Aceh Links



About The Links
Aceh: Where?
Press Release
Military Oppression
Acehnese Women
Aceh and NGO
Aceh & Mobil Oil
Free Aceh (ASNLF)
Peace Dialogue
Letters From Aceh
Tourism in Aceh
TNI Watch

Sign My GuestBook
View My GuestBook

After Ogoniland, Will It Be The Turn Of Aceh?
Notes on Environmental Degradation and Human Rights Violations in Aceh
By George J. Aditjondro

THE international outrage in late 1995 against the execution of the Nigerian human rights activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa, should be welcomed. The Commonwealth's decision to suspend Nigeria's membership, the decision of the International Finance Corporation (the World Bank's commercial arm) to stop its involvement in a US$ 3 billion gas deal with Shell-Nigeria, and the global campaign to boycott Shell indicate a growing awareness against repressive host government who work hand-in-glove with multinational mining companies.

This international outrage, however, may have sent a wrong messages to the world, namely that General Sani Abacha's regime is the worst military regime in terms of sacrificing its own people and their environment, for the benefit of a Western mining companies. This message is wrong because there have been many more political dissidents killed by Suharto than in any African country, for the benefit of many Western mining giants. The victims of this regime's long list of political killings include the half a million so-called "Communists" killed in 1965-1966, the hundreds of Muslim dissidents killed in West Java, Tanjung Priok, and Lampung, as well as all hundreds of thousands freedom fighters killed in East Timor, West Papua, and Aceh.

Let me focus this time on Aceh, for the following reasons concerning the similarities of this case with the Ogoni people's struggle. First of all, the Ogoni as well as the Acehnese are minorities in their (current) nation-states. There are only 500,000 Ogonis in a country of 100 million Nigerians divided among 250 ethnic groups. Likewise, the 3.4 million Acehnese are also a minority in a country of 180 million people.

Secondly, Aceh and Ogoniland are both major foreign exchange earners for their current nation-states. The Arun gas field in Aceh, for instance, is earning seven million US dollars per day -- or, some say, 15 billion US dollars per year -- for the Indonesian treasury.

Thirdly, the extraction of these natural resources and their transformation into petro-chemical products, are carried out by one of the "seven sisters" (the seven largest petro-chemical giants in the world). In the case of Ogoniland, it is Shell, while in the case of Aceh it is Mobil Oil.

Fourthly, Mobil Oil's gas production and the gas-fed petrochemical industry have also caused extensive environmental damages to the Aceh environment, as has been the case of Shell's operations in Ogoniland. As in the case of Ogoniland, these environmental damages have triggered numerous protests from the local Acehnese population.

Finally, as in the case of the Ogoni people, Acehnese activists who protested against the social and environmental damages as well as against the social injustice involved in this extractive industry also had to face repression from the central government, which had sent its most murderous military force, Kopassus, to deal with the social activists.

The Ogoni and Aceh cases have also, however, some major differences. First of all, the Acehnese people's feeling on injustice, seeing that the wealth generated by Aceh for Indonesia's national coffers was mainly "rewarded" with large-scale pollution for the local people, has catalyzed the birth of an independence movement, the Free Aceh Movement (GAM = Gerakan Aceh Merdeka ).

This movement was launched on December 4, 1976, followed up with attacks on the Mobil Oil Indonesia (MOI) liquified natural gas (LNG) project in Arun, North Aceh, where two American staff of MOI and a passenger bus in Pidie district had been attacked. In later years, Javanese transmigrants in the Cot Girek project have also been attacked by GAM guerilla fighters.

This has not been the case in Nigeria, where the late Ken Saro-Wiwa and his Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) have not campaigned for separation from Nigeria. In contrast to GAM's nationalist aims, MOSOP only demanded that Shell cleaned up its environmental mess and demanded a more equitable distribution of the petrodollars produced from the natural resources in his native Ogoniland.

GAM's violent means of struggle is the second major difference with Ken Saro-Wiwa's Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), which advocated non-violence.

This does not mean that the degradation of Aceh's social and physical environment has been of a lesser nature than in the Ogoniland. In fact, in October 1992, a group of villagers from Aceh attended the Permanent Peoples Tribunal on Industrial and Environmental Hazards andHuman Rights in Bhopal, India. They testified against two fertilizer plants, PT Pupuk Iskandar Muda (PIM) and PT ASEAN Aceh Fertilizer (AAF), which are located near their village of Tambon Baroh. In 1988 a serious ammonia leak occurred at PIM, during which many villagers fainted. The villagers tried to sue the company, locally, but the Lhok Seumawe district court ruled in favour of PIM. More major leakages from both plants have occurred on several occasions since then. Each time, the companies offer villagers just two tins of powdered milk, some oranges and a small sum of money (between US$ 1.60 and 3.20) per family. The factories also produce a great deal of waste and dust which is hazardous to the health, according to researchers at the nearby Syah Kuala University in Banda Aceh. They also stated that the factories also pollute the local vegetation, wells and rivers, and kills fish and shrimps (Down to Earth , Dec. 1992).

The Bhopal Tribunal was expected to make recommendations to the companies as well as to the Indonesian government. I am not aware of those recommendations, nor of the companies' and the Indonesian Government's response to those recommendations. Nevertheless, the fact that the Aceh villagers and their environmentalist and lawyer supporters had to resort to the Bhopal Tribunal, already indicates about the seriousness of the social and environmental impact of Mobil Oil Indonesia's gas mining and petro-chemical industry in Aceh.

