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Aceh -  The `Special Territory' in North Sumatra: A Self-Fulfilling Promise?
Karim D. Crow (Islamic Peace Forum, USA)

Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, Vol. 20, No. 1, 2000


Indonesia is in transition, and the authority and legitimacy of the central government in Java continues to unravel. The country, which was ruled by the same regime for over 32 years under Suharto (from 1965 to May 1998), now has to adapt quickly to democratic demands from its diverse populations in 27 provinces. In many ways the parliamentary national elections of 7 June 1999 were a watershed for Indonesia since gaining independence from Dutch colonial control in 1949. In November a new parliament or Consultative Assembly with Amien Rais as Speaker and Abdurrahman Wahid as President assumed power, and many hopes were raised that the process of democratization, participation, and accountability started by the Reformasi movement would be further strengthened.

Ethnic and religious controversies flare up, building pressure for decentralization of power through autonomy or independence. In Ambon (in the Moluccas islands) reciprocal killings between local Christian and Muslim communities have ended their harmonious co-existence. In East Timor, the increasingly violent build up to the referendum of 8 August 1999 was aggravated by fresh paramilitary atrocities aimed at undermining the whole process. In Irian Jaya (or West Papua), as well as in East Kalimantan (Borneo island), severe communal disorder tears at the central government' s ability to maintain control and manage peaceful transition to a more democratic political culture. Shoots of separatist movements are visible in the oil-rich province of Riau (Sumatra island), while discontent is now being heard in Sulawesi and even Bali.

This rapid escalation of civil unrest following the fall of Suharto is accompanied by a profound economic crisis threatening to condemn the majority of Indonesia's 208 million people to poverty and deprivation. There are signs of a split within the Indonesian military (ABRI), with certain elements exploiting the situation in different provinces to ensure the continued ascendancy of entrenched military authority along with its old repressive habits. Until recently, the international community paid scant attention to the tragic situation of Aceh - the strategic and resource-rich `Special Territory' on north Sumatra island. The history and present condition of the 3.8 million Acehnese within Aceh, in addition to 1.2 million in the rest of Indonesia and elsewhere, is not well known; 98% are Muslim. In this paper we provide a brief historical survey followed by an assessment of the current situation in Aceh. Appended to this paper is a report on the conference `The Future Integration of Indonesia,' organized by the US-based NGO, International Forum for Aceh, held in April 1999 at the American University, in Washington, DC.

The Historical Background

Aceh is located on the northern tip of Sumatra, the westernmost island in the Indonesian archipelago. Off its north shores lies the Strait of Malacca, a strategic passageway for the world' s oil supertankers. Despite Aceh being one of the richest areas in Indonesia with oil, natural gas, gold and timber, its current population of 3.8 million people remains at a level of economic underdevelopment. 

By the thirteenth century CE, if not before, Islam reached the seaports of Samudera - Pasai on the northeastern coast of Aceh, and later spread by activities of maritime traders and religious scholars. From 1290 to 1520, the Sultanate of Pasai (Samudra Darussalam) became a cosmopolitan trade center promoting the development of Islam as well as of the classical Malay literary language, before being absorbed into the powerful Sultanate of Aceh Darussalam based at Banda Aceh (Kota Raja) in the sixteenth century. Aceh became a main launching point for South East Asian Muslim pilgrims to Makkah, mingling cultural influences together from India, Persia, Arabia, and Malaya, as well as a center for Islamic learning under the great Sultan Iskandar Muda (ruled 1607± 1636). Aceh' s strong Muslim culture is very pronounced and marked by a proud human spirit and its recent tragic history. It remained a fiercely independent Sultanate for almost 500 years, and Dutch colonial control was extended to Aceh only after a lengthy war beginning in 1873 and lasting 40 years. The Dutch never actually subdued Aceh, fighting almost continuously for 69 years until they withdrew in 1942; the more than 100,000 Acehnese killed in these colonial wars were considered martyrs in a Holy War.

Aceh was one of the first areas to take effective control from Japanese occupation after World War II, never having been reoccupied by the Dutch. The area was granted the status of `Special Region' of the Indonesian Republic with great autonomy, in recognition for its prominent role in the struggle for independence against the Dutch and the Japanese. After 1950 Aceh's special provincial status was lifted and resentment grew over the Republic' s central leadership, who were increasingly viewed as corrupt and insensitive to the strongly Islamic character of Aceh. In 1953 the Darul Islam movement for an Islamic Indonesia, led by Governor Daud Beureueh, was joined by the Aceh revolt, which declared independence in September 1953. Compromise and conciliation put an end to the rebellion, and in 1959 Aceh was granted `Special Territory' status with considerable autonomy in religious and educational affairs, and in customary law. However, the promise of this special status was never fulfilled by the central government in Jakarta.

