A hidden war has been raging in Aceh since May 2003, when Indonesia’s President Megawati Sukarnoputri declared martial law in the province. This report attempts to convey some of the reality of that war: extrajudicial executions, forced disappearances, beatings, arbitrary arrests and detentions, and drastic limits on freedom of movement. In many incidents described to Human Rights Watch, Indonesian security forces - military and police - routinely resorted to violence against primarily young Acehnese men stopped for questioning. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch about killings of civilians during village sweeps, some while being questioned or detained, others while fleeing in fear of mistreatment.
One man described the death of a man named Jamal:
Indonesia has placed a veil of secrecy over Aceh, a province of four million on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra, as it conducts its war against the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, or GAM).
In a largely successful attempt to control information, Indonesia has prohibited international human rights organizations and even humanitarian organizations from entering Aceh and international news organizations from moving much beyond the provincial capital, Banda Aceh. For this reason, Human Rights Watch traveled to Malaysia, where thousands of Acehnese have sought refuge after braving dangerous and expensive trips from the battle zone of Aceh.
Human Rights Watch is also concerned about deteriorating material and economic conditions that could presage (or even reflect) a humanitarian crisis, something that Human Rights Watch and others have been warning about for many months. Anecdotal information from refugee testimony, sporadic press accounts and reports from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) leaking out of the province suggest that thousands of Acehnese civilians have been forced to flee their homes to escape the conflict or to seek food and shelter. Residents who remain in their homes are subjected to shortages of food, water, and sanitation, and breakdowns in basic services such as health care and education.3
As this report has been prepared from interviews outside Aceh, it cannot paint a comprehensive picture of the armed conflict. But perhaps the most disturbing fact of our research was the ease with which stories of serious and apparently systematic human rights abuses since the start of martial law were uncovered. All the Acehnese interviewed by Human Rights Watch had a story of abuse to tell. Many were victims. Unusually, many were eyewitnesses to the abuse of others - in some cases to killings, in others to beatings.4
Despite the fact that in early June Army Chief of Staff General Ryamizard Ryacudu welcomed any party to observe operations in Aceh,5 the province remains almost entirely closed to outsiders. The Indonesian government has barred diplomats, independent international observers, and international human rights NGOs from entering Aceh and advised U.N. humanitarian agencies and foreign humanitarian NGOs to leave. Indonesian NGO workers attempting to monitor the situation have been threatened and detained by the police. Even a National Human Rights Commission training session in Banda Aceh was shut down by police on order of the martial law administrator on October 20. Authorities said that the Commission had not informed them of the event, which the organizers denied. Police officers were among the participants in the training session.6
The Indonesian government has succeeded in severely limiting the flow of information from the province. As a recent Human Rights Watch report documented, it has kept the media under strict control.7 To discourage their reporting on the situation, several NGOs have been listed as suspected GAM sympathizers, a designation that a police official warned could lead to a death penalty for subversion.8 The almost hermetic seal that Indonesia has placed on Aceh’s villages and mountains raises fears that military forces on both sides believe that, as in the past, they can commit abuses with impunity.
Indonesia’s clear intention has been to hide the actions of the Indonesian armed forces (Tentara Nasional Indonesia, or TNI) and other security forces. This in turn has masked the extent of military and civilian deaths and injuries. While the Indonesian public and international opinion (as in past rounds of fighting with GAM in Aceh) may support the principle of Indonesia’s territorial integrity, when confronted with the graphic human costs of a war that almost certainly cannot be won on the battlefield, opinions about the war may begin to change.
Much of what refugees described to Human Rights Watch is consistent with a long history of abusive behavior by Indonesian security forces in Aceh. Current military tactics in Aceh combined with the sheer number of new troops deployed in the province ensures increased contact between security forces and the civilian population, which may explain some abuses.
More important is the environment created by senior military officials, who have vowed to “crush” GAM within announced time frames.9 This has added to pressures on officers and soldiers on the ground to fulfill their mission and destroy those they believe to be members or supporters of GAM. These pressures act like oil on a fire among armed forces that reflect the nationally held perception that the Acehnese are a rogue, separatist population. The conviction that all Acehnese support GAM, although unfounded, pervades the mindset of Indonesia’s military and translates on the ground into the indiscriminate use of force on the civilian population, especially on young men. The December 3, 2003, comments of police Brigadier General Guliansyah, head of the law enforcement operations (Kepala Komando Operasi Penegakan Hukum) of the Aceh police force, are a chilling example of the kind of incendiary talk that can lead to abuses and the failure of the armed forces to distinguish between GAM combatants and civilians: “If necessary shoot on the spot anyone who raises this GAM flag. Whoever raises the flag must be a GAM member=2E”10
Because of prohibitions on access, the information contained in this report may represent the tip of a dangerous and frightening iceberg. The principal recommendations of this report, directed to Indonesia, are simple: take all steps possible to ensure that all security personnel act professionally and respect human rights and humanitarian law, while establishing credible processes to remove, discipline, and prosecute those who commit abuses (further recommendations are contained on pages 42-43), and allow immediate and unfettered access to Aceh to independent and impartial observers and humanitarian agencies.