The social and environmental impact of the MOI mega-project:

Prior to the discovery of natural gas in North Aceh, the region's economy was based primarily on a peasant agriculture and fish farming, and the inhabitants were woefully unprepared for the arrival of a modern industrial complex. As late as the mid 1970s, there was not even a technical high school in the district, so most of the workers employed by MOI were imported mainly from Java and North Sumatra.

As in most places in Indonesia where large scale development project have taken place, 'involuntary resettlement' of villagers from their native land also occurred in Aceh. In one instance, 400 families were moved to make way for the ASEAN Aceh Fertilizer plant, but the resettlement site quickly became deserted because villagers failed to make the transition to a new livelihood, and because promises of new land were not fulfilled (Kell, 1995: 16).

In another instance, 215 farmers from five villages -- Menasah Nga, Cot U. Sibak, Seunebok Dalam, Bukit Hagu, and Ulee Leuhop -- , wrote a letter in early 1990 to claim compensation for their lands and crops appropriated for an MOI road widening and development project, five years earlier, in Lhok Sukon. They raised their complaints in a letter addressed to the Governor of Aceh, the Minister of Home Affairs, the Vice President, the Minister/State Secretariate, and the national oil company, Pertamina, and also reported their complaints to the official journalists association, PWI, in the province capital, Banda Aceh. This was their second attempt to redress their compensation demand, after Mobil Oil representatives had told them, that the company had already handed over Rp 27 million compensation money to the district chief of Lhok Sukon, to be distributed to the land owners. In a meeting with the Banda Aceh journalists, a representative of the farmers also told the reporters that a land clearance team set up by the regional government had disadvantaged the farmers by making fictituous reports and by forging the signature of Lhok Sukon district officials (Jakarta Post , Jan. 15, 1990).

Apart from these "twin problems" of land appropriation and 'involuntary resettlement,' which are more general to large scale development projects, the more "typical" social and ecological impacts of the petrochemical boom in Aceh can be divided into three categories. First, the impact of the MOI gas exploration on Aceh's terrestrial environment. Secondly, the impact of the transportation of the petro-chemical products on Aceh's aquatic environment. And thirdly, the impact of the Lhokseumawe Industrial Zone (ZILS = Zona Industri Lhok Seumawe ).

The impact of MOI's gas exploration on Aceh's terrestrial environment:

= When A-23, one of MOI's gas wells in the Arun field near Lhok Sukon town exploded in mid 1978, the local people's wells and rivers were polluted for four months from July till October, as far as 10 km from the exploded well. The 4,000 villagers had to live for months in a war-like situation, because the burning gas sounded like taking-off jet aircrafts, which could be heard until 0.5 km from the disaster site. At night, the burning well looked like a giant torch, which could be seen from the nearby port-town of Lhokseumawe, tens of km away from Lhok Sukon. To extinguish the burning gas, MOI and the Indonesian state oil & gas mining company, Pertamina, had to hire Red Adair, a well-known American specialist in this field. Red Adair and his team worked for weeks injecting mud in the burning well through a diagonally drilled pipeline (Tempo , July 8, 1978: 15-16).

The impact of the transportation of the petro-chemical products on Aceh's aquatic environment:

= In early 1990, an oil barge spilled 1.5 million litres of kerosene Lhok Seumawe tried to collect what they perceived as "free kerosene" for domestic use, but developed skin irritation from the substance (Kompas , Febr. 10 & 16, 1990);

= Also in 1990, barges sailing up and down the Toe River near Lhok Sukon to transport logistic for the MOI project created waves that eroded the villagers' gardens along the river. Eventually, 700 families in the subdistrict of Tanah Luas complained about the losses of their gardens (Fakta , Febr. 5, 1990: 3 & 10, and July 15, 1990: 22-23);

= In early 1993, thousands of fisherfolks on Weh Island across Sabang held a public prayer to ask God to be saved from a similar disaster which had happened a week earlier, when the Maersk Navigator supertanker collided with another ship near the entrance of the Malaka Straits, causing a gigantic crude oil spill in the sea, which destroyed a large amount of marine creatures (Republika , February 2, 1993).

The impact of the Lhok-Seumawe Industrial Zone (ZILS):

= In August 1988, a ammonia leak from the Iskandar Muda fertilizer plant caused 602 villagers from the village of Tambon Baroh in the subdistrict of Dewantara, Aceh Besar, to be hospitalized in all the local clinics and the Lhok Seumawe hospital, for breathing problems. In response to that major industrial disaster, the company only provided them with a tin can of milk and an orange per family, while the victims' health bills had to be covered by the villagers themselves. Unsatisfied with the way the company was treating them, those 602 victims appointed the North Aceh post of the Medan Legal Aid Institute (LBH Medan Pos Aceh Utara) to sue the company. Their case was registered in the Lhok Seumawe district court on September 19, 1988. However, as mentioned earlier, the villagers lost their case. So, they still tried to appeal to the Aceh High Court, but in October 1989, lost their appeal as well. And to add insult to injury, in three consequent years -- 1989, 1990, and 1991 -- similar industrial accidents occurred again, and the villagers became constantly victimized by the leaking toxic gas from the fertilizer plant (Hamzah, n.d.,). That is when they decided to take their case to the Bhopal Tribunal. 