Since 1989 a low level insurgency against the central government has been conducted by the `Aceh Sumatra National Liberation Front' (ASNLF), led by Teungku Hasan Muhammad di TiroŠ a graduate of Columbia University in New York City. The ASNLF had first declared Aceh as an independent state in December 1976, being crushed by the Indonesian military, but it was revived again in 1989. For nine years from 1989 on, the Indonesian military designated Aceh a special `Military Operations Area' (DOM), nominally to rid the province of the armed `Free Aceh Movement'/`Acheh Merdeka' (Gerakan Acheh Merdeka or GAM/ASNLF). Rather than working to ameliorate sociopolitical and economic conflict through open dialogue, the central government mobilized the military to institutionalize state violence and counter-insurgency against suspected members of the independence movement. Many tens of thousands of Acehnese civilians have been killed, raped, tortured and left orphaned, while thousands more sought refuge in Malaysia or other countries.(n.1) A recent estimate by the leading Indonesianist Benedict Anderson of Cornell University puts the total number of Acehnese deaths throughout Suharto' s era at 20,000 (out of a total of 800,000 deaths for the whole of Indonesia in the same period). DOM was only lifted on 8 August 1998 by the former Commander-in-Chief of the Indonesian Armed Forces, General Wiranto, when numbers of special forces were withdrawn. 

After the fall of Suharto and during the Reformasi, the Acehnese found the will and the courage to come forward and bring these years of terror and brutality to the attention of the Indonesian as well as international communities. Increasingly popular cohesion and solidarity at every level of society is strongly expressed in demands for a referendum on Acehnese options of full autonomy or independence. The Youth Movement and student organizations are now at the forefront of these demands. Despite the recent apologies by both former President Habibie and General Wiranto for the atrocities perpetrated during the DOM period, extra-judicial executions, `disappearances, ' torture and arbitrary arrests continued. The `Kopassus,' or ABRI' s elite commando troops who permeate the military presence in Aceh, often operate in civilian dress and are not accountable to normal chains of command.

The recommendations of the government-appointed Commission on Human Rights for justice, compensation and reconciliation have been shelved. This Jakarta-based Indonesian `National Commission on Human Rights' (Komisi Nasional Hak Asasi Manusia, or Komnas HAM) has over 1600 well documented cases of military abuses in Aceh on file. The newly appointed Attorney General Marzuki Darusman recently indicated that a single trial might be held for last July' s killing of 43 students and their headmaster, but that expectations for a general accountability or international tribunals for the more grotesque abuses of the past decade are not being contemplated by Jakarta. The Army's business interests, from illegal logging and raking off a slice of the oil and gas profits, to alleged drug-running (ganja), and even supplying GAM with weapons, are part of the reason the generals do not want to cooperate with demands for accountability or withdrawal. They risk condemnation over severe human rights abuses.

The June Elections and Recent Events

With the dramatic results of the recent election process in Jakarta, and the emergence of Abdurrahman Wahid as President, and Amien Rais as Speaker of People' s Consultative Assembly, the two leading national Muslim candidates have assumed positions of power. On 15 September 1999, both Gus Dur and Amien Rais went to Aceh to meet leading religious leaders, or ulama' , confirming that they would consider the demands for a referendum once in power. Days before (12-13 September), one of the leading associations of Acehnese Ulama' (HUDA, Himpunan Ulama Dayah Aceh/Congregation of Dayah Religious Scholars of Aceh) met at the tomb of Syiah Kuala, led by Professor Dr. Muslim Ibrahim (former Rector of the Islamic Ar-Raniri University), and collectively called for the convening of a referendum by the central government. HUDA consists of about 550 headmasters of the religious boarding schools throughout Aceh, and their students (the thaliban) had been pushing them to support the growing popular demand for `referendum' (i.e. independence spearheaded by the university student organizations). The decision of the Ulama' was then endorsed by the armed wing of Acheh Merdeka, which issued an ultimatum to Jakarta for the holding of a referendum on 16 November 1999.

Throughout the whole of Aceh there are signs, posters, large banners, and elaborate wall paintings declaring the preference of the people for a referendum and condemning the military. Near every town or hamlet the word `referendum' is painted on the road. Often the Acheh Merdeka flag (red with black lines and an Islamic crescent & star in white) is publicly displayed. This is not an organized campaign, but more of a spontaneous demonstration of support and upwelling of popular grievances. However, showing the flag is particularly hazardous, since the military reacts harshly at the sight of its colors.

In the 7 June 1999 national parliamentary elections, polling was attempted through-out Aceh, but a general boycott accompanied by widespread demands for a referendum by the population negated the results. There followed general unrest and forced migrations of tens of thousands of villagers from their homes into regional towns, where they camped out in schools or mosques out of fear of armed coercion from Army troops who had sought to forcefully make them vote. On 16 June, in the capital Banda Aceh, the provincial Governor Professor Dr. Syamsuddin Mahmud and leading officials recommended to the Independent Electoral Commission in Jakarta that polling be abandoned, with the meager results of balloting in remaining districts being allowed to stand. The majority of these votes were cast for the provincial branch of the PPP (United Development Party, the former umbrella for Islamic parties under Suharto). The will of Acehnese people to boycott the national elections was thus partially successful. The Acehnese chapter of PPP (headed by Abu Yus, who is also the president of the local legislative assembly DPRD-RI) has now given grudging support for a referendum, in response to pressure from the students.

