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The conflict in Aceh has worsened dramatically since the fall of President Soeharto in 1998. While GAM has been in existence since 1976, it is only in the last two years that it has developed a significant popular base, a steady source of arms, and a relatively well-organized command structure. By July 2001, it exercised control over much of Aceh, with a particularly strong presence in six of the most populous, and wealthiest, districts.

When GAM was formed in 1976, its architects stressed the plundering of Aceh's wealth and resources by "Javanese-Indonesian" colonialists in the name of development and the need to recapture Aceh's past glory.10 Economic grievances were and continue to be important, but the more immediate spur to the independence movement has been the failure of the post-Soeharto governments to address human rights abuses of the past, particularly those committed between 1990 and 1998.

The "DOM" Period
In 1989, over one hundred Libyan-trained GAM guerrillas returned to Aceh with rudimentary military training to try and give the then moribund rebellion a new lease on life. After they mounted a series of attacks on military and police posts, culminating in one raid on a police post in May 1990 that netted ammunition and dozens of automatic weapons, the Soeharto government declared Aceh an area of military operations (daerah operasi militer or DOM) and mounted one of the heaviest counterinsurgency campaigns seen since the 1960s.

Well over one thousand Acehnese civilians were killed in the first three years of operations, the worst phase of DOM. The most conservative accounting of victims, prepared by the provincial government in late 1998, documented 871 people killed outright by the army, and 387 missing who later turned up dead. More than 500 others were listed as "disappeared" and never found.11 Most estimates by NGOs were at least twice as high. In addition, tens of thousands of Acehnese were imprisoned and tortured in military camps, and rape was reportedly widespread, with 102 cases documented by the local government team. So many people were affected that, today, virtually every Acehnese in the hardest-hit areas can cite a family member who was the direct target of a human rights violation - and who had no link to GAM at the time. Abuses continued through the end of DOM in August 1998, although at a lower level of intensity than in the 1990-93 period.

The resignation of Soeharto created expectations across Aceh that, at last, the truth would come out, justice would be done, and victims would be compensated. From late May 1998 onward, it was as though the lid had been suddenly blown off a pressure cooker of information. Every news broadcast on Indonesian television seemed to carry new revelations of abuses in Aceh, from testimonies of rape victims to discoveries of mass graves. New fact-finding missions were conducted, victim solidarity organizations formed, forensic training conducted. With newfound freedom of expression, assembly, and association, many more people were mobilized, not by GAM, but by student and NGO organizations, to demand justice for their relatives and establish links with each other.

In the middle of the onslaught of new information, the Habibie government acknowledged that Aceh's DOM status had never been lifted, and promised to do so forthwith. On August 7, 1998, General Wiranto, commander of Indonesia's armed forces, formally apologized to the people of Aceh for what they had endured at the military's hands. If, at this point, the Indonesian government had moved to investigate and prosecute officers for their role in the executions, "disappearances", rapes, and torture, it could have made a decisive break with the past and in all likelihood earned a measure of popular goodwill. Not only was nothing done, but key figures in the DOM hierarchy continued to occupy positions of influence throughout Indonesia.

Not long after Wiranto's apology, DOM status was formally lifted, and "non-organic" troops - that is, those not directly assigned to district, subdistrict and other territorial commands - were to be withdrawn in a ceremony at the end of August 1998. That ceremony went awry, ending in a riot in Lhokseumawe that many Acehnese believed was staged by departing troops unhappy at being taken away from their lucrative sources of income from illegal logging and marijuana cultivation in Aceh. One officer was identified by witnesses as having mobilized truckloads of youths to riot; no investigation was ever conducted.

Post-Soeharto Violence in Aceh
The year 1998 ended in a paroxysm of violence, as GAM stepped up operations. Although it never claimed responsibility, GAM was widely believed responsible for an attack on soldiers returning from holiday leave in late December. In retaliation, fellow soldiers of those killed in the attack entered a makeshift detention center where young men suspected of having links to the rebels were being held. They beat four of the detainees to death and seriously wounded many others. The soldiers and their commander were later tried and convicted by a military court, but the episode signaled the beginning of a new phase of the conflict. Instead of coming to terms with the past, the military sent more troops to Aceh. There was indeed a heightened security threat from GAM, since many Malaysia-based GAM members were returning to Indonesia as political space increased. But no one in Jakarta seemed to appreciate the degree to which anger over DOM-era abuses had changed the political dynamics in Aceh: GAM had a much more receptive audience than it had ever had before.