= In 1990, about 1,500 inhabitants of three villages in Tanah Luas subdistrict, whose gardens along the river had been eroded by the waves from MOI's supply barges, complained about a new environmental hazard. This time it was the noise generated from MOI's Liquified Petroleum Gas (LPG) plant near their houses (Fakta , Febr. 15, 1993: 3, 10, July 15, 1990: 22-23).

= In mid 1991 it was reported that around 60% of fisherfolks in traditional villages in the Lhok Seumawe area were living below the poverty line, and were even close to starvation, as a result of critically low catches over the previous three years. They blamed the decline of their catch on the discharge of pollutants from the ZILS. Similarly, chemical waste from the MOI refinery at Arun was held responsible for the devastation during 1991 of dozens of hectares of shrimp and fish ponds owned by 240 farmers, and the local government issued an order prohibiting MOI from discharging material into public drainage channels. 72 farmers from a village in Lhok Sukon subsequently sued MOI and Pertamina for the damages. However, their case in the district court in Lhok Sukon in September 1992 was defeated, and the matter was referred for appeal to the Supreme Court (Kell, 1995: 17).

= In December 1991, 88 people from two villages close to the Iskandar Muda fertilizer plant received treatment following a leak of ammonia gas. A similar event occurred only six months previously, and the head of one of the affected villages said that such incidents happened almost every year (Kell, 1995: 17-18).

= Ten months after the latest incident, on behalf of 121 concerned families from one of the villages, the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation (YLBHI) and the Indonesian Environmental Forum (WALHI) made representations at the national and international levels regarding the long term effects in the health of the surrounding population of four gas leaks from the ZILS two fertilizer plants which occurred between early 1988 and December 1991. People living near these two factories had been unable to use their wells because of contaminations by airborne sediments, and inadequate processing of factory waste has let to the death of the locally owned stocks of fish and shrimp (Kell, 1995: 18).

= Less than a year after the fourth of these accidents, an underground pipeline carrying waste from the Iskandar Muda refinery to sea fractured at its seaward end, discharging viscous yellow liquid onto the shore and into the surrounding waters. The spillage endangered residents living nearby, whose alarm was excarbeated by the fact that they had been unaware that this toxic waste had been channeled under the ground so close to their homes (Kell, 1995: 18).

= Three months later, in late November 1992, another underground pipeline, carrying crude gas from MOI's Arun gas field to the LNG refinery at Blang Lancang in the ZILS, burst and caught fire at the point at which it passed the village of Blang Klieng. This is in the subdistrict of Kuta Makmur, North Aceh district, 35 km from Lhokseumawe. A giant explosion followed by a 100 m high fire ended a peaceful night on 11:00 mid night. Three houses were ravaged by the fire, five villagers suffered from burn wounds, livestock were killed and crops were destroyed (Fakta , Febr. 1, 1993: 22; Kell, 1995: 18-19).

= In mid July 1994, a pipeline carrying natural gas from MOI's Arun gas field to PT Arun LNG Company's plant in the ZILS, leaked again at a point near Lhok Sukon, 30 Km from the LNG refinery. Fortunately, this time no major explosion or fire occurred (Surabaya Post , July 12, 1994). 

= Then, later in that month, ammonia bursted for 15 minutes from a valve in the Iskandar Muda fertilizer plant, causing five villagers in Krueng Geukeuh, a small town 12 Km from the plant, to faint, and about 50 other villagers had problems breathing. The company only compensated the victims of its ammonia leak with powdered milk, oranges, and some other nutritious food (Kompas , July 27, 1994).

= In the mean time, 23 tons of toxic waste has been accumulated from MOI's LNG and LPG plants. This waste consisted of mercury absorbed in activated carbon. For sixteen years this toxic waste has been stored in underground containers near the MOI plant near the mercury absorbed in activated carbon. This toxic waste has been stored during the last 17 years in underground containers near the MOI plant near the coast.

But since 1994, the underground storage place had been filled up, so the new waste -- generated at a rate of one ton per year -- was kept in large containers in the Arun gas field, 31 km from the MOI LNG plant. In Oct. 1995, twenty tons of that toxic waste was going to be shipped from Lhokseumawe to Cileungsi, Bogor, West Java, to be processed there. Three more tons of that toxic waste was going to be shipped at the end of this year (Acehnet , Nov. 21, 1995). So, based on the legacy of mercury pollution in Japan as well as in the Jakarta Bay, one can say that ZILS is silently harbouring a very detrimental "ecological time bomb."

The violation of Acehnese human rights:

The following "litany of human rights violations" in Aceh, are cited from several sources, as indicated:

Since 1991 at least 35 people have been accused of subversion for supporting Aceh Merdeka and sentenced to prison terms of up to 20 years. Some or all may be prisoners of conscience. Drs Nurdin Abdurrahman, a lecturer at the University of Syah Kuala, was arrested in October 1991 and accused of attending meetings at which an Aceh Merdeka leader was present. He was brought to trial in May 1991 and sentenced to nine years' imprisonment, but the sentence was increased to 13 years upon appeal. Hasbi Abdullah, a lecturer at the same university, was accused of attending "clandestine meetings" in 1990. At the meetings non-violent means of generating international pressure for an independent Acehnese state were discussed. Hasbi Abdullah was sentenced to 14 years imprisonment at a trial which reportedly failed to meet basic international standards of fairness (AI, 1992: 13).

