Aceh Backgrounder

The Indonesian province of Aceh, with a population of around 5 million, is located on the northern-most part of the island of Sumatra, about 1,000 miles from the Indonesian capital Jakarta. Located strategically on the sea lanes between south and east Asia, it became the centre of a powerful trading empire during the 16th and 17th centuries, and one of the earliest Islamic sultanates in southeast Asia.

The people of Aceh have a long history of resistance. For 150 years they thwarted portugees and Dutch military efforts to ‘pacify’ the region and incorporate it into their colonial empire. After Indonesia’s independence in 1945, dissatisfaction with the central government eventually led to the granting of Special Region status, giving the Acehnese control over education, religion and adat (customary) law. However, the decision failed to be implemented. By the mid-1970s after huge natural gas reserves were discovered, blatantly unequal distribution of revenue drawn from the exploitation of these resources contributed to the formation of Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM – Free Aceh Movement) in 1976 and open resistance to central government.

The Suharto regime responded with a campaign of brutality and repression which reached a peak when Aceh was designated a ‘military operations zone’ (known as ‘DOM’) from 1989 until the fall of Suharto in May 1998. Thousands of Acehnese men, women and children were killed, tortured or made to disappear. Aceh was a region gripped by fear and poverty. DOM status also provided government officials and military personnel with ideal conditions in which to engage unhindered in underhand business practices and corruption.

After the fall of Suharto, the people of Aceh spoke out publicly for the first time about the years of the terror and brutality, bringing them to national and international attention. Overwhelmed by this torrent of accusations, the head of the armed forces, General Wiranto, announced the end of DOM in August 1998 and apologised for all the abuses. However, neither the governments of Habibie nor Wahid, nor the military, took steps to respond to the demands for justice and compensation by the people of Aceh and no steps have been taken to bring those responsible to trial. General Wiranto later went so far as to say that no officer would be brought to trial over Aceh, ‘because they were merely carrying out their duties’.

During 1999 and 2000, a series of code-named military operations were conducted by territorial troops, non-organic troops (i.e. troops from outside Aceh) and the police force, in particular Brimob, the special commandos of the police which has a reputation for great brutality. In the first half of 1999, there were several massacres in which scores of people were killed. Only in a single instance were 24 low-ranking soldiers tried for the murder of more than 50 people attending a Muslim school along with their teacher. They received derisory sentences while the officers in command were never charged. Apart from this, the armed forces and the police have acted throughout with impunity.


Aceh’s natural gas has been exploited since 1971 by Mobil Oil, which in 1999 merged with Exxon to become Exxon/Mobil. It operates in partnership with the state oil company, Pertamina, which runs the liquified natural gas plant nearby. The installations are closely guarded by troops who have been responsible over the years for numerous abuses against villagers living in the vicinity of the plant. In June 2001, a lawsuit was filed in the US against the company on behalf of 11 plaintiffs living near the plants.

The growth of GAM and civil society

Meanwhile, as the Indonesian armed forces became increasingly discredited, the armed resistance, GAM, gained in strength and popularity. Its units now operate in all parts of Aceh and in large swathes of the province it is in effective control of village and local administrations.

Civil society has also grown apace, in particular human rights and humanitarian NGOs which have been able to conduct monitoring of human rights abuses and provide support to tens of thousands of internally displaced people (IDPs) who fled their villages to avoid getting caught up in clashes between the Indonesian security forces and GAM. Many IDPs fled their homes to avoid sweepings by troops searching for GAM members.

Since late 1999, there has been a strong movement in favour of holding a referendum to determined Aceh’s future status, as the peaceful way of solving the conflict.

Negotiations between GAM and the Indonesian government

On the initiative of former president, Abdurrahman Wahid, negotiations were held between the Indonesian Government and GAM, leading to a ‘Humanitarian Pause’ in June 2000, loosely supervised by the Henri Dunant Centre in Geneva. The armed forces were never happy about this accord and the Pause barely affected the level of killings, which steadily mounted. The talks have now been suspended indefinitely.

Following a decision by Exxon/Mobil in March 2001 to suspend operations, putting at risk monthly revenues of $100 million and the possible loss of international markets, the armed forces prevailed upon a seriously weakened Wahid to issue a ‘presidential instruction’ in April 2001, which was renewed in October 2001. Although this was dubbed a six-point ‘comprehensive’ effort to restore Indonesian administrative control, the only element put into practice has been the ‘security’ element. On 2 May, new military operations were launched and yet more troops were brought in, including troops who received counter-insurgency training, while armed defences round the gas installations have been reinforced. Since then, the number of casualties throughout Aceh has mounted. During 2001, nearly two thousand people were killed, the vast majority civilians.

Human rights defenders have been a major target; several high-profile activists have been assassinated since August 2000 by military or police hit-squads, and their offices have been raided, forcing many activists to evacuate to Jakarta or abroad. This has seriously affected the flow of independent monitoring of incidents and atrocities.

As pressure mounted for Wahid to be replaced by his vice-president, Megawati Sukarnoputri, the armed forces moved to sabotage what remained of the faltering peace process. The final blow was struck in July when five GAM negotiators engaged in talks with their Indonesian counterparts were arrested in Banda Aceh. While five were released, one is now on trial for ‘rebellion’.

The Megawati presidency

Unlike her predecessor, Megawati, who acceded to the presidency of Indonesia on 23 July 2001, fully supports all-out military action to suppress threats to what she prizes above all else, maintaining the Unitary Republic of Indonesia. Resisting Wahid’s zeal to reform the military, she had the full support of the hardline military leadership in her bid for power. In late 2001, she ordered the troops ‘to hold the country together’ regardless of whether this means violating human rights. The prospects for a negotiated settlement are doomed and the ‘security approach’ will keep Aceh in a constant state of all-out war, death and tragedy.

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