Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page


The conflict in Aceh is an increasingly brutal war with both sides violating humanitarian law with impunity. Fighting intensified after then Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid issued Presidential Instruction (Inpres) No. 4 on April 11, 2001, ostensibly designed to find a comprehensive solution to the conflict.1

On one side are the Indonesian government forces, both police (Polisi Republik Indonesia, or Polri) and military (Tentara Nasional Indonesia, or TNI), with some 30,000 personnel in the field, poorly trained and poorly paid.2 If for the first three months of 2001, the army seemed to grudgingly accept President Wahid's reluctance to move forward with "limited" military operations, by May, the president's own inclinations had become irrelevant. Indonesian security forces moved forward with an all-out offensive to crush "separatists" without any apparent appreciation of the political dynamics of guerrilla war - i.e. that brutality toward civilians on the part of counterinsurgency forces leads to ever more support for the insurgency.

On the other side are the forces of the Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM) or the Free Aceh Movement, an increasingly well-organized and motivated force of perhaps 10,000 regulars, less than 2,000 of whom may be armed.3 The titular leader of GAM, Hasan di Tiro, lives in exile in Sweden, and is more of a figurehead than an operational commander.

Neither side appears to be serious about holding members of its respective forces accountable. The government forces refer to GAM as "armed civilian gangs" (gerombolan sipil bersenjata or GSB). The rebels refer to the government forces as "Indonesian soldier-bandits" (serdadu bandit Indonesia or SBI). Both sides make use of individuals in civilian clothes to carry out operations, and the most frequent perpetrators of targeted executions and mass arson are "unknown persons," orang tidak kenal or OTK. The army and police use troops out of uniform so they can avoid responsibility for abuses and put the blame on GAM. GAM reportedly sometimes sends members into action without uniform, so that if they are killed by the army, GAM can claim them as civilian victims. It also frequently blames actions by its own forces on the other side.

Neither weapons nor vehicles are a reliable guide to the identities of those who perpetrate abuses. The Indonesian security forces remain the major source of GAM weapons, and both sides commandeer vehicles with such regularity that the person who uses the vehicle in committing an abuse may have no relation to the vehicle's owner. The description "OTK" thus becomes a convenient cover for both sides. Indeed, in some of the highest profile killings in Aceh in 2001, it remains unclear which side was responsible.

One example is the murder of Haji Djohan, the provincial chairman of the former ruling party, Golkar, in Banda Aceh on May 10, 2001, just as he was leaving the city's main mosque after sunset prayers. He was killed by two men on a motorcycle as he stepped off the mosque grounds. The immediate assumption was that GAM was responsible. Djohan was not only a Golkar member; he was also a retired major general in the Indonesian army, a former regional commander for Aceh, and deputy speaker of the provincial parliament. All those factors would seem to make him a logical target of GAM, and a series of arson attacks on the homes of provincial parliamentarians, almost certainly carried out by GAM, lent further credence to that logic.

But Djohan had also been a vocal critic of military abuses and had maintained good personal relations with many GAM leaders. The day after he was killed he had been due to give a press conference in which he reportedly planned to criticize violence on the part of both sides. Both sides have strenuously denied responsibility for his death, and his killers remain unknown.4

Even when the identities of the perpetrators are indisputable, punishment is rare. There are no functioning courts in conflict-wracked districts with the exception of the provincial capital, Banda Aceh.5 A tiny minority of soldiers or police may face disciplinary action for certain kinds of extortion, but Human Rights Watch does not know of a single case since the beginning of 2001 where a soldier or police officer responsible for civilian deaths, torture, or destruction of property in areas suspected of being GAM strongholds has been punished. The government is more likely to excuse such behavior as the "emotional" reaction of men who have seen their colleagues and family members attacked.

Both sides use operatives who are little better than thugs. In the Lhokseumawe area, the most notorious military informer was Ampon Thaib, the man named as a suspect in the killings in December 2000 of three workers for the torture rehabilitation organization called RATA. Ampon Thaib, according to Lhokseumawe residents, had killed on order for the military since the early 1990s.6

GAM, for its part, uses within its forces some young men whose main motivation appears to be less the struggle for independence than the possibilities for extortion that possession of a gun opens up. One GAM official told Human Rights Watch that, as a matter of policy, only the wealthy and government civil servants were targeted for extortion (he used the English word).7 That same day, however, Human Rights Watch learned of an incident in Aceh Besar district in which a young man with a gun tried to extort money and seize a motorcycle from an NGO, and was only stopped from doing so when a staff member of the NGO telephoned a GAM leader he knew to protest.