In early 1999, the political dynamics underwent another critical shift. President Habibie announced on January 27 that East Timorese would be given the opportunity to choose between increased autonomy and separation from Indonesia. Within days, an all-Aceh student congress had called for a referendum to be held in Aceh. That congress gave rise to a province-wide, student-led organization called SIRA: Sentral Informasi Referendum Aceh or Information Center for a Referendum on Aceh. SIRA argued that a referendum would be a peaceful way of resolving the conflict caused by what they called "state terrorism" against the Acehnese. SIRA had no known links to GAM when it began; indeed, it went contrary to GAM's philosophy to offer people a choice rather than to accept independence as the only alternative. But most of the SIRA leaders were, in fact, pro-independence, and they had no doubt that if a referendum were held, independence would be the overwhelming choice.

From February 1999 onward, four key elements came together to facilitate the rapid growth of the independence movement: an armed guerrilla organization; a nascent pro-independence political movement; and a highly mobilized population looking for channels to express their frustration with Jakarta over failure to address past abuses. The fourth was the series of missteps in Jakarta.

Failed Efforts at Accountability
In March 1999, President Habibie went to Banda Aceh and apologized for past abuses. In June, he appointed a twenty-seven-member Independent Commission to Investigate Violence in Aceh. The members, although primarily Acehnese, were not chosen in consultation with victim organizations or human rights groups in Aceh, and the committee was headed by an Acehnese woman known to have business dealings with General Wiranto. It handed in a nearly 500-page report on July 30, 1999, listing thousands of cases of violence but recommending that priority be given to only five cases - three of which occurred after the DOM status had formally been lifted. None of the best-known incidents from the DOM period were included, and in the end, only one of the five was ever brought to trial.12

In August 1999 Indonesia's National Human Rights Commission suggested that a Truth and Reconciliation Commission be set up specifically for Aceh. Nothing came of it. (A bill for a National Truth and Reconciliation Commission remained stalled in the Indonesian Parliament as of July 2001 and seemed likely to die a lingering death.) In December 1999, a special parliamentary committee on Aceh made a series of recommendations to the new president, Abdurrahman Wahid, that included rebuilding facilities destroyed over the thirty-two years of the Soeharto administration; opening a dialogue with all parties to the conflict; giving the province more autonomy; and immediately prosecuting those responsible for human rights abuses committed during the DOM period. The recommendations resulted in moves to draft legislation on autonomy, but the recommendation on prosecutions was ignored.

Not only was there no movement of any kind on prosecutions as political mobilization increased in Aceh, but there was an increase in the same types of human rights violations that had characterized the DOM period. Military operations under a series of code names - Wibawa 99, Sadar Rencong I, II, and III, and Cinta Meunasah I and II - led to more and more troops being deployed in Aceh, with whole villages being punished as retaliation for GAM attacks. Human rights and humanitarian groups began to be targeted in 2000, as were pro-referendum organizations like SIRA, especially after the latter showed in November 1999 that it could organize a peaceful demonstration of more than 500,000 on the streets of Banda Aceh in support of its stated goals.

At the same time, GAM, building on the increasing anger of a disaffected populace, began to move beyond sporadic attacks on police and soldiers and began setting up an alternative administration. Beginning in Pidie district and gradually moving on to North Aceh, West Aceh, East Aceh, and South Aceh, GAM began to reorganize the village administrative apparatus. It not only replaced the village heads - the bottom rung of the Indonesian civil service - but it reinstituted the idea of a council of village elders that had been in place before Aceh joined the Indonesian republic. Sometimes through persuasion, sometimes through abduction and a kind of reeducation of local government officials, GAM gradually took control over most governmental functions from the district level down in wide swathes of the districts mentioned above. It was able to generate substantial income in "war taxes" from individuals and businesses, and the exodus of pro-Indonesian militias from East to West Timor provided it with a major new source of arms.

Into this situation in mid-2000 came a Geneva-based conflict resolution organization, the Henri Dunant Center, later renamed the Humanitarian Dialogue Centre (HDC), which succeeded, to many people's surprise, in brokering negotiations between GAM and the Indonesian government. In May 2000, the HDC produced a "humanitarian pause" in the conflict, a not-quite ceasefire. As part of the agreement on the pause, committees were set up in Aceh, composed of both GAM and government representatives, to discuss security issues and violations of the pause. In the first months after the pause took effect, violence declined sharply. As violations by the Indonesian side increased, however, attacks by GAM on military and police also escalated. The pause was renewed twice, much to the unhappiness of the Indonesian army that saw it merely as a way for GAM to consolidate its control of the countryside. The name given the peace effort changed from "humanitarian pause" to "moratorium on violence" to "peace through dialogue," but the basic effort to keep the parties talking continued.

