Dealing with Aceh, the thorn in Jakarta’s side

INDONESIA’S generals are losing sleep over Aceh, the country’s westernmost province.

The National Human Rights Commission recently unearthed mass graves of people allegedly killed by the armed forces (Abri) during a nine-year crackdown of a separatist movement.

The gruesome findings forced Abri commander General Wiranto to make an unprecedented and courageous public apology for what he termed “procedural errors”.

He announced the withdrawal of some 900 “non-territorial” combat troops from the troubled province at the tip of North Sumatra.

The first group left two weeks ago without any problems except jeers from the crowd. The second batch of 650 soldiers, which included members of the elite Kopassus forces, was not so fortunate.

Their departure ceremony last week from the industrial centre of Lhokeseumawe in North Aceh was broadcast on national television and featured the troops singing sayonara and di sini senang, di sana senang (We are happy here, we are happy there).

The soldiers might have been happy, but their departure was greeted with cynicism from a sullen public hardened by years of military atrocities.

Some of the more than 1,000 people watching the send-off threw stones and hurled insults at them, yelling “rapists”, “dogs” and “pigs”.

And as the soldiers left in a convoy of trucks, a mob of at least 2,000 went amok, damaging and burning more than 200 buildings in a rampage that lasted two days.

Abri responded almost immediately by cancelling troop withdrawals and sending back 400 soldiers to quell the riots.

In Jakarta, senior military officers cast doubts on the human rights findings and even suggested that the mass graves could have dated back to 1966, when many communists were killed.


ACEH, which Indonesians call the “Verandah of Mecca” because it is the closest point, physically and spiritually, to the holy city in the archipelago, has always been a thorn in the side for Jakarta.

Since Indonesia’s independence from the Dutch after World War II, separatists have been fighting for Aceh to be a separate Islamic state. Matters came to a head in 1951, when the government dissolved the province and incorporated its territory into North Sumatra under a governor in Medan.

The Acehnese, who once boasted a powerful kingdom that fought the Portuguese and Dutch colonists, revolted and proclaimed their province an independent Islamic republic in 1953. This lasted until 1961, when military and religious leaders there had a falling out.

The central government resolved the conflict by giving Aceh provincial status. But this amounted to little more than granting autonomy in matters religious, cultural and educational. When it came to natural resources, however, Jakarta insisted on getting its full share and treating it like any other province.

Rich in resources, Aceh became a target for large-scale investment, which brought with it immigrants from other provinces and led to the emergence of discontent over the distribution of the wealth generated from the oil and gas industry.

The Aceh Merdeka, or Free Aceh, separatist movement, which emerged in the mid-1970s after the discovery of the province’s huge oil and gas reserves, had often maintained that Indonesia needed Aceh more than Aceh needed Indonesia.

They believed that if Aceh was left on its own, it could be as wealthy as oil-rich Brunei or Kuwait.

Under the New Order, as in other parts in Indonesia, such views were interpreted as opposition to the government, its ideology, and institutions. Jakarta portrayed any regional sentiment as separatism and dealt with it harshly.

The activities of the Aceh Merdeka, which the military termed as a “security disturbance movement” (GPK), fuelled rising tensions between authorities and separatists in the late 1980s.

Abri said that a number of Acehnese received military training in Libya. Weapons like the AK-47 were also smuggled into the province.

The GPK was known to terrorise transmigrants who were given land in Aceh by the government to solve Java’s over-population problem. Policemen who conducted raids against illegal marijuana plantations in the forest areas were also targets for killing by the secessionists.

In the wake of such problems, Abri moved in troops in 1990 in an operation codenamed Jaring Merah (Red Net) and placed three areas of Aceh – Pidie, and North and East Aceh – under Daerah Operasi Militer (DOM), or operational military status.

The locals charge that it was during this period that several soldiers carried out abductions, torture, rape and the dumping of hundreds of victims in mass graves.


MEMBERS of the human rights commission who visited Aceh recently disclosed that at least 781 victims were found in several locations in the province.

“We Acehnese are a proud people,” said a 77-year-old Lhokeseumawe resident who fought for Indonesian independence in 1945. “We are the only province to resist the Portuguese and Dutch. All our efforts were for nothing because we ended up being colonised by our own people. That hurts even more.”

Indeed, charges against military excesses here have been flying fast and furious in recent weeks, with residents, politicians and religious leaders delivering broadsides at Abri.