The Consequences

The effects of violence are visible everywhere, in the form of burnt and abandoned public schools, including well over 100 high schools and a few grade schools, mostly in Sigli and Northern Aceh districts; burnt sub-district provincial government offices; and in refugee camps of frightened and traumatized villagers. By late November 1999, reliable estimates indicated that close to 140,000 people were internally displaced refugees, with many of their homes ransacked or burnt and looted by military forces. The main areas of movement are in the three provinces of Pidie, North Aceh, and East Aceh; but displacement is also occurring in areas of Aceh Besar (around the capital Banda Aceh) and in the districts of Western Aceh and especially around Meulaboh, Aceh Barat. The Indonesian Army stationed in Aceh does not feel safe among the population, and are nervously keyed up expecting hostile ®re or unexpected attack; this creates a dangerous situation for people in everyday life. Eyewitness accounts reveal that for every act of burning or attack by rebels, the Army perpetrates 10.

Since the Spring of 1999 a series of violently callous killings have greatly increased tension. On 3 May 1999, in a terrible massacre of unarmed civilians by the military in the village of Pulo Rungkom near the port city of Lhokseumawe (North Aceh), 60 persons were killed, including women and children and more than 150 wounded. The `Dewantara massacre' is one of the deadliest incidents of violence for many years, with the majority of victims shot in the back as they fled. In July, 53 people were brutally killed at a private Islamic school at Beutong in West Aceh, including respected religious leader Teungku Bantaqiah (local villagers put the death toll of the Bantaqiah incident at 72). In early October, in Ujong Blang in Hagu (Northern Aceh), about 40 civilians were massacred by the Army. In retaliation in mid-October, near Lhokseumawe, Army lorries were ambushed. Around the city of Lhokseumawe the Army has recently formed armed militias to terrorize people; groups of armed men in civilian dress patrol this area, with the military claiming they are members of the Free Aceh Movement. (This tactic reminds one of the terror campaign recently waged by armed pro-Jakarta militias in East Timor.) Daily incidents of kidnappings, disappearances, shootouts, and dead bodies by the roadside continue to terrorize innocents, freshening the terrible memories of unlicensed brutality under the DOM.

In effect, during the summer and fall of 1999, Aceh was experiencing what some refer to as `DOM 2,' with the number of Army troops currently present estimated at 42,000 (student activists claim as high as 70,000). There are almost daily unexplained shootouts between units of the military and forces of Acheh Merdeka, who are said to number about 3000 men armed with light weapons (the ubiquitous Kalashinkov). These are invariably followed by Army sweeps through villages, with demands to surrender rebels accompanied by intimidation, house-burnings, looting, and arrests. Every incident of violence is assigned to Acheh Merdeka by the military, while the military itself is blamed by students, activists and even politicians as the true instigator. The villagers are suspicious of all government officials and the military. Their deep sense of violation of Islamic values and humiliation of Acehnese dignity is expressed by their contemptuously referring to troops as `sipa-i' (`Dutch slave' or `bandit' ).

Two of the most severe problems resulting from the military reign of terror are widows and traumatized women, and orphans. These are children of DOM victims who are essentially helpless, despite the traditional extended family social culture and Islamic sentiments of peopleŠ both parents are dead or missing, or incapacitated as humans from abuse or torture. The number of orphans in six districts of Aceh is said to be 4050 and only about 10% of all orphans were being adequately cared for.

The Nonviolent Movement and the 8 November Rally

Since the end of the reign of military abuses under Indonesian Army special operations (1989 - August 1998), there has been an impressive flowering of civic organizations and an expansion of the `public space' so long suppressed. Of the close to 100 NGO groups now working in Banda Aceh, the vast majority came into existence since the end of the DOM. The fast-growing nonviolent movement for a referendum serves as a rallying focus for promoting the common will of Acehnese and as a measure of their political activism after years of suppression under DOM. Student and NGO activists have built up wide networks penetrating the villages and cooperating with locals to strengthen their communities' local defense.

Student leaders are especially effective at the grassroots levels, maintaining contact with both Army officers and GAM leaders to avoid conflicts. Student intelligence networks in urban centers known as the `Black Cat Brigade' work to forestall irresponsible actions by other elements (so-called `provocateurs' ). In the countryside, through applying the concept of pagar gampong (local security maintenance) in cooperation with local citizens, students contribute to the strength and self-reliance of the pro-referendum civil society. In early September 1999, the students effectively showed their organizational abilities and increasing political leadership within Acehnese society by organizing and successfully concluding a two-day strike over the entire province, down to the communication and travel sectors. This remarkable show of people-power was accomplished in an explicit spirit of Peaceful Protest and Withdrawal-of-Cooperation based on Islamic principles.

Two recent events highlight the tremendous force of a society on the move, experiencing revolutionary change through an indigenous civil movement backed by an emerging public consensus. The unprecedented Mass Rally of over one million people in the capital Banda Aceh on 8 November 1999 unveiled the deep solidarity of this `velvet protest' uniting the hearts of all members of society in a peaceful confrontation of the state. Some estimates are much higher, putting close to one-half of the entire population in that city on that date; the Army was instructed to stay indoors. And on 4 December, GAM publicly commemorated its 23rd anniversary in a ceremony at the Tiro Command Square in North Aceh, complete with a display of armed men and a contingent of women bearing headscarves and guns. Against these very emotional and perhaps uncontrollable manifestations of Acehnese political protest looms the very real threat of a severe military backlash, which could occur literally at any time. The state security apparatus in Aceh is presently in a seriously weakened political position, with the danger that bloody events could transpire out of desperation, or in reaction to rash events. The fact that provincial authorities have become marginal and powerless is reflected in the increasing trend for people victimized by crime or theft to have recourse to student activists and groups, since the police are helpless. 