A similar pattern [as in East Timor] of extrajudicial execution and "disappearance" has been evident in Aceh. While the scale of violations has diminished since the height of the counter-insurgency campaign between 1989 and 1991, political killings and "disappearances" have continued in the region in the last year. Just as importantly, the fate of most of those killed or "disappeared" in previous years has yet to be clarified. 

The victims of extrajudicial execution in 1992 included elderly men such as Teungku Imam Hamzah, aged 80, who was reportedly shot dead without reason by security forces in April while walking down the road in Lhok Kruntjong, Aceh. Teungku Imam Hamzah was allegedly to be a well-known supporter of Aceh Merdeka , but he was not armed at the time of deathand soldiers gave no warning before firing. In December 1991 a young man was reportedly killed, and his body mutilated by soldiers belonging to Kopassus (Komando Pasukan Khusus ), a special counter-insurgency force, in Pidie. According to records, Nurdin Usman Murni was decapitated and his arms and legs were severed from his body.

At least fourty people were reported to have "disappeared" in Aceh during the year. They included Abdurahman, an alleged supporter of Aceh Merdeka, who "disappeared" while serving a 17-and-a-half year sentence for subversion in Lhokseumawe jail in Aceh. Members of a prison fellowship who went for a regular visit to the jail in June 1992 discovered that Abdurahman was not there. Prison officials said that he had been transferred to the military headquarters (Korem) in Lhokseumawe but military authorities there denied having him in custody. Another alleged member of Aceh Merdeka , Mohammad Jaafar Abdurahman Ed, a father of four, was arrested in August 1990 on suspicion of assisting Aceh Merdeka, after reporting to a local military command to protest his innocence. He was subsequently transferred to a KOPASSUS command post for interrogation. Thereafter, military authorities refused to provide relatives or lawyers with any information about his fate, and it was feared that he had been killed.

To Amnesty International's knowledge, there have been no investigations into the unlawful killings and "disappearances" reported over four years in Aceh, and no official condemnation of the pracitce. Thus, while it is true that the absolute number of political killings and "disappearances" in Aceh has declined substantially in the past year, there has been no fundamental change in the conditions which allowed them to occur. Amnesty International believes, therefore, that there is a real danger that a similar pattern of violations may emerge in the context of future counter-insurgency operations in Aceh or other parts of the country.
In Aceh and North Sumatra, military authorities released hundreds of alleged supporters of Aceh Merdeka who had been held in unacknowledged detention for up to two years. None of those released had been charged or tried and all had been denied procedural guarantees stipulated in Indonesia's Code of Criminal Procedure. Military authorities in the region told human rights lawyers that the Code did not apply where national security was at stake. As in East Timor, all of those released were required to sign and swear an oath of loyalty to the government and the national ideology, Pancasila , as a condition of their release. Scores of others were believed to remain in unacknowledged police or military custody in Aceh at the end of the year. .......

In Aceh and North Sumatra scores of suspected supporters of Aceh Merdeka were reported to have been tortured or ill-treated by security forces during the year. Among them was Ishak bin Ismael, a village head, who was arrested by security forces and taken to the police station at Baktia where was tortured to death. According to reports police placed a large wooden beam across the back of his neck and then stood or jumped on it until he was dead. His body was placed in a sack and thrown into a nearby river.

Drs Ismail bin Gani, a father of four and a civil servant at the office of the Regent of Sigli, was arrested and tortured by military authorities in March 1992. Suspected of being an Aceh Merdeka supporter, he was held incommunicado for two months and reportedly tortured to extract a confession. When his wife was allowed to visit him in May, for the first and only time, his arms and legs were broken and he had to be carried by soldiers to meet her. He told her that he had been beaten repeatedly with a length of 2" by 2" wood, and had not received any medical treatment.

In May 1992 another suspected Aceh Merdeka supporter, Saleh Ibrahim, was detained, beaten and threatened with death by members of the counter-insurgency force, KOPASSUS, at a command post in Peureulak. Ibrahim said he had been punched and threatened with knives, pistols and dogs by three soldiers at the post so that he would confess. He was one of a group which had recently returned from Malaysia where they had sought refuge together with more than 200 others in previous years.
Civilians living in Aceh Merdeka base areas were also subjected to ill-treatment and torture by security forces seeking revenge or military intelligence. In April 1992, at least a dozen people of the village of Tjot Kruet, Pase, were reportedly ebaten by soldiers searching for two suspected members of Aceh Merdeka. The victims, who included three elderly men, were also forced to beat members of their own families, to crawl over rough terrain and to stare into the sun for several hours.........

The urban poor, particularly women and children, were frequently beaten and otherwise ill-treated by security personnel carrying out "cleanliness" and "order" campaigns in various parts of the country. In August 1992 an illiterate woman, Habibah, who earned her living by selling bananas in Keude Sungai Raya, Aceh Timur, was punched and beaten by members of an "Orderliness Team" which had come to remove her roadside kiosk. The team, which included military personnel, tied her hands and feet with a nylon rope and carried her to a nearby medical clinic, where she was given an injection to make her sleep before being loaded onto a bus to her home village. A local goverment official said Habibah's kiosk and others in the area had to be removed because they ".. could interfere with traffic and ruin the view of the mosque." He denied that Habibah had been forcibly sedated but a health official confirmed that she had been given an injection to "calm her down" (AI, 1993: 11-17).

Indonesia, where an estimated 2,000 civilians have been deliberately killed by government soldiers since the security forces began counter-insurgency operations against an armed resistance movement in Aceh province in northern Sumatra in 1989.

