous student and other local NGO efforts have sprung up to assist displaced populations. Some of these voluntary groups have links to more politically active student organizations that are calling for a referendum on independence, but even such groups officially remain separate entities with humanitarian aims. They provide food and basic health supplies, and also report on human rights abuses or help people find missing family members.

Given the central role of students in demonstrations and in the referendum movement, and the fact that some volunteers also participate in pro-referendum activities, security forces either do not believe or do not understand the humanitarian intent of such groups. Although members of other NGOs have also been subject to arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, and obstruction to their work, student volunteers have been singled out for harsh treatment. The root of the problem is that the army views both displaced people themselves and those that come to their aid with suspicion.

Several Acehnese volunteers interviewed by Human Rights Watch explained that, after a rebel attack on police or military personnel, volunteers in the vicinity are often caught up in the sweeps or singled out for revenge attacks. Volunteer posts, typically set up by students to coordinate aid efforts and disseminate information are a frequent target. Volunteers told Human Rights Watch of cases in which posts were razed, volunteers physically attacked and detained, and medicine and supplies seized. As one volunteer who had worked at a post near a large camp for displaced villagers told Human Rights Watch: "After a clash in Cot Bate, 20 km away, 50 officers came to the volunteer post. They destroyed it and took medicine [we had planned to deliver to the camps] saying 'This medicine is for GAM, not the people.'"(6)

Access to victims is also often limited. One aid volunteer interviewed by Human Rights Watch made clear that even hospitals are not safe:

Around evening prayer gunshots rang out, and people later found [a man hiding] in a canal. He had been tortured, a man named Armiya (26). We brought him to Lhokseumawe General Hospital. We think he was victim of a sweeping that took place five days earlier, one of ten people detained. He told us while we were bringing him to the hospital that he he'd been taken to Lhokseumawe District Military Command 113. He couldn't take the torture any longer and tried to escape, but he was shot twice and hid in the canal.

At the hospital soldiers and intelligence were circling the building. At 11:00 p.m. more officers came, I think Gegana [elite police officers] and Brimob [police mobile brigade]. They started inspecting the rooms, looking for the victim, so we left the building. We hid outside and watched them wheel him to the military hospital next door, Kasrem Lilawangsa. According to a member of the hospital staff who wouldn't tell us his name, the victim was tortured more. We never found out what happened to him."(7)

Military leaders have said that volunteers should be treated well, but they have not carried through. Colonel Tippe, who commands half the province, has also stated that "TNI [Tentara Nasional Indonesia - the Indonesian army] soldiers should be thankful to the volunteers, who have helped in some TNI tasks. These volunteers are actually coworkers and colleagues of TNI. They are not to be considered enemies or injured. In fact we need to give them protection."(8) In early January 2000, Aceh police chief Brig. Gen. Bahrunsyah Kasman met with some 50 hunger strikers from the People's Crisis Center (PCC), a student humanitarian organization that spun off from the more politically minded pro-referendum organization SMUR. Responding to their demands to stop attacks on volunteers, Brig. Gen. Kasman promised to act on any reports he received of his men mistreating volunteers. Volunteers report that such statements by commanders have not been implemented.

According to one student who had volunteered to assist displaced people, hatred is particularly directed against humanitarian aid workers:

On January 6, a bus of us heading home for the Ramadan holiday was stopped around 4:00 at a joint Brimob/Koramil [Subdistrict Military Command] sweep at Kuala subdistrict, West Aceh. They asked "Who here is a humanitarian volunteer?" A few didn't have ID cards so they went through our bags to look for ID cards. One of them hit me with his gun five times, threatening "I'll give you internal injuries." All 30 of us were beaten, about half of us badly. Then they made us lie down in the mud of the rice paddy. They said "Its a good thing you're just students. If you were humanitarian workers we would have killed you."(9)

In an incident documented by a local Acehnese human rights group, six volunteers in Bakongan, South Aceh district, were stripped and tortured by members of Infantry Battalion 131/Padang on November 18, 1999, after they questioned TNI efforts to disperse an encampment of displaced villagers. Some 1,400 inhabitants from the villages of Ujong Pulo Rayeuk, Ujong Pulo Cut, and Keude Bakongan had taken refuge in two area mosques following TNI sweeps through the villages. According to the account, at 4:30 p.m. a volunteer in the yard of the Baitul Halim mosque saw approximately fifteen soldiers from Bakongan subdistrict military command aiming their weapons at villagers and ordering the 162 families there to leave. The students were interrogated and accused of being provocateurs responsible for inducing the people to leave their homes. After 45 minutes the camp had been cleared and the students were taken to the soldiers' barracks.(10)

One detainee's account follows:

"We were ordered to line up in the visitor room, measuring 4 x 6 meters, in the dark. Then I was told to take off my clothes except for my bathing suit. Then the Danton [platoon commander] entered and I was immediately hit with the gun butt three times in the chest and three times in the face, and kicked in the chest until I was bleeding. This went on for 30 minutes.

We were separated and put in two rooms of three persons each, once in my room I was stripped naked, jabbed and kicked all over my body for about an hour. . . I was accused of being GAM and made to admit I was a GAM member. Then a soldier yelled outside "Is the grave ready?"(11)

According to the account, the five other detainees were then ordered to the front room and told to sit in front of a GAM flag that had been put up. They were told to dress and were threatened "If you report this incident then we will find you where ever you are and shoot you all. If we can't find you we'll wipe out your whole family." At 12:15 a.m. the five were sent home, and the sixth was released in the evening of the next day.(12)

The volunteers decided to go public with their story, holding a press conference and bringing a complaint to the National Human Rights Commission representative for Aceh. Military Resort Commander Col. Syarifuddin Tippe promised that Second Lt. R Sumanti, of Infantry Battalion 131 Padang, and five of his men would soon be brought to a military court, pledging that "we will not hesitate to act on TNI officers that offend the people. Quickly report it to me, and I will surely act."(13) To date, however, there have been no prosecutions.