As for the international community, particularly the “quartet” (United States, European Union, Japan, and the World Bank) involved in peace negotiations between Indonesia and GAM, Human Rights Watch urges that maximum pressure be placed on Indonesia to stop the rampant rights violations in Aceh and ensure the well-being and safety of the civilian population.
The international community should make access its other top priority. It is crucial for the welfare of the Acehnese people that impartial organizations, both international and domestic, have access and be able to report publicly on the situation there. Only then will human rights violators be deterred and humanitarian organizations, such as relevant United Nations agencies, be able to provide necessary assistance.
The collapse of the Cessation of Hostilities Framework Agreement dealt a serious blow to hopes for a negotiated end to the massive rights violations in Aceh. Jakarta’s military approach, rather than bringing the conflict to an end, has resulted in a new wave of rights violations.
A Note on Sources
Human Rights Watch went to Malaysia to interview individuals who fled Aceh because of the fighting. Over eighty-five interviews with Acehnese were conducted in October and November 2003. Most had arrived since martial law started; some had arrived only days or weeks prior to being interviewed.
Interviews in Malaysia were primarily with Acehnese men between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five. As in the past, TNI especially targets this population group in Aceh as being most likely involved in GAM activity. It thus makes up the majority of refugee arrivals in Malaysia since the renewal of the war in May 2003. The testimony of these refugees depicts life for a certain cross section of the civilian population under martial law. Human Rights Watch was only able to interview nine women and one girl from Aceh.11 Most interviews were conducted without interpreters in Bahasa Indonesia; the rest were done with Acehnese interpreters.
This report consists almost entirely of first-hand testimony covering many districts in Aceh and the entire period of martial law. The lack of access by independent observers makes it impossible to know how representative these accounts are.
Human Rights Watch also interviewed a cross section of Acehnese community leaders, student activists, academics, representatives of Malaysian nongovernmental organizations, Malaysia’s National Human Rights Commission, and staff at the Malaysia office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Due to the risk of reprisal, we have omitted the names of Acehnese sources, villages of origin, and locations in Malaysia.
A note on GAM abuses: Human Rights Watch is concerned about abuses committed by GAM. GAM has a long record of abusive behavior in Aceh. But, because Human Rights Watch did not have access to Aceh, this report contains no such information. Human Rights Watch researchers were unable to interview those most at risk of violence from GAM, such as ethnic Javanese, or those suspected of helping the military.12 Such persons are more likely to flee to other parts of the province or to disperse to other areas of Indonesia than to go to Malaysia. Human Rights Watch consistently asked interviewees if they had witnessed or been victims of GAM abuses. However, the refugees interviewed in Malaysia reported no such cases. Human Rights Watch recognizes that a lack of testimony does not necessarily mean that there have been no abuses. But until the Government of Indonesia opens Aceh to independent observers, information on possible abuses by GAM will be difficult to obtain. Human Rights Watch urges GAM to act in accordance with international humanitarian law. In particular, GAM should not take actions that place civilians at special risk, such as kidnappings or confiscations of identity cards for use by GAM combatants.
1 Human Rights Watch interview [name withheld], Malaysia, October 27, 2003.
2 Human Rights Watch interview with forty-year-old man [name withheld], Malaysia, October 23, 2003.
3 See generally Human Rights Watch, “Aceh Under Martial Law: Unnecessary and Dangerous Restrictions on International Humanitarian Access,” A Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper, September 2003.
4 The secrecy and intimidation that accompany most serious human rights violations generally makes it difficult to gather eyewitness testimony.
5 “Govt OKs rights body's planned inquiry in Aceh,” The Jakarta Post, June 5, 2003.
6 “Indonesian police break up rights commission session in Aceh province,” Agence France-Presse, October 21, 2003.
7 Human Rights Watch, “Aceh Under Martial Law: Muzzling the Messengers,” A Human Rights Watch Report, Vol. 15, No. 9 (c), November 2003.
8 "GAM supporters may face death penalty," The Straits Times, June 4, 2003; "Jika Ada Bukti, Aktivis dan Simpatisan GAM Akan Ditangkap," detikcom, May 21, 2003. Raja Ismail and Abdussalam Muhamad Deli, two members of a human rights organization in East Aceh called the Human Rights and Legal Aid Post (Pos Bantuan Hukum dan HAM, PB-HAM) disappeared in the weeks before martial law; the body of Raja Ismail was discovered two days later. See Amnesty International, “Indonesia Protecting the protectors: human rights defenders and humanitarian workers in Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam,” June 3, 2003.
9 “Last-ditch talks to avoid Aceh war,” Laksamana.net, April 20, 2003; Matthew Moore, “Indonesia fails to crush Aceh rebels,” The Age, November 5, 2003.
10 “NAD: Tembak di Tempat bagi Pengibar Bendera GAM,” Kompas, December 4, 2003.
11 This figure closely mirrors the twelve percent of new registrants at the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that were female through September 2003. UNHCR, “Summary Registration Statistics by Ethnic Origin, with Demographic profile,” July-September, 2003.
12 See Human Rights Watch, “Indonesia: The War in Aceh,” A Human Rights Watch Report, Vol. 13, No. 4 (c), August 2001.