In the Indonesian province of Aceh, an armed group called Aceh Merdeka has been fighting for independence since the mid-1970s. Since the reemergence of armed conflicts in 1989, its members have committed human rights abuses, including arbitrarily killing civilians they alleged were informers (AI, 1994: 95, 213).

Around 50 alleged supporters of the armed pro-independence group Aceh Merdeka, many of whom were believed to be prisoners of conscience, continued to serve sentences up to life imprisonment imposed after unfair trials in previous years. At least eight other alleged members were tried during the year, including three men convicted of subversion in March and sentences to 19 years' imprisonment.

No official investigations had been initiated into the extrajudicial executions of at least 2,000 civilians in Aceh between 1989 and early 1993. The fate of possibly hundreds of Acehnese and East Timorese who "disappeared" in previous years remained unknown and those resposbile had yet to be brought to justice (AI, 1995a: 161-162).

Grave human rights violations occurred in the context of a civil conflict which flared in Aceh from 1989 to 1993. .... During the military's counter-insurgency operations, Amnesty International estimated that some 2,000 people, including women and children, were killed either in public executions or in secret killings. Others, including women, were held in unacknowledged detention, tortured, and imprisoned after unfair trials, or have "disappeared." Amnesty International is not aware of any member of the security forces being held to account for the killings and other violations which occurred during the military's operations.

In Aceh, women continue to suffer human rights violations as a result of the impunity granted to members of the security forces. Most of the women whose husbands were extrajudicially executed or have "disappeared" have had no official explanation from the government, nor have they received any compensation. In addition to this hardship, the women are continuing to live under intense military surveiilance. In April 1995 Amnesty International interviewed two Acehnese women, Djumilah and Maya (not their real names), widowed when their husbands were killed in 1991 after being arrested by the military in Lhokseumawe, Aceh. Djumilah's husband's body was returned, but Maya never received her husband's body. Their stories are illustrative of what happened to many women in Aceh, events which are largely ignored by the Indonesian Government and the international community. The two women have had not official notification of their husband's deaths, have not seen those responsible brought to justice, and they have not received any compensation.

Djumilah said she watched her husband being arrested by soldiers from the Special Forces Command (Kopassus ) during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan in 1991. In the absence of a warrant, she asked why he was being arrested but was only told that the military just needed to take him for a while and that he would probably be brought back the following day. He did not return. Several days later an officer from Kopassus came requesting soap, a towel and cigarette money for her husband in detention. After eight days the Kopassus officer returned again asking for more money for cigarettes. The next day his body was discovered at the village guard post and Djumilah sent a relative to retrieve it. There were bullet holes in his neck and blue marks all over his face. There were also cigarette burns all over his arms.

Maya never saw her husband again after his arrest in 1991. Eight armed Kopassus officers came to arrest him, sayiung that they were taking him for three days only. When he did not return, her brother went to the local Kopassus command to ask where he was, but the military denied any knowledge of his whereabouts. For two months Maya did not know if he was still alive. She herself was too frightened to go to Kopassus . Maya believes that her husband was taken to a local military detention centre called Rancun, which was well known for being a place where detainees were tortured and frequently killed. About two months after he was taken, a relative of Maya's said he saw her husband's body on the side of a road. Maya does not know for sure if this was her husband, but she is sure her husband is dead. Neither Djumilah nor Maya knows why their husbands were arrested.

Since then, Djumilah and Maya have lived in fear. Members of the security forces are suspicious of women without husbands, frequently suspecting that an absent husband may have fled to join the armed resistance. Approximately a year after their husbands were arrested, Maya and Djumilah, along with five other women, were called to the Koramil [subdistrict army command - GJA] office and asked where their husbands were. The other five women were from a nearby village and their husbands had also been arrested and had "disappeared." Djumilah tried to explain that her husband was asked. When asked how she knew this she explained that someone from Kopassus had brought the body back. "Why didn't you come and pick him up before he died?", the officer asked her. Djumilah is now 30 and has three children. She cried as she explained to Amnesty International that life was hard for her now. Maya has six children. She complained of the difficulties that women such as herself have in finding work now, particularly around Lhokseumawe where most of the work available is in heavy industry.

While the level of human rights violations in Aceh has declined dramatically since 1993, Amnesty International is still concerned that the level of military surveillance in the area results in difficulties for international and domestic human rights monitors to accurately record what violations still occur. In addition, even though the large-scale killings and "disappearances" are over, Amnesty International considers that the Indonesian Government still has an obligation to investigate the human rights violations, to bring the perpetrators to justica and to provide compensation to the women like Djumilah and Maya who are still waiting for the government to acknowledge what happened to their husbands (AI, 1995b: 19-20).

Similar to its performances in East Timor, the military's suppression of an Acehnese rebellion in 1990-1992 was replete with extra-judicial killings, unlawful detention, forced confessions and torture, not withstanding the fact that the Indonesian legal code provides protection from all these abuses.

Several dozen Acehnese have been tried on subversive charges in recent years. Many were denied access to a lawyer until the day of their trial, and then had their lawyer appointed for them by the government. Many complained of torture by the military. Testifying at his own trial in March 1991, Acehnese journalist Adnan Beuransyah recounted the interrogation process:

"My hair and my nose were burned with cigarette butts. I was given electric shocks on my feet, genitals and ears until I fainted. .. I was ordered to sit on a long bench facing the interrogator. I was still blind-folded and the wires for electric shocks were still wound around my toes. If I said anything they didn't like they turn on the current. This went on until about 8:00 am, meaning I was tortured for about eight continuous hours. .. On the third night I was tortured again ... My body was bruised and bloodied and I had been beaten and kicked so much that I coughed up blood and there was blood in my urine ... It continued like this until I signed the interrogation disposition."