Aceh Governor Syamsudin Mahmud fired the opening salvo last month when he wrote a letter to President B.J. Habibie asking him to pull the troops out. “They have committed acts which have not made Aceh a safe place,” he said.

A senior member of the Muslim-based United Development Party (PPP) here argued that many of the killings were motivated politically to keep the ruling Golkar party in power in Aceh.

He said PPP’s winning election streak in the province since the late 1960s ended in 1987, when the military stepped up control there. Golkar has won every poll since then.

The source pointed particularly to two waves of killings in 1990-1991 and 1996-1997 – both of which preceded parliamentary elections – to prove his case.

“The name of GPK was used to get rid of PPP supporters,” he claimed. “All PPP members were identified as GPK members. We were sitting targets for the military during DOM. This was really a political operation to destroy us and prop up Golkar.”

Several argued that the military had long outstayed its welcome in Aceh, a stay that brought with it a trail of terror by soldiers acting outside the chain of command.

Islamic scholar Syamaun Risyad, who lives in Lhokeseumawe, noted: “It is an irony that the military that was brought in to get rid of troublemakers ended up causing more trouble and instilling more fear.”

But others adopted a more moderate stance, saying that military rule had brought greater stability to the province by protecting vital industrial installations from sabotage by GPK elements and building nearly 400 homes for the poor in particular.

Said a local government official: “The military has served its purpose by getting rid of the GPK. There is no more security threat now. So it should just leave.”


THERE seems to be no clear indication of troops withdrawing, particularly after the riots. Abri’s chief of general affairs, Lieutenant-General Fachrul Razi, said recently that it could be “anytime”.

“We won’t send anymore if the religious leaders and Aceh people say ‘enough troops’,” he said on Monday. “When? Anytime. It could be the day after tomorrow, or next week.”

But Abri sources in Jakarta told The Straits Times that it could be “slightly longer”, given that the military still perceives Aceh as a “security problem”.

“A lot of people are jumping on the bandwagon to attack Abri these days,” said a senior intelligence officer.

“The military made some serious errors in Aceh and we will have to take responsibility for them. Yes, we are very sorry for what happened. But it is wrong to blame us for everything, from mass murders to even engineering a riot to hold on to power.

“The big picture is that there are still problems in Aceh, as shown by the recent disturbances. There are armed separatists in Aceh and we take them seriously.”

He declined to give any numbers, but reports suggest that the Aceh Merdeka has only 54 members now from the initial 2,000 two decades ago.

He said that last week’s disturbances could have resulted from a combination of two factors – pent-up frustrations against military atrocities and the economic crisis. Many of the shops attacked by the mobs were provision stores owned by ethnic Chinese.

His comments underscore a concern in the military establishment that Indonesia could break up as it edges towards a downward spiral.

Indonesian generals have expressed fear in recent months that the country could head the way of the former Soviet Union if there are few controls on the reform process. Even more so in a province like Aceh, which has a history of rebellion against central rule.

Diplomatic sources said that while Abri has promised to pull out non-territorial troops from the area, it is unlikely to dismantle its joint intelligence unit here, given prevailing threat perceptions.

Military thinking, however, is not fully consistent with the views of Acehnese.

In a recent local government poll of 100 people in the DOM areas, 66.4 per cent felt that Aceh was already safe from any threat posed by insurgents. The rest responded negatively.

If there are serious problems, it is because of skyrocketing food prices and thinning wallets – a common phenomenon across this sprawling archipelago.

Poverty levels in Aceh are rising. In 1996, 10.7 per cent were living below the poverty line. This figure has jumped to 33.2 per cent this year with the economic crisis.

Being poor in a resource-rich area is one explanation for the resentment and frustration felt by the Acehnese.

Job and education opportunities are another.

When the high-technology industries came to Aceh, locals were inadequately prepared for work in these projects. Many of the skilled and managerial jobs went to “outsiders” from Java and other regions.

One local official estimated that of the 2,000 employees in the Arun gas and oil project, for example, only 25 per cent were Acehnese.

Despite the difficulties of the past, however, the majority of people here do not want to go their own way. Unlike the other troubled Indonesian province of East Timor, local leaders in Aceh want to remain within Indonesia, but on terms they consider just.

The key issue for them is the division of wealth between Jakarta and Aceh. Some officials are toying with the idea of a 60-40 per cent split in Aceh’s favour.

Like so many of Indonesia’s regional problems, the situation in Aceh is at a crossroads.

Either Jakarta responds to local grievances or problems of the past will return to haunt them.

Posted in Indonesia