Acehnese are expressing their feelings and taking advantage of the opportunity for participation and involvement. They unanimously voice a common grievance: that the tremendous profits from exploitation of mineral resources in their land has not returned real benefit to their community. The Jakarta authorities amass the bulk of this for central government needs while corrupt officials skim much of it, while Aceh itself has hardly been helped concretely from this wealth over the past 30 years.(n.2) A further point is the issue of predominantly Javanese transmigrant workers brought from outside to fill good jobs in and around the oil industry advantaged province of North Aceh, while local people are denied such positions. This adds to the bitter feelings of Acehnese toward Javanese generally. The non-Acehnese population has been migrating out of this province steadily, and concentrating around Medan in the province of North Sumatra.

Civil Society and Student Involvement

Acehnese society is experiencing a flourishing of civil society after years of repression, brutality and economic deprivation. However, there is a great need for more effective organization, better management and training of staff, and of course greatly increased material support during these critical stages of organizational establishment and growth. Dr. Ahmad Humam Hamid, Vice Coordinator of FP HAM (Forum Peduli Hak Asasi Manusia or Care Human Rights Forum), runs a well organized human rights monitoring organization based in Banda Aceh. It was established on 17 July 1998 before DOM was brought to an end, and works particularly with student volunteers from the universities, conducting a series of human rights abuses investigations in the districts of Pidie, North Aceh, and East Aceh. FP HAM has amassed documentation on numerous cases of military brutality and transgressions. Another important activity is to educate and train human rights workers, and disseminate data to raise public awareness. They have published a Human Rights Training for Trainers, the result of a three-day seminar held in Banda Aceh, 3 - 5 May 1999. (n.3) There are numerous other NGOs struggling to make an impact on people' s lives under adverse conditions, such as FLOWER ACEH (Women Activities for Rural Progress), run by Suraiya Kamaruzzaman, which gives economic aid and empowerment for village women as well as prenatal care and legal aid; or YADESA (Rural Community Development Foundation, Aceh) run by Nurdin Abdul Rahman, who is seeking help for rehabilitation of torture victims and for training of health professionals and psychologists.

The strengths of the Acehnese people derive both from their Islamic culture and history: courage, idealism, a nobility of aims, solidarity in oppression and for the oppressed, and a conviction in the justice and rightness of their cause. Another strength lies in the family structure of their society, especially in the women of Aceh. The women are wedded to traditional values, but express their strong individuality and determination; they are one moving force for the betterment of their people. (There were a number of women heroines who led armies in the field during Aceh's struggle against Dutch oppression; and in the seventeenth century Aceh had two woman Sultanas who succeeded Iskandar Muda.) The benefits of the past 40 years of education has made a definite mark on the Acehnese. The better educated among them feel a sense of social responsibility towards those who suffer, and those who are economically worse off; and a sense of compassion and of justice which people in more economically advanced societies often lack. Acehnese are also hard workers, and possess a high degree of commitment to their self-interest and independent efforts which is community-based, not selfish and individual. These qualities will serve them well in the process of social and political struggle to improve their situation.

The capital Banda Aceh has five universities; and besides the public elementary and secondary schools throughout the province, there are over 1000 private religious educational institutions (mostly at secondary school level)Š the pesanteren and the dayah boarding schools, which are generally privately funded. Leading community members or important families establish and support their own dayah. Some of these schools now send graduates to leading universities in the Arab world (in al-Madinah, and Amman), since Arabic language and Islamic religion are stressed. There is recognition of the need for education, and girls are very much part of this since they share equally with males in these schools.

Students and teachers in these schools are employing the concept of `Peaceful Action' linked with Islamic teachings (Aksi Dami Yang Islami). The communal solidarity and common action displayed by students and citizens is very impressive. Peaceful Action was universally agreed upon as an effective and necessary technique to advance the hopes and rights of Acehnese. The students' chief concerns are: to publicize the need for a referendum at both the local and national levels; to advocate on behalf of Acehnese for peace, democratization, human rights and for increased political participation; to empower the villagers and educate them on these topics; and to act as watchdogs in order to minimize military abuses and violations - thus frequently exposing themselves to violence and abuse. They complain about intimidation and threats from the Army, convinced that the military plans to kill all student activists and human rights leaders in Aceh. There is an explicit and conscious recognition that violence was not the path and none of them advocated taking up arms.

Increasingly, the activist student organizations at the university level are acting as new leaders of a civic society being born - such as: FARMIDIA (Aceh Student Action Front for Reform), directed by a committee including Taufiq Abda and Secretary General, Radhi Darmansyah, and originally based at the Islamic University IAIN Ar-Raniry; SMUR (Student Solidarity for the People, President Kautsar, son of Abu Yus); SIRA (Central Information of Aceh Referendum, Central Coordinator Muhammad Nazar); and KARMA (Coalition for Reform Action of Acehnese Students, led by Islamuddin and others). All these student organizations are actually now functioning as full-fledged non-governmental efforts involving lay people, ordinary citizens, high school students, and concerned and committed intellectuals and workers. Their evolution into umbrella organizations wider than their original student base, with affiliates all over Aceh in other urban and rural centers, is a direct response to the needs for an emerging civil society. They are filling the vacuum, and recruit members of the public on the basis of need. This is an important phenomenon which deserves to be closely observed and lessons drawn from it.