In 1990-1991, at the height of the most recent Acehnese rebellion, many Acehnese corpses were dumped at night on the sides of the roads, in rivers or in markets. The army denied responsibility but most Acehnese thought differently, believing the corpses were a warning not to support the rebellion. More than 1,000 Acehnese were believed to have died in clashes with security forces or while in military detention. "The level of killing is such," Asia Watch reported, "that personal vendettas and business feuds can be carried out with impunity, since once a victim is labelled 'GPK' [Indonesian shorthand for "security disturber'], no questions are asked."

Major General Pramono, the top military commander in North Sumatra, explained that many Acehnese had to be detained without trial because "if they all went to the courts, the courts would be too full" (Schwartz, 1994: 247-249).

The government also tacitly admitted to human rights abuses in Aceh, citing poor military training and the ferocity of local rebels as the cause. The International Red Cross was granted access to Acehnese detainees, despite opposition from ABRI quarters.

None of this seemed to have a moderating impact on the military's strategy, which stuck obstinately to the credo that any threat to the unity of the state must be ruthlessly dealt with. The upper levels of ABRI high command were not blind to the wider diplomatic implications and the negative impact on Indonesia's overseas image. Either they regarded the security approach as too effective to abandon, or, as some suggested, there was a limit to how much discipline and control the senior ranks could extend to poorly trained and often frightened Javanese soldiery led by ambitious field commanders (Vatikiotis, 1994: 186).

The Aceh Case referred to in this article is the 1989-1993 military operation against the Free Aceh Movement (GAM = Gerakan Aceh Merdeka -- GJA), a liberation movement under the leadership of Hasan Muhammad Tiro. The Indonesian Armed Forces (ABRI) calls this movement "Trouble Making Movement Against Security/Free Aceh," or its acronym "GPK/AM" [Gerakan Pengganggu Keamanan/Aceh Merdeka -- GJA) or simply "GPK." The main 'theatre' of the armed conflicts between GAM and ABRI were the three districts of East Aceh, North Aceh and Pidie, with 'spillovers' to the surrounding districts, a.o. Central Aceh, Greater Aceh, and the Banda Aceh municipality.

This does not mean, however, that after the crisis was over everything was back to normal. Because of ABRI's "Red Net Operation" [Operasi Jaring Merah ], until 1996 there was still an atmosphere of conflict in the province, especially in Pidie, North Aceh and East Aceh. The latest fire exchanges between GAM and ABRI took place on December 11, 1994 in Blang Pandak village, Tangse district, Pidie, where some people on both sides were killed, and on February 12, 1995 in Cot Sula and Keunee villages, Geumpang district, Pidie, where some persons were also killed.

The climax of all the worries, restlessness and uncertainty among the local people was in 1990-1992, when ABRI launched a military operation in retaliation against GAM attacks on military posts in some villages and districts. One of those GAM attacks on military posts took place when the ABRI units were carrying out civil action activities in Kuta Makmur district, North Aceh. Other GAM attacks were on the police stations at Batee, Geumpang, Tiro in Pidie, Tanah Pasir, Syamtalira Aron, Kuta Makmur, Meurah Mulia in North Aceh, and an ambush against a military patrol.

In retaliation to those GAM actions, ABRI launched a major military operation, which includes, among others, the burning of houses suspected to be owned by GAM members or symphathizers in Teupin Raya, Pidie, Kembang Tanjung, Tiro, Tangse, Geumpang -- all in Pidie -- and in Matang Geulumpang Dua, Sunuddon and Kuta Makmur in North Aceh.


Actually, the Aceh Merdeka movement began in early 1983, with the organization of mass rallies in some villages in North Aceh region, such as in Dewantara, Gandapura and Kuta Makmur districts. In those rallies the speakers, who were said to have just returned from Lybia, exposed issues of social injustice to the Aceh people. They said that the exploitation of North Aceh's gas and fertilizer was not for the benefit of Aceh people, and that labour force recruited for giant projects in Lhok Seumawe was not from the local people, but from Java. In those rallies, the speakers also attacked ABRI members for extorting, beating and carrying out immoral acts against the people, especially in the rural areas.

Such rallies were held only in North Aceh region, without police nor military permission. Invitation to the rallies were delivered from mouth to mouth. Every rally was attended by a considerably big crowd, the security apparatus from district level was also present. Initially, no security measure was taken against those rallies, but later on, however, many people who had actively attended those meetings were arrested. 

In August 1989, there were several attacks on ABRI units by GAM. A local commander and another military man were shot death in Tiro district, Pidie, and some police stations were attacked by volleys of gunfire in several districts, such as Ratee Tiro in Pidie, Syamtalira Arun, Kuta Makmur, Baktiya and Seunuddon in North Aceh.

From day to day the GAM attacks on military personnel and posts increased. In response, ABRI established check points and ordered those passing by to show their IDs. In front of police and military headquarters situated along the Banda Aceh-Medan highway, barricades of drums were set up to force cars to slow down. At night the lights in those security stations were switched off, so that no activities inside the posts could be seen from the outside. Neighbourhood security posts were established in all villages, guarded by the villagers who had to take turns. The villagers themselves were, however, were not allowed to go on patrol. They were only obliged to examine everybody passing the posts.