On March 9, 2001, Indonesia's defense minister and its armed forces commander announced new military operations against GAM. On the same day, Exxon Mobil, the region's largest foreign investor, closed three of its gasfields in North Aceh, citing attacks on its employees. Almost immediately, more troops were sent to North Aceh. The government claimed the additional troops were essential for the protection of Exxon-Mobil and the re-opening of operations, as Indonesian contracts with Japan and the Republic of Korea for sales of natural gas depended on the re-opening of the fields. (As of early August, two of the fields had reopened but with much reduced production.) Many in Aceh believed the army was using the closure of the gasfield as a pretext to start a long-planned offensive.

Presidential Instruction No.4
For the first four months of 2001, President Wahid resisted requests from Indonesia's military leaders to mount a major military operation against the rebels or to declare a civil emergency in Aceh. Under pressure, however, he issued Presidential Instruction (Inpres) No.4 of April 11, 2001.13 The instruction stated that efforts at resolving the conflict through dialogue with "armed separatists" had produced no results and that violence on the part of the latter were increasing. The government had therefore decided to adopt a more comprehensive approach, and to address the political, economic, social, law and order, security, and information and communication aspects of the problem. To do so it set up an unwieldy structure headed by the vice-president and involving fifteen cabinet members, the commanders of both TNI and Polri, the head of the national intelligence agency, the governor of Aceh and all Indonesian-appointed district heads in Aceh.

In practice, however, the main result of Inpres No.4 was the restructuring of the security apparatus responsible for Aceh. A new "Operation for the Restoration of Security and Upholding the Law"(Operasi Pemulihan Keamanan dan Penegakan Hukum or OKPH) was formed under the overall supervision of the national mobile police brigade (Brimob) commander, Yusuf Manggabarani. Under Manggabarani, who arrived in Aceh in early May 2001, Aceh's then chief of police, Brig.Gen.(Pol) Chairul Rasjid, and army commander Brig.Gen. Zamroni, were given equal responsibility for command of the operations, which were envisioned as being under police authority, but with full army back-up. Rasjid was replaced in June by Brig.Gen (Pol) Ramli Darwis. Zamroni, a former deputy commander of the army special forces (Kopassus), was to command TNI troops, including eleven companies reportedly given special training by Kopassus in West Java.14

The new troops embarked on a systematic effort to target suspected GAM strongholds and headquarters, with many claims by local organizations of civilians killed in the process. In June, Central Aceh was the site of a particularly violent eruption with the army claiming that GAM had massacred more than forty Javanese migrants on June 5-6 in the areas of Bandar and Timang Gajah, and GAM claiming that the TNI, together with a Javanese militia called Puja Kusuma, had massacred even more ethnic Acehnese and Gayo people in retaliation in the weeks that followed. (Both claims appear to be well-founded, but Human Rights Watch has not been able to independently confirm them.) Between the first week of June and mid-July, some 150 people had been confirmed dead by the Indonesian Red Cross, and 800 homes had been burned to the ground.15

When one of Indonesia's most respected human rights organizations, Kontras, tried to conduct a fact-finding mission in Central from July 7-19, 2001 its members were stopped by Indonesian security forces and two of them detained and tortured. Both individuals were eventually released.

10 Tim Kell, The Roots of Acehnese Rebellion 1989-92, Cornell Modern Indonesia Project (Ithaca: 1995) pp. 62-63.

11 Al-Chaidar, Sayed Mudhahar Ahmad and Yarmen Dinamika, Aceh Bersimbah Darah, Pustaka al-Kautsar, (Jakarta: 1998), p. 106.

12 International Crisis Group, "Indonesia: Impunity Versus Accountability for Gross Human Rights Violations," ICG Asia Report No.12, Jakarta/Brussels, February 2, 2001.

13 Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, "Instruksi President Republik Indonesia Nomor 4 Tahun 2001 Tentang Langkah-Langkah Komprehensif Dalam Rangka Penyelesaian Masalah Aceh," http:/, April 20, 2001.

14 John Haseman, "Jakarta hardens Aceh policy," Jane's Defence Weekly, May 2, 2001.

15 See, for example, "Takengon Membara, 42 Warga Tewas," Kompas, June 12, 2001; "Ratusan Warga Aceh Disandera Sipil Bersenjata," Kompas, June 15, 2001; "27 Mayat ditemukan di Bandar," Waspada, August 1, 2001.

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