Intimidation of Civilians by Rebels

There is evidence that GAM has pressured non-Acehnese residents, some of whom have lived in Aceh for decades, to flee the province. Since mid-1999, many migrants from other parts of Sumatra have returned home, while Javanese have either gone back to Java or are living in temporary camps just over the border in North Sumatra. Flows increased prior to the December 4, 1999 anniversary of GAM's declaration of independence, when violence was anticipated, and continued into the new year. Although not all attacks on non-Acehnese can be attributed to GAM, and in some cases, may be the work of third parties seeking to further polarize the conflict and lay the blame on GAM, there is also evidence of GAM involvement.

Departure of non-Acehnese typically has followed acts of violence or threats of violence. One woman from Julok, East Aceh district, told Human Rights Watch that she left home at the beginning of January 2000 after the local village head was killed by unknown men.(14) A Javanese man from Simpang Kiri subdistrict, South Aceh, who had lived in the province since 1985, told Human Rights Watch "I'm telling you what happened and no more. In our village GAM showed us a bullet and said we had a choice of the bullet or the road. GAM flags were kept up long after December 4 [the GAM anniversary] . . . We were threatened both to go and not to go, to make us afraid and confused."(15)

Human Rights Watch was shown a letter that an eyewitness said had been posted in his village under the letterhead ASNLF (Acheh-Sumatra National Liberation Front - another name used by GAM).(16) The letter contained warnings to district and subdistrict heads, the army, and migrants: "Javanese transmigrants in Aceh-Sumatra must soon pull out. Do not stay in Aceh-Sumatra, complain to your king who tortures you."

The civilian population thus finds itself caught between two armed groups, and displacement itself has become highly politicized. Civilians are caught in the middle.


Indonesia's donors must insist that military abuses end and that all cases of arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, rape, summary execution, and other offenses are fully and impartially investigated and vigorously prosecuted. Foreign military assistance programs, including training and the transfer of weapons and arms supplies, should be conditioned on concrete progress in ending abuses in Aceh and bringing to justice soldiers, including senior military commanders, responsible for serious human rights violations.

Security forces and GAM rebels must maintain the distinction between combatants and civilians and fully respect the protections contained in the Geneva Accords and the U.N.'s Guiding Principles on Internally Displaced Persons, including the principle that "[e]very internally displaced person has the right to liberty of movement and freedom to choose his or her residence."(17) The current counterinsurgency operation, Sadar Rencong III, which military officials themselves have described as employing "repressive" tactics, is widely perceived as responsible for a sharp increase in civilian fatalities. The operation should be ended or revised immediately and replaced by an approach based on commitment to civilian safety.

The government of President Wahid should take immediate action to end army attacks against the staff of humanitarian organizations and other civilians in Aceh. Both the government and GAM should allow unimpeded access by humanitarian personnel and relief workers assisting civilians. Volunteers and security forces alike should receive training in principles of humanitarian assistance.

Aceh needs a comprehensive justice effort. The Indonesian Human Rights Commission recently announced its intention to set up a commission of inquiry for Aceh similar to the one created to investigate the army-backed, orchestrated mayhem that wracked East Timor after the U.N.-sponsored vote there in September 1999. Creation of such a commission would be an important first step. Investigations should get underway as soon as possible, and should be followed by prosecutions and a systematic accounting of gross rights violations going back at least to 1989, when indiscriminate military response to rebel attacks first claimed large numbers of civilian casualties.

1 "Kapolri Nyatankan Perang Terbuka dengan GBPK Aceh," Waspada, August 2, 1999.

2 "Aceh atrocities 'commonplace'," Associated Press, March 15, 2000

3 "Aparat Obrak-abrik Empat Desa - Usai Pertemuan Abdullah Syafi'ie-Bondan Gunawan," Kompas, March 18, 2000

4 "East Timorese Trickle Home From West Timor; Widespread Displacement in Aceh," US Committee for Refugees, 24 Nov 1999

5 "Indonesia: Acehnese Human Rights Defenders under Attack," Amnesty International, February 23, 2000.

6 Human Rights Watch interview, Banda Aceh, January 19, 2000

7 Human Rights Watch interview, Banda Aceh, January 18, 2000.

8 KIPTKA Kecewa, Rekomendasi Kasus Aceh Tidak Ditindaklanjuti, Suara Pembaruan, 24 November

9 Human Rights Watch interviews, Banda Aceh, January 19-20, 2000. The statements were independently confirmed by another passenger on the bus also interviewed by Human Rights Watch.

10 "Kronologis Penangkapan dan penyiksaan aktivis kemanusiaan di Bakongan Aceh Selatan," LBH, undated (copy on file at Human Rights Watch).

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid.

13 Melecehkaan Relawan Anggota TNI Akan Dimahmilkan, Waspada, November 26, 1999

14 Human Rights Watch interview, Medan, January 21, 2000.

15 Human Rights Watch interview, Medan, January 21, 2000.

16 Dated August 14, 1999, the letterhead had an address in Sweden, where GAM's leader Hasan di Tiro lives in exile, but appeared to be signed by two local officials.

17 Principle 14 (1), Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, Secretary General's Special Representative on Internally Displaced People/ OCHA.