The "Red Net" military campaign was officially launched in Aceh in August 1990, by parachuting Kopassus commando troops into Seunoddon, North Aceh. Their first action was to burn four houses at Matang Geulumpang Dua, North Aceh, on the evening of 17 August 1990. This took place after the commandos had observed the Indonesia's Independence day celebration in the village square, together with the villagers.

From then on the military campaign continued, until early 1993. In Keude Krueng village, Kuta Makmur district, North Aceh, all male villagers were ordered to get out of their houses and line up in front of the market. Then they were forced to crawl on a gravel road for a distance of 1 Km. From time to time the soldiers fired shots 30 cm above their heads, thus forcing them to bend their heads as close as possible to the road. 

Events like these took place at night, after the villagers were woken up by volleys of gunfire into the air. Through a loudspeaker they were ordered to wake up and to get out of their houses. After those events, a number of villagers were willing to be informants.

This ABRI "shock therapy" in Aceh proved to be effective to alianate GAM from most of the people, who began to dislike GAM whom they thought had brought miseries to them and prevented them to earn a living. In several cases, ABRI units operating in coastal areas, for instance along the eastern coast of Pidie and East Aceh, forbade the fisherfolk to go to the sea. Likewise, farmers in Tangse, Geumpang and Tiro districts in Pidie were prohibited to harvest their crops. There was also an unwritten curfew in Pidie, North Aceh and East Aceh, and an obligation for every villager who wanted to leave his or her village for more than 12 hours, to report to the local ABRI post.

In Kembang Tanjung, Mutiara and Tiro districts, on one midnight in August 1990, the villagers were suddenly woken up by volleys of gunshots. The soldiers subsequently ordered the inhabitants to get out of their houses and assemble in front of the meunasa (village hall). While some soldiers searched their houses, where only children and women were left behind, all men were lectured about the cruelty of the GAM actions, and that they should retaliated accordingly: an eye for an eye.

Such was the general condition of Aceh as a major military theatre. The deployment of marines along the eastern coast of Aceh made the atmosphere all the more frightening. Operational and interrogation posts could be found everywhere by using houses 'borrowed' from local population or unused sheds. Torture of detainees in those posts, situated near the houses of other inhabitants, especially at nights, made the villagers familiar to screams of pain. These horrible events took place, among others, in Jeurat Manyang village, Glumpang Tiga district, Pidie.

This gave rise to a grave anxiety among the people. Consequently, people were reluctant to speak to strangers, and became very closed towards all unknown persons. Friendship became rare, because helping another person in trouble may cost them a terrible consequence. 

Arrest and detention

Arrests of people suspected to be GAM members or sympathisers owere made without producing any arrest warrants. Arrests followed by detention were sometimes carried out during daytime, but more often at night by fetching the victims at their homes in front of their families. Usually the ones arrested at home were taken away with whatever clothes they had on their bodies, without given a chance to change clothes or to take along some spare clothes. Arrest during daytime, at home, at the market or other work places were made by approaching the target person and inviting him/her to the pick up car, pushing him/her inside the car, and driving them away without any notice. Later his/her family learnt about his/her fate from mouth-to-mouth communication.

Generally, those who were arrested did not know the reason for their arrest. They only guessed that their arrest had something to do with GAM and the military operation. Nevertheless, there were arrests without any connection with GAM, because of debt problems where the creditor used the military to press for payment.

All arrested persons were taken to to interrogation centres, such as in Lamlo, Jeurat Manyang, Leung Putu, Military District Command of Sigli, Reubee (in Pidie region), and at Rencong, Alue Bili, Ulee Jalan, Jeunib, Lhok Sukon, Military District Command at Lhok Seumawe in North Aceh.

The arrested persons were subsequently detained for unknown periods. During the first month, usually nobody would know their whereabouts. To get a piece of information about their detention, their families had to spend a lot of money to bribe the military. Most arrested persons could only be visited by their relatives after two months of detention. Arrests were carried out by plainclothes military men, using cars with civilian registration plates. The arrests and detentions without any warrant gave rise to the difficulty of finding information about the fate of the arrested persons. Quite a number of them never returned home and their places of detention were equally unknown. Subsequently, they were declared simply as having been lost. 


Interrogations in the military operational stations were carried out using inhuman methods. The detainees were ordered to take off their clothes so that they only wore undershorts. Their eyes were covered with pieces of black cloth, and then they were beaten with bare hands as well as kicked with boots until they fell unconscious. Generally the victims did not know where the blows or kicks came from which were done by several persons in the room. After the victims fell unconscious, their faces were splashed with a bucket of water until they regained consciousness.

The interrogation was conducted by forcing the accused to confess that he/she was a member of GAM that was fighting against ABRI and the government. Whatever answers were given, torture continued to be applied, among others by beating the shinbones with a piece of stick, lashing the accused with spinned electric wires with a knot on one end, electro-torturing, and scolding or busing the accused with degrading words (Confessions before the court by Adnan Beuransyah, Abdullah Hussein, Armia M. Ali LML, and M. Gade Salam, skipped -- GJA)

Extra-judicial processes

There were other events that did not take heed of legal process, as experienced by Iskandar (not his real name), 58, an entrepreneur from Pidie. One day in October 1991 at 16:00 [4 pm] local time several plainclothes military men in a canvassed Toyota jeep came to Iskandar's house near the market, as witnessed by his wife, children, and some of neighbours. When he refused to come along with them, the soldiers dragged him, beat and kicked him and forcefully pushed him into the car. The next day, around 11:00 [am], Iskandar was found dead in front of the neighbourhood security post not far from his village. His body was full of scars of torture and there was a gunfire wound in his head.

