GAM has been in existence since its founders declared independence from Jakarta in 1976. However it is only in the last four years that it has developed a significant popular base, a steady source of arms, and a relatively well-organized command structure. From July 2001 until martial law operations put them on the defensive, GAM exercised control over large parts of Aceh, with a particularly strong presence in six of the most populous, and wealthiest, districts.
GAM’s founders 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.14 Economic grievances, in part related to gas and oil revenues, were and continue to be important, but another important spur to the independence movement has been the failure of the post-Soeharto governments to address human rights abuses of the past.
The so-called DOM period began in 1990 after GAM mounted a series of attacks on military and police posts that netted ammunition and dozens of automatic weapons, and 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.15 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. Virtually every Acehnese in the hardest-hit areas can cite a family member who was the direct target of a human rights violation. 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 in 1998 created expectations across Aceh that justice would be done. In August 1998, General Wiranto, commander of Indonesia's armed forces, formally apologized to the people of Aceh for the excesses of the DOM era. If, at this point, the Indonesian government had moved to investigate and prosecute officers for their role in the abuses, it could have made a decisive break with the past. However, key figures in the DOM hierarchy continued to occupy positions of influence throughout Indonesia. Few in Jakarta seemed to appreciate the degree to which anger over DOM-era abuses had changed the political dynamics in Aceh: GAM now had a much more receptive audience than it had ever had before.
In early 1999, the political dynamics in the province underwent another critical shift. B.J. Habibie, who had assumed presidency when Soeharto stepped down in 1998, announced that the 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 on independence to be held in Aceh.
From early 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.
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. In December 1999, a special parliamentary committee on Aceh made a series of recommendations to the new president, Abdurrahman Wahid, that included rebuilding destroyed facilities; opening a dialogue with 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.
Instead of prosecutions 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 higher troop levels and whole villages being punished as retaliation for GAM attacks.
At the same time, GAM, building on the increasing popular anger, began to move beyond sporadic attacks on police and soldiers to set up an alternative administration. Sometimes through persuasion, sometimes through abduction and a kind of reeducation of local government officials, GAM gradually took control over most governmental functions beginning in Pidie district and gradually moving on to wide swathes of North Aceh, West Aceh, East Aceh, and South Aceh. It did this by replacing the village heads, the bottom rung of the Indonesian civil service, and reinstituting the councils of village elders that had been in place before Aceh joined the Indonesian republic. 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.
In July 1999 then presidential candidate Megawati Sukarnoputri visited Aceh promising that if she were to be elected she would endeavor to end the long running conflict. Shedding tears in Aceh, she announced, “when your female leader leads this country, I will not allow a single drop of the people's blood to touch your soil.”16
Into this situation in mid-2000 came a Geneva-based conflict resolution organization, the Henri Dunant Centre, later renamed the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (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 of the “pause”, 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, to the unhappiness of the Indonesian army, which saw it 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. 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 December 2002, with the mediation of HDC, and under pressure from the United States, European Union, Japan and the World Bank (“the quartet”), Indonesia and GAM signed the Cessation of Hostilities FrameworkAgreement (COHA). This was the last best hope for peace in Aceh. Though the COHA did not address fundamental differences, it opened the door to more negotiations, brought in international monitors, and initially led to a reduction in violence. But there was little progress towards a political settlement. Indonesia insisted that GAM repudiate any claim for independence and accused GAM of using the COHA to rebuild its armed forces and expand its political base. GAM claimed that Indonesia was not bargaining in good faith.
After the arrest of four GAM negotiators and the collapse of last-ditch peace talks in Tokyo, on May 19, 2003, President Megawati signed Presidential Decree 28, authorizing Indonesia’s security forces to launch full-scale military operations against GAM. The decree put Aceh under martial law for six months, and the TNI and other Indonesian security services set out to “crush” GAM within that period despite the skepticism of most observers.