Their demands include: accountability and redress for past and ongoing injustices and abuses, including trials and sentences of the most notorious offenders from the military; more provincial power at the local level along with more economic wealth shared within the province by Acehnese; increased international interest and presence (UN, NGOs, etc.) accompanied by effective pressure from appropriate foreign and regional powers upon Jakarta to reform the military, correct human rights violations, and to devise a new power arrangement for Aceh. Unless the new authorities in Jakarta move quickly to reduce tensions in Aceh by beginning to withdraw military elements from the area, prosecuting the perpetrators of past abuses and human rights violations, and starting serious negotiations over the future status of the territory with increased autonomy, the potential for tragic bloodshed and violence remains very high.

Gus Dur' s commitment to some kind of `referendum' within the year 2000 still stands, yet is increasingly being questioned as it becomes clear that the new President really does not have a clue how to deal with the Aceh situation. The danger is that the military will fill the vacuum. The academic new Minister for Defense, Juwono Sudarsono, recently admitted that civilian control over the military is a long term goal. And after giving up East Timor, the generals are making it clear that Aceh is non-negotiable. The current reality is that besides maintaining and orchestrating regional unrest, Indonesia' s military is tightening its grip on the central government itself. General Wiranto, who was `kicked upstairs' from Armed Forces Commander to become the new Coordinating Minister for Political Affairs and Security in Gus Dur' s cabinet, is rapidly becoming Indonesia's new strongman, and has actually usurped much of the President' s power in domestic affairs. A clear indication of Wiranto' s power is that no one dares to question his refusal to resign from the military despite having assumed a civilian position.


Aceh' s situation is relevant to current problems experienced in many parts of the Islamic world: the victimization of minority or ethnic groups in the name of economic development; attempts at defusing the violent effects of unchecked military abuses; struggling to establish a responsive civil society under the weight of a heavy handed and insensitive central authority; reversing a culture of violence through popular solidarity and struggling for social justice and democratic freedoms; and preserving traditional values in the face of rapid economic, social and political changes. The critical question of recognizing regional needs and demands, while balancing these with the interests of centralized postcolonial regimes, poses genuine dilemmas not simple to reconcile.

Another burning problem is the genuine need for innocent victims of state sponsored violence to receive redress and compensation and to be treated with dignity; for the perpetrators of crimes such as torture-until-death and a policy of rape to be brought to justice. There is a thin line between these legitimate demands, and the parallel desire for revenge or settling of scores. The complex problems which are created when state authorities victimize innocents through routine arrest, torture, execution and systematic rape in order to control an entire population and punish alleged separatists face Muslim peoples in more places than in Aceh, Chechnya or Kosovo - e.g. the present situation in China' s North West province of Xinjiang, where the Uighur ethnic Muslim group is subject to severe human rights violations including sexual torture. Muslims everywhere must begin learning lessons from the sufferings and shattered hopes of their brethren - whether it be the recent ordeal of the Kosovars, the sufferings of the Chechens, or the courage and determination of the Acehnese for a peaceful and secure future in which they assume control of their own destiny. Let us recall that in the early 1990s the elected Kosovar Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova (Democratic League of Kosovo) adopted the tactic of `nonviolent action' as a weapon against Serb repression, a tactic abandoned by the KLA, thus giving the Serbs a pretext to `fight terrorists.'

Does the nonviolent strategy of the Aceh's student movement provide a brighter promise than GAM rifles or ABRI brutality? The momentum of events appears to be overtaking all actors - military, students, or GAM - as the Acehnese people are now riding the crest of a self-empowering wave of newfound strength. The religious bonds cementing Acehnese identity and culture are mingled with serious and creative responses to their situation. It is time the rest of the Islamic world took notice and the international community became directly involved, before something snaps and peaceful options become rejected.

1. For details on the brutalities under the Military Operations Area/DOM (Daerah Operasi Militer) in Aceh from 1989 to 1998, see the comprehensive study by Al Chaidar, Sayed Mudhahar Ahmad and Yarmen Dinamika, Aceh Bersimbah Darah, 2nd revised edn, Jakarta: Pustaka Al-Kautsar, 1999, p. 284; as well as recent reports by Amnesty International (e.g. `Indonesia "Shock Therapy", Restoring Order in Aceh 1989 - 1993', July 1993), and by Human Rights Watch, Asian Division. Further: .; and TAPOL (Indonesian Human Rights Campaign, UK), e-mail:
2. Mobil Oil holds the chief concession, based in the district of North Aceh around Lhokseuwame; the Arun ®eld yielded about $2.5 billion net in 1998. An of® cial in Mobil Oil Indonesia's (MOI) office in Jakarta estimated that of these profi ts from liquefied gas and oil, the proceeds are shared between the national affiliate Pertamina and Mobil as follows: gas 75%/25%; oil 85%/15%; and that from Pertamina' s share, less than 2% benefits Aceh.
3. Prosiding Penataran Hak Asasi Manusia Untuk Calon Penatar, Care Human Rights Forum, available from FP HAM in Banda Aceh. This publication contains several interesting contributions on the Islamic grounding of human rights; see e.g. the contribution by Dr. Yusny Saby, Hak Asasi Manusia Dalam Perspectif Islam. They are preparing a parallel Human Rights Training for Volunteers. In January 2000, the Washington-based NGO Nonviolence International convenes Student Training Work-shops for Human Rights Skills and `Peaceful Action' in Aceh, at the request of the leading student organizations and in cooperation with local NGOs and academics. I wish to thank many friends in Aceh who helped me during my visit there in June 1999, especially brother Radhi, sister Musliha, and the Governor `Ba Shams.'


