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Human Rights in Aceh – What Needs To Be Done?

(from "The Asian Conference on Aceh", organized by FORUM ASIA and IFA, Saturday, July 24, 1999, YMCA, Sathorn Tai, Bangkok Tahiland)

Aceh is by no means an unfamiliar name amongst NGOs, the media, and other international bodies yet it remains largely that - familiar by name only. In discussions of separatism in Indonesia, Aceh will often be cited in chorus with East Timor and West Papua, but the actual human rights situation and historical basis for conflict remains little known. Non-governmental organizations such as TAPOL and Human Rights Watch have been active in campaigning on Aceh but no regional networks have fully taken up this agenda.

The human rights situation in Aceh has been characterized by decades of exploitation and repression, stemming initially from the economic and political exploitation of Aceh within the Indonesian state, and extending into the crackdown on the Acehnese independence movement and supporters. The enforcement of the Military Operational Zone (DOM) in 1989 marked the start of the period of most brutal repression. A campaign of terror involving widespread extra-judicial killing, torture, rape, kidnapping, arson and harassment has carried over a ten-year period resulting in tens of thousands of victims.

The Acehnese people are highly traumatized by this history of military repression yet the determination to expose and correct this history is overwhelming. The fall of Soeharto provided the necessary space to open the previously closed doors to the human rights situation in Aceh. Investigations by KOMNAS HAM, Acehnese organizations and communities, and Indonesian and foreign NGOs provided stark evidence and testimonial coverage of the repression.

The Indonesian government itself was shocked by these exposures and immediately responded with apologies by General Wiranto for military excesses, a visit by President Habibie to Aceh, and the revocation of the DOM status. These actions had little credibility as indicated by recent remarks by General Wiranto rejecting the need for investigations into the decade of violations, the degree of anger with Habibie’s visit, and the immediate return of the troops to Aceh following the DOM withdrawals on the grounds of security against riots, respectively. And in the massacres in East Aceh and North Aceh this year, the actions are little more than cynical.

 The build up to the 1999 General Election saw an intensification of the security operation in Aceh as additional troops were sent to the region and this further inflamed the situation. Acehnese opposition to the election was strong and the call for a boycott quickly grew in momentum. Sporadic clashes occurred throughout the election period, predominantly sparked by military forces, but often involving unidentified figures, or ‘provocateurs’. This return to the anti-insurgency campaign has created a state of fear of such a level that tens of thousands of people have fled their homes in fear. This new crisis of internal displacement represents another sad chapter in Aceh’s brutal history.

In developing a campaign for human rights in Aceh, there are four critical areas that require concerted support :

I.   Investigations into Human Rights Violations

Investigations by Acehnese NGOs, Indonesian organizations and KOMNAS HAM have been initiated but there are still many violations that remain unrecorded. In particular, the issue of the thousands of missing persons remains unresolved. The issue of the continuing military presence in Aceh and accountability for the perpetrators are central to the resolution of these human rights abuses. 

II.  Assistance to Internally- and Externally- Displaced Refugees

 The internal refugees in Aceh has been estimated as more than 100,000 and the health, nutrition and sanitation conditions are creating further problems. This is a growing problem that is severely under-resourced. This problem is inextricably linked to the intimidators presence of the military but issues of emotional and psychological trauma are also significant in this crisis and need to be addressed in the rehabilitation process.

III.  Self Determination

The election in Aceh provided indicator enough as to the level of discontent with the current political status of Aceh amongst a large proportion of the Acehnese population. The calls for boycott of the election have often been made alongside calls for a referendum on Aceh’s status. There have been proponents for independence coming from various Acehnese groups and communities as well as new voices calling for federalism. The Indonesian government and armed forces maintain a position of integration with special autonomy, as do opposition leaders such as Megawati Soekarnoputri. The critical factor is that there is no tolerance for the notion of self-determination.

IV.  Development Aggression and Economic Exploitation

 Despite the marked historical differences between Aceh, East Timor and West Papua, the Arun gas fields represent a key factor behind the repressive rule in Aceh, similarly to the Timor Gap oil fields and the Freeport mine in West Papua. The exploitation without compensation is a major source of Acehnese discontent. The responsibility in this regard is not only with the Indonesian government but also with the multinational corporations such as Mobil and other developers that have profited from the state of repression.

The awareness of the true history of Aceh remains limited domestically and internationally  as does the support and solidarity for the Acehnese people. As such, the prime responsibilities of human rights organizations, NGOs and the international community is to develop effective information dissemination and network coordination strategies, focusing on the target issues, such as the four listed above. It is important to start with fundamental goals that are within our reach because regional support is in its infancy and the struggle for human rights in Aceh will not occur overnight.

For other comprehensive story on Aceh please check the list below.

Aceh for Beginners (from Mr. M N Djuli, December 1999, 18.000 words)
Acehnese (from Minorities At Risk Center, University of Maryland at College Park)
Aceh 1997 (from The Karen Parker Home Page)
Aceh Emerges from Years of State Terror  (TAPOL, The Indonesia Human Rights Campaign, London)
Political History of Aceh (from U.S. Committee For Refugees, September 9, 1999 )

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Last modified: June 16, 2000