There were immediate claims of human rights violations by the Indonesian armed forces. In one well-reported case from the first days of martial law, on May 21 soldiers killed seven people, including two boys under fourteen. The military claimed all were GAM members or spies, despite the denials of local residents. Indonesia’s National Human Rights Commission, Komnas HAM, confirmed after a June visit to the province that children have been among the victims of extra-judicial killings in Aceh, although it did not assign blame publicly.17
Accurate figures for civilian casualties are difficult to determine though all parties suggest that combatant and civilian casualties have been extensive. Both government and GAM estimates are unreliable (for example government figures on missing civilians are primarily limited to civil servants) and the non-governmental organizations on the ground, such as the Aceh branch of the respected organization Kontras, acknowledge that they are unable to collect data in the field effectively. The Indonesian Red Cross reported recovering eighty-two bodies in the first week, and 151 bodies by the end of three weeks. All were in civilian clothes, although the organization said it could not confirm they were noncombatants.18 In another indication of high initial casualties, the BBC reported that in the first week of operations the morgue in Banda Aceh's main hospital reported receiving an average of three bodies a day, most of them young men with gunshot wounds. Around Lhokseumawe the figure was reported as six per day,19 and the toll further from the two urban centers may have been higher.
Komnas HAM said in early June it would investigate over twenty cases of alleged rights violations during the first two weeks of military operations in the province, including murder, sexual harassment, rape and forced displacement.20 Although the Commission’s ad-hoc team was able to meet with more than one hundred witnesses in a second five-day mission in August, martial law authorities severely restricted the team’s movements. No report was released, but in its public statements the commission said that murder, sexual harassment, rape and forced displacement and abduction remained rampant.21
In November, a military spokesman reported that at least 395 civilians had been killed since the start of martial law. Most estimates note especially high civilian casualties in North Aceh and East Aceh, and depending on the source and the form of abuse, South Aceh, Bireun, and Aceh Besar.22 The Indonesian government blames GAM for the casualties.
The Indonesian government reported that over 1,100 GAM members had been killed by October. Human Rights Watch is concerned both that some of those classified as GAM are civilians, and also that GAM members may have been killed outside of combat in violation of humanitarian law.23
The imposition of martial law means that all instruments of government are now under military control. The martial law administrator in Aceh, Major General Endang Suwarya, oversees all aspects of Indonesia’s “integrated” operation in Aceh, which according to the Indonesian government includes military, humanitarian, law enforcement, and local governance components. But so long as the province remains closed to independent, international observers, the extent and effectiveness of the non-military programs will be difficult to assess.
This integrated operation was conceived as an effort to win the war with GAM while winning the hearts and minds of the local population. But whatever efforts the Indonesian government may have made to limit the horrors of war for the civilian population, testimony gathered for this report makes it clear that it is the military operation that is having the greatest impact on the civilian population.24
One measure of the predominant role of military operations in this integrated operation is the sheer scope of the military effort. In Indonesia’s largest military campaign since the invasion of East Timor, an estimated 28,000 troops and 12,000 police (many of whom serve a paramilitary function) have been deployed to the province to fight against an estimated 5,000 GAM insurgents with 2,000 weapons.
A wide array of Indonesian security forces have been deployed in Aceh. Army units include “organik” or locally-based forces at the subdistrict (Koramil), district (Kodim), sub-regional (Korem) and regional (Kodam) levels. “Non-organik” units sent in from other parts of Indonesia include infantry battalions from other provinces, as well as Kostrad and Kopassus forces to assist with the operations and intelligence gathering. Kostrad are recognizable by their green berets and are TNI’s elite fighting troops. Kopassus, or “special forces” troops, who wear red berets, are specialists in intelligence gathering and special operations and are considered the pride of the armed forces, though they are notorious for their involvement in human rights violations across the archipelago.25
Police forces include local police, at the subdistrict (polsek), district (polres) and provincial (polda) levels. The paramilitary mobile police brigade units, Brimob, are most likely to be involved in military operations, often working jointly with military units. Many of them have been sent in from outside Aceh to assist with operations (known as BKO or bawah kendali operasi, essentially auxiliary forces).
In 2002 military authorities created a new regional military command, or Kodam, for Aceh, which had been part of a larger command based in neighboring North Sumatra province. Aceh has two Korems, the Teuku Umar Korem in Banda Aceh, and the Lilawangsa Korem in Lhokseumawe. Kodam Iskandar Muda is headed by Major General Endang Suwarya, who is also now the martial law administrator. Brigadier General George Toisutta was named in November as the commander of military operations under martial law for the TNI in Aceh, succeeding Major General Bambang Darmono.
In addition, the Rajawali Taskforce operates in platoon-force units made up of troops from different branches and regions, including Kostrad, Marines, and Kopassus. The task force has reportedly been trained by Kopassus in anti-guerrilla warfare, street combat, residential combat, ambush strategies, and shoot-to-kill techniques.26
Although the conflict may take place anywhere, the front line of the hunt for GAM is in the forests and mountains. Villages in or on the edge of these regions are particularly likely to be caught up in the warfare. The Indonesian Navy, Marines, and Air Force have also played a role in the campaign through the deployment of warships, paratroopers, amphibious crafts, tanks, fighter planes, and helicopters.