Conference Report - Future Integration of Indonesia: Focus on Aceh

On 3 April 1999, the International Forum for Aceh (n.1) (IFA), a recently formed non-profit organization among the Acehnese diaspora community in Washington, DC, convened an open forum addressing the request for a referendum in Aceh on negotiating full autonomy or independence from Indonesia. The symposium, entitled `Future Integration of Indonesia: Focus on Aceh,' was held on the campus of American University in Washington, DC, co-sponsored by the American University Student Association for Burma Coalition. In her opening remarks, Ms. Suraiya IT, Vice-Chairperson of IFA, affirmed the goals of the meeting: to gain international attention and support for ending the violence and human rights violations, and working for justice and democracy for the Acehnese. I was asked by IFA to moderate the event, in my capacity as Coordinator of the project Islam and Peace at the Washington, DC-based NGO, Nonviolence Inter-national, which seeks to promote intra-Muslim dialogue for peaceful change. By means of a resource-based approach to dialogue, the initial step was made to explore a peaceful solution to the conflicts in Aceh. The symposium succeeded in bringing together important Acehnese scholars and human rights workers, members of the Aceh Sumatra National Liberation Front (ASNLF), including Dr. Husaini Hasan, student leaders pushing for a referendum allowing Acehnese to determine greater autonomy or even an independent state, as well as a number of prominent international NGO organizations working for accountability and redressing the terrible human rights violations inflicted upon the people of Aceh. A guest speaker from Ambon, Mr. Helmi Wattimena, also addressed the recent Christian-Muslim riots in the Moluccas islands.

About 120 persons attended, primarily from the North American Acehnese and Indonesian communities. Despite sincere attempts by IFA to invite members of the Indonesian military directly involved in security in Aceh, as well as officials of the central government in Jakarta, neither sent representatives to participate publicly in this hoped for dialogue for justice between the Indonesian government, the armed forces, and the Aceh opposition. Nevertheless, the Indonesian Embassy in Washington did send a number of observers, and undoubtedly a full report has reached Jakarta. This meeting was a real success in that it brought long neglected attention to bear on the severe abuses under Suharto' s regime, and took the first steps in thinking out possible futures for this proud people and strategic area. Here we witness a genuine grassroots movement of popular nonviolent protest, a `rebel' liberation struggle for independence, and the growing consciousness of international peace workers. In a dramatic and timely manner, this forum faced us with the hard question: what is the price for peace?

The Forum

The first panel, `State and Civil Society in Indonesia: Historical Perspectives of Integration,' was divided into a morning and an afternoon session. A second panel in the afternoon, `Human Rights Perspective,' mixed international NGOs with Indonesian human rights workers. The morning session began with a scholarly historical overview of `The Aceh Question' by Professor Teuku Ibrahim Alfian (Gajah Mada University, Yogjakarta) stressing the deeply rooted Islamic social and religious character of the Acehnese people. He pointed to the notion of the `just ruler' (al-sultan al-'adil) still carrying potent overtones in popular consciousness; and to the custom of reaching collective consensus at the community level (duek pakat). He contrasted the important contribution of the Acehnese to the founding of the Republic of Indonesia, with the domination of Aceh and its natural resources by the largely Javanese central government. Professor Alfian underlined the gravity of the present situation in Aceh and the responsibility of the government in Jakarta to redress victims of the DOM `Military Operations Area' atrocities, as well as the need for international humanitarian aid, and for lifting the atmosphere of intimidation and terror. The victims and widows require special help from both the central authorities and international organizations. Another critical issue is the equitable sharing of wealth: `The insignificant portion of the country's wealth that the people of Aceh receive is not commensurate with the region' s abundant resources that it contributes to Jakarta.' Finally, he appealed for the unity of Indonesia, reflecting his commitment to central governance.

Then Dr. Husaini Hasan, from the Acheh Sumatra National Liberation Front (or Acheh Merdeka), delivered his remarks which were keenly listened to by everyone present, including the observers from the Indonesian Embassy. Dr. Hasan spent three years in the jungle of Aceh, survived three assassination attempts, and carries three bullets in his body and a price on his head under the DOM. Soft spoken and gentle in manner, he began by remembering many colleagues slain by the military, observing: `I have never got a military training and I have never fired a single bullet at anybody. Yes, I deal with blood every day, but as an obstetrician, my duty is to save lives.' He discussed each option possible through a free referendum: autonomy, federation, or independence. Dr. Hasan rejected autonomy as merely `perpetuating the Indonesian colonization of Aceh.' He dismissed federation with the central government as harmful to the identity of Acehnese: `What Indonesia has been doing to us is much worse than the Dutch colonialism. How can we still trust them, and how can we still treat them as our big brothers? They never treat us as human beings, let alone as a nation.' He argued that the only appropriate alternative is independence, asserting that Acehnese are not Indonesians: `We have no historic, political, cultural, economic or geographic relationship with them.' Due to Aceh' s rich natural resources, `we are capable to develop our country into a welfare state.' And because of Indonesia' s bribery, corruption and insurmountable debts, Dr. Hasan asserted that `it is absurd to integrate with the Republic of Indonesia and to take over its debts.' Independence could be achieved through Acehnese organizing themselves inside and outside the country, and through unity by all classes of society working together hand in hand. He concluded his remarks by speaking in Acehnese, appealing to his people to claim their rights of self-determination.