Makbur (not his real name), 42, a native of North Aceh, was detained at Rancung for six months and 17 days. He was arrested in June 1991 in a village in North Aceh when he was visiting a friend of his. Makbur was accused of being a GAM member, because he was brutally tortured beyond description. "What I had in mid at that time was, how my family will get to know where my body will be disposed," so he said. According to his testimony, he was beaten with bare hands and with big wooden stick, was electrified and was forced to witness how his interrogators killed another detainee. He was also forced to lift the dead body into the car which was going to dispose the body. All the time he was threatened, that he might the next victim.

Arsyad (not his real name), 27, who used to do odd jobs, residing in Pidie region, related the following experience. In January 1990 around 17:00 [5 pm] local time, when he was siting in a coffee stall. During that day a military man had been shot, and that event became a topic of discussion among the people. Suddenly, four soldiers approached Arsyad's table and urged him to come along. Feeling that he had done nothing wrong, Arsyad agreed to come along with them. He was driven in a canvassed Toyota jeep in the direction of Lamlo, where the car stopped in front of a military headquarter. Arsyad was urged to enter and report to the officer on duty in a room of 4x4 m. In that room he saw table with a roll of electric wire on it and a wooden bench. An officer wearing commando T-shirt sat behind the table spinning the wire into a whip with knot on one end.

When Arsyad came in, the officer initially seemed to be indifferent. But suddenly he yelled, "Sit you, GPK!", and proceeded to ask questions about Arsyad's identity. Two of the soldiers who had fetched him at the coffee stall entered the room together with two other persons. They raised Arsyad on his feet by holding his both arms, bend behind his back. Then, two soldiers hit Arsyad's face and stomach and kicked his shinbones. "I yelled my lungs out because of the unbearable pain," told Arsyad. This torture continued for fifteen minutes. Blood streamed out of his face and head and he felt a terrible pain on his shinbones. Then he was stripped of his clothes until he only wore underpants. With his hands tied behind his back he was made to sit before an interrogator.

Arsyad was forced to admit that he was a GAM member who knew about the one gunshot fired at the military personnel the day before. As he answered that he knew nothing about that, he was scolded with abusive words. Then he was led to choose among some big wooden sticks on the table, but he did not respond. Consequently he was made to stand up and a wooden stick landed on his back and shinbones until he fell on the ground, face down. The spun electric wire added to his suffering. The torture continued until midnight. When got out of the room he could not walk by himself. He was locked up in a cell of 3x2 m, which was already occupied by five other persons, all of them thin with bodies were full of wounds. "I went straight to sleep," Arsyad said. The next day his cell mates told him that they had been there for four months. For eight consecutive days, Arsyad shared the same condition with his fellow detainees: wearing only underpants, sleeping on concrete floor and their bodies were thin, pale, and full of scars of torture.

During that time Arsyad was constantly interrogated about the gun assault on the military and was forced to show persons whom he suspected to be GAM members. "I was very tired and I thought I would die soon because of the unbearable torture," he said. On the ninth day he was fetched from his cell by an officer and was taken to the interrogation room, where he got
his clothes back.

After that, on around 10:00 [am] local time he was driven away in a Toyota Kijang van. Arsyad was frightened when his eyes were covered with a black cloth. After almost three hours of driving with occasional halts, the car stopped. The black cloth was uncovered and Arsyad was ordered to get off the car. He found himself around Sigli on the Medan-Banda Aceh highway. He was given a Rp 1,000 bill and was warned not to tell his experience to anybody. Arsyad went home. The next day, he went to Banda Aceh and since then did not dare to return to his native village (Elsam, 1996: 10-23).

First written in Perth, Second Semester 1995;
updated in Newcastle, February 1997

AI [Amnesty International], 1992. Indonesia/East Timor: the suppression of dissent. ASA 21/09/92 document. London: Amnesty International [AI]. July.
----, 1993. Indonesia/East Timor: A New Order? Human rights in 1992. ASA 21/03/93 document. London: AI.
----, 1994. "Disappearances" and political killings: human rights crisis of the 1990s. A manual for action. London: AI.
---, 1995a. Amnesty International Reports 1995. London: AI.
---, 1995b. Women in Indonesia and East Timor: standing against repression. 
London: AI.
Elsam, 1996. Revealing torture by public officials. Jakarta: Lembaga Studi dan Advokasi Masyarakat (Elsam).
Hamzah, Yacob, n.d. Pencemaran lingkungan gas amoniak PT Pupuk Iskandar Muda. [Report of the Aceh ammonia pollution case by the coordinator of the North Aceh post of the Medan Legal Aid Institute in Lhok Seumawe).
Kell, Tim, 1995. The roots of Acehnese rebellion, 1989-1992. Ithaca: Cornell Modern Indonesia Project.
Schwartz, Adam, 1994. A nation in waiting: Indonesia in the 1990s. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.
Vatikiotis, Michael R.J., 1994. Indonesian politics under Suharto: order, development, and pressure for change. London: Routledge.

Webmaster: Rizali Pidie 
Send mail to with questions or comments about this web site.
Last modified: June 23, 2000