13 Human Rights Watch interview [name withheld], Malaysia, October 23, 2003. DOM is the acronym for Daerah Operasi Militer, or Military Operations Area, the official military status of Aceh from 1990 to 1998, although operations and abuses continued after the end of DOM. See Human Rights Watch, “Indonesia: Accountability for Human Rights Violations in Aceh,” A Human Rights Watch Report, vol. 14, no. 1 (c), March 2002; Human Rights Watch, “Indonesia: The War in Aceh,” A Human Rights Watch Report, vol. 13, no. 4 (c), August 2001; Human Rights Watch, “Indonesia: Civilians Targeted in Aceh,” A Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper, May 2000.
14 Tim Kell, The Roots of Acehnese Rebellion 1989-92 (Ithaca: Cornell University, 1995) pp. 62-63.
15 Al-Chaidar, Sayed Mudhahar Ahmad and Yarmen Dinamika, Aceh Bersimbah Darah (Jakarta: Pustaka al-Kautsar, 1998), p. 106.
16 “Aceh villagers find mass graves,” BBC World News, July 30, 1999; Julia Suryakusuma, “A little war to bolster the ratings,” International Herald Tribune, August 29, 2003.
17 “Rights body to check report of mass grave in Aceh next week,” Agence France Presse, June 20, 2003; Muninggar Sri Saraswati, “Rights body confirms murder of unarmed civilians in Bireuen,” The Jakarta Post, June 14, 2003.
18 “Indonesia Red Cross says removes 151 bodies in Aceh,” Reuters, June 11, 2003. Dean Yates, “Indonesia steps up Aceh campaign against rebels,” Reuters, May 26, 2003.
19 “Call for More Supplies in Aceh,” British Broadcasting Corporation, May 26, 2003
20 Tertiani ZB Simanjuntak, “Komnas HAM to probe Aceh violations,” The Jakarta Post, June 3, 2003
21 M. Taufiqurrahman, “Rights abuses in Aceh may lead to UN intervention,” The Jakarta Post, August 23, 2003.
22 For example, of the 319 civilian deaths reported by the police as of September 3, 2003, the highest civilian casualties came from North Aceh (110), East Aceh (70) and South Aceh (45). See “319 civilians killed in Indonesia's troubled Aceh,” Deutsche Presse-Agentur, September 5, 2003. Kontras Aceh’s estimate as of August 18 put the number at a very similar 329 civilians killed, as well as 315 civilians tortured or beaten, 213 cases of arbitrary arrest or detention, and seventy-eight civilian victims of forced disappearances. The NGO stresses that actual figures are probably higher due to reporting and investigation constraints. Although in no cases are the victims broken down by perpetrator, Kontras Aceh found that most of civilians became victims during Indonesian military operations in search of guerrillas. Kontras Aceh, “Briefing paper on Aceh: Aceh province, uncovered dirty war,” September 2003.
23 Noting the discrepancy between GAM members reportedly killed (1,100) and weapons recovered (485), Sidney Jones of the International Crisis Group has noted “The real question is how many of these people described as rebels were in fact GAM.” Ahmad Pathoni, “Indonesia's war with separatists costs 1,600 lives, achievements unclear,” Agence France-Presse, November 18, 2003. Several Acehnese in Malaysia asserted that after killing a civilian, TNI would plant evidence that the victim was a GAM member, although only one person provided eyewitness testimony. Human Rights Watch interview with forty-year-old man [name withheld], Malaysia, October 26, 2003.
24 Despite the integrated nature of the operation, the overwhelming focus has been on military operations. Army Chief Ryamizard Ryacudu stated in an interview, “Our job is to destroy GAM's military capability. Issues of justice, religion, autonomy, social welfare, education - those are not the Indonesian military's problems.” Interview with Ryamizard Ryacudu, "No Region Can Break Away," Time Asia, June 2, 2003.
25 See Human Rights Watch, “The Indonesian Army and Civilian Militias in East Timor,” A Human Rights Watch Press Backgrounder, April 1999.
26 “Kopassus readied to quell Aceh rebels,” The Jakarta Post, April 17, 2001; Tapol, Bulletin Online 159, September 2000.