In what followed, remaining speakers were grouped together by approach or topic. A number of scholars spoke about the political issues related to the demands for a referendum now spearheaded by student groups. The young generation is the motor which is driving events forward in Indonesia today, but this energy needs direction and wisdom. In the morning panel, Aguswandi, a student leader at Syiah Kuala University and Secretary General of SMUR/Student Solidarity for Aceh People, gave a stirring call in support of holding a referendum. There is no more bargaining room left, he stated, and the people have already awakened. `The voice of the people is the voice of God!' Aguswandi declared. This feeling cannot be stopped by force of arms. Rather, it is the adoption of nonviolent means of protest and non-cooperation which empowers the people. With his white headband around his forehead bearing the word Referendum splashed in red paint, he lent an air of vitality and urgency to the proceedings.

In the afternoon, Radhi Darmansyah, Secretary General of FARMIDIA (Acehnese Islamic Student Reform Movement) with 5000 members at the Islamic University (IAIN) in the capital of Banda-Aceh, spoke eloquently on the role of students who have effectively become mediators for the demands of the people with the government. He argued that the then upcoming elections were to be rejected in favor of a referendum, since ABRI clearly aimed to exploit elections by provoking civil unrest, riots, and communal violence - with the aim of insuring their continued domination of the political scene. (n.2) Dharmansyah spoke against the proposed new regional military command for Aceh (the elite unit KODAM I), which would bring alien troops back into the area and more violence. Finally, he called for an increased role for independent international institutions such as the ICRC and the Red Crescent to help victims of military oppression, and the UNHCR to help with Acehnese refugees who fled to Malaysia and Singapore for safety; as well as international organizations such as Amnesty International capable of exerting pressure upon the Jakarta authorities to correct grave injustices and abuses.

In a thought-provoking presentation by the Acehnese political scientist Dr. Lukman Thaib (Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia), he outlined the case under international law for Aceh' s status as a sovereign nation.(n.3) Dr. Thaib reviewed the documents submitted by the present head of Free Aceh Movement, Syik di Tiro Hasan Muhammad (n.4) to the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization at the 43rd and 48th sessions in Geneva (1992), which had resulted in tabling a UN resolution at the annual session of the UN Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, during the 45th session of the Ecosoc Council of 17 August 1993; and a second one on 18 August 1994. (n.5) Dr. Thaib argued that the Acehnese and Sumatran peoples must be given the chance to decide their own future through referendum, which is `the only way to secure peace, security and harmony to this vast region hitherto drawn into endless anarchy, oppression and injustice.' Concerning future integration, he suggested the possibility of a `Commonwealth of Independent States' tying sovereign states as equal partners into a new political entity thereby increasing regional political stability and its international clout.

Professor Ibrahim Abdullah (Foundation for Advancement of Science and Culture, Universitas Nasional, Jakarta) addressed the question of `National Integration or Disintegration' with respect to Aceh. Professor Abdullah warned that Indonesia is moving toward disintegration, itself a sign of the failure of Suharto' s regime to bring about political modernization: `Indonesia is an extremely shaky nation-state, for both necessary condition (political modernization) and sufficient condition (political development) have never been met.' The absence of rule of law and civility, leads to the absence of social justice - a situation true for all of Indonesia's 27 provinces. He decried the habit of the central government `regarding Aceh only as an important source for accumulating wealth for Jakarta without any fair return given back to Aceh,' and called for a change in the attitude of those presently in power from a self-serving corruption to `something closer to professionalism backed up by civility and integrity.' Professor Abdullah did not put much hope that the June 1999 elections would be fair and democratic, insisting that `during the post election period, the Acehnese should fix their own destiny without depending on the mercy of a corrupted central government anymore.' He argued that decentralization was preferred, allowing Acehnese and other provinces to design their own ways of self-governance in harmony with their basic cultural and religious aspirations, while keeping a loose form of federalism entrusted with monetary, defense and foreign affairs. Interestingly, Abdullah suggested a sharing of wealth from natural resources between Aceh and the central government, e.g. gas and oil shared on a 50 - 50 basis or gold on a 60 - 40 basis; and devising a scale to help the poorer provinces benefit from the wealth of richer ones. A true autonomy whereby Aceh' s status of Special Region was realized with a new wealth-sharing economic formula, would go far toward preserving central authority while meeting legitimate Acehnese demands. Professor Abdullah thus sees national integration achievable on a more equitable basis through decentralization.