As GAM's influence was growing, through May 2001, it appeared that some people might pretend to belong to GAM as a way of gaining respect from other Acehnese, and not all actions committed in GAM's name were sanctioned by the leadership in Banda Aceh. While GAM appeared to be improving its command-and-control capacity, it was clear that its rank-and-file forces are not as always as disciplined as its commanders would have liked.

According to a senior police officer interviewed by Human Rights Watch in Banda Aceh, the difference between crimes committed by government forces and by GAM was that the former were committed by individuals - oknum, to use the Indonesian word - while GAM committed crimes as a matter of policy.8 As an example, he compared the illegal levies imposed by soldiers on drivers using the main Banda Aceh-Medan highway with the illegal "taxes" collected by GAM. There was no institutional policy on the part of the army or police to collect money from motorists, he said; this was unauthorized behavior on the part of individual soldiers. By contrast, he said, GAM taxation of villagers, was a policy implemented on orders from the top of the GAM organization. Human Rights Watch, however, has ample evidence to suggest that serious human rights violations, not only extortion, are allowed to go unpunished by TNI and Polri as a matter of policy. The notion of crimes committed by the security forces in this war being individual aberrations simply does not hold up.

While there is some understanding by both sides that civilian lives and property should be respected, neither party to the conflict has much appreciation of the requirements of international humanitarian law. For example, a senior police official in Banda Aceh gave Human Rights Watch a list of alleged human rights violations by "GSB"-the derogatory initials that security forces use for GAM - in which no distinction was made between deaths of soldiers in armed clashes and killings of civilians.9 Some GAM officials, for their part, saw nothing wrong with their organization's forcible expulsions of ethnic Javanese from Aceh. GAM leaders clearly understood the army's torching of entire villages in retaliation for an attack by their forces on a military truck or convoy as unacceptable collective punishment; they did not see their policies toward ethnic Javanese - explained as resulting from the need to prevent the Indonesian government from using Javanese as spies or militia members - in the same light.

1 According to one of the more cautious estimates, 144 people were killed from May 1 to June 5, 2001, including 102 non-combatants. (The total death toll for the month of June 2000, by contrast, was seventeen.) The figures come from the documentation division of Forum Peduli HAM Aceh, a Banda Aceh-based NGO, and are somewhat lower than estimates of other organizations. They include deaths of rebels (thirty-two) and TNI/police (ten). See "Sebulan, 144 Tewas," Serambi Indonesia, June 7, 2001. A nurse working in Banda Aceh's main hospital told Human Rights Watch in mid-May 2001, however, that he believed the TNI consistently underreported its own casualties, because he had witnessed more bodies being quietly taken to the airport than were ever reported in the press.

2 Estimates of the police and army presence vary greatly depending on the source. One source with good links to the Indonesian armed forces estimated that as of late April 2001, the TNI force in Aceh numbered 12,000 and the police force around 20,000. John Haseman, "Jakarta hardens Indonesia policy," Jane's Defence Weekly, May 2, 2001.

3 International Crisis Group, "Aceh: Why Military Force Won't Bring Lasting Peace," ICG Asia Report No. 17, June 12, 2001.

4 During a visit to Banda Aceh two days after the murder of Djohan, Human Rights Watch spoke with GAM officials, the head of the provincial police, NGOs, and Djohan's widow about the killing.

5 See below, Section IX.

6 Human Rights Watch interview, May 12, 2001.

7 Human Rights Watch interview with GAM official, Banda Aceh, May 22, 2001.

8 Human Rights Watch interview in Banda Aceh, May 19, 2001.

9 The list was compiled and bound by the informal unit of the provincial police with the title, Polri Daerah Istimewa Aceh, Satgas Penerangan, "Laporan Pelanggaran HAM Yang Dilakukan Pok GSB Aceh Merdeka Periode Bulan Oktober 2000 d/d Mei 2001," Banda Aceh, May 2001.

Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page