Dr. Ghazali Abbas, a House of Representative Member of the Indonesian Parliament in Jakarta, addressed the perhaps deceptive hopes raised by the June elections, counseling persistence in communal efforts with observance of rule of law. His recitation of Acehnese poetic verses moved and delighted the audience. Dr. Abdullah Ali (Syiah Kuala University, Aceh) stressed the current bleak situation and the need for peaceful solutions, contrasting the activism of the Acehnese students pushing for a referendum, with government responsiveness and sensitivity lagging far behind. Dr. Hasbalah M. Saad, former Secretary General of the Jakarta-based Commission for Human Rights for Aceh (KOSHAMDA), warned that independence has a price, and that the then upcoming elections might only be a step toward clarifying the future of Aceh. Hasbalah Saad currently serves as Minister for Human Rights in Gus Dur' s cabinet.

A variety of independent human rights groups contributed important insights to the discussions. Carmel Budiarjo of TAPOL (Indonesian Human Rights Campaign) gave a cogent survey of abuses by ABRI in Aceh. She noted that while the human rights groups have been active for 15 years in bringing the plight of East Timorese to the attention of the international community, the Aceh tragedy remains little appreciated. The brutality of the military over the past 10 years has had the reverse effect of polarizing political views in Aceh, and increasing support for independence. Sidney Jones (Executive Director, Human Rights Watch, Asian Division) concisely reviewed the chief concerns of the international NGO community: the increasing demands by Acehnese means more resistance from Jakarta; the problem of transmigration including the exodus of Acehnese out of and the movement of Javanese into the province, provokes communal resentment; and communal violence only serves to strengthen the military' s rationale in maintaining their cruel oppression. She stressed the necessity to adequately address the need for justice for the victims of years of DOM repression, as well as the need for effective and wise leadership at the regional and the federal levels. Ms. Jones impressed everyone with her commitment and fluent translations from Indonesian into English. Representing the United States Committee for Refugees, Ms. Jana Mason reviewed the conditions of expelled Acehnese in Malaysia and elsewhere, and made suggestions for resolving their plight. (n.6)

Sayed Mudhahar Ahmad, of Care Human Rights Forum (FP HAM), spoke authoritatively about human rights violations in Aceh under the worst years of DOM violence and in recent months. His gentle, dignified manner contrasted with the grisly and depressing events he documented: torture, systematic rape, indiscriminate retaliation upon innocent civilians, and total unaccountability by the military forces. His careful summary of the evidence demonstrated how overreaction and heavy handedness has depleted whatever legitimacy the central government had in the eyes of the Acehnese. Like many others, he appealed to the international community and transnational organizations not to ignore the heart-wrenching reality of the Acehnese, since their role in pressuring and reigning in the worst aspects of government behavior was essential. Sayed Ahmad emphasized how deeply the Acehnese feel violated, how their dignity has been trampled upon, and the necessity to address these feelings in rebuilding trust and cooperation by means of accountability and reconciliation.

Questions from the audience elicited responses from the panel. In a poignant moment, a Javanese Indonesian woman confessed her pain at hearing that Acehnese did not feel `Indonesian' as basic to their identity. This drew clarifications from panelists who appealed to the complex historical perspective, and highlighted misguided policies pursued by the military over the past decade. Yet the distinctive cultural and religious sentiments of Acehnese were clearly evident, and their insistence on playing a role in decisions affecting their future status was repeated again and again. I asked Dr. Hasan directly whether GAM would consider renouncing revenge sniper attacks against military forces; his reply struck a moderate tone while referring to the internationally recognized right of people to resist aggression and oppression. It was noted that Kalashinakov automatic rifles may be purchased for a mere $20 in Singapore, and Dr. Hasan was asked whether GAM would signal their willingness to renounce purchasing such light arms in the then prevailing situation just before the elections. Again, his answer was equivocal yet left the door open contingent upon good faith measures initiated by the Indonesian military.

1. Registered in the state of New York, USA; contact: Jafar Siddiq, tel.: 11± 718±392± 9781, fax: 11-718-786-2935, e-mail: , .; also , . IFA defines itself as `a forum to build international support and solidarity to empower and strengthen the Acehnese in their struggle for their lives and for liberty, peace and justice in their homeland.' IFA convened the first meeting of the International Support Group for Human Rights in Aceh on 15-16 January 2000 in Banda Aceh, with participation of local, national and international organizations and individuals.
2. We see this reality in the unrest in East Timor. In mid-April 1999, government sponsored pro-integration militias led by Basilio Araugo attacked supporters of a popular referendum. At the time of writing, tens of thousands of East Timorese refugees still remain subject to brutalization and militia control in camps in West Timor.
3. See the next article in this issue of Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, Vol. 20, No. 1, 2000.
4. Head of the Aceh government in exile or one wing of the Free Aceh Movement/GAM, Hasan Muhammad is the eighth in the line of religious authorities to hold the title Syik di Tiro/`the Shaikh of Tiro.' His family comes from the town of Pidie on the north coast of Aceh.
5. Resolution nos E/CN.4/Sub.2/1993/L.21.15 and E/CN.4/Sub.2/1994/L.25.16. See e.g. TAPOL Bulletin 1993, `Aceh Resolution at the UN', London: British Campaign for Human Rights in Indonesia, Report 319.
6. See the report by Jana Mason, the US Committee for Refugees, `The Least Risky Solution: Malaysia' s Detention and Deportation of Acehnese Asylum Seekers', Washington, DC: United States Committee for Refugees, 1998, p. 32.

ISSN 1360-2004 print; 1469-9591 online/00/010091-14 Ó2000 Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs

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