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Of Pain and Humiliation: The Velvet Protests in Aceh 
by Aboeprijadi Santoso 13 December 1999 

Of pain and humiliation, they occur in many places in the world where human rights atrocities have taken place, but in Aceh and for the Acehnese in particular, they assume special significance and, as a consequence, will have important political impacts for Indonesia as well. For the Acehnese not only suffer, but their experiences affect their religious values and their ethnic identity and pride. The mass rally of Nov. 8 (editor; in 1999) and the Dec. 4 (editor; also in 1999) celebration show the potentials of the Acehnese civil society and its protests vis a vis the central government in Jakarta. 

People Power & Self-reliance 

"If a referendum is allowed in East Timor, why not in Aceh? That won't be justice." That was President Abdurrahman Wahid's first response to the mass rally at the Great Baiturrahman Mosque in Banda Aceh on Nov. 8, which demanded a referendum. It was not clear how serious Gus Dur considered the mass rally on Nov.8, but his words, in any case, are now put on a banner in the capital of Aceh to keep the Acehnese public and the outside world reminded on the president's promise. 

The show of Acehnese people power on Nov. 8 was very important. (The first big meeting, perhaps, since the historic all Aceh religious scholars congress, PUSA, in 1950). The peaceful rally was held virtually without any help from the authorities, which meant that the student bodies and NGO's, who organized it, could rely on the society's resources. It was a culmination of the rallies all over Aceh and demonstrated the strength of the civil society vis a vis the state. No security assurance was given or even requested from the army and the police, "yet not even one egg was broken," as one witness put it. The message was clear: the one million protesters do not need the army to keep peace in Aceh. After all, for the Acehnese, the security apparatus has become synonymous with cruelty, insecurity and humiliation. 

The strength and self-reliance of the Acehnese People Power were also demonstrated last week. The Dec. 4 celebration of GAM's (the Aceh Freedom Movement) 23rd anniversary at the ceremony at Tiro Command Square in North Aceh and all over Aceh, too, went generally peaceful -- contrary to Jakarta's warning of bloodbath and despite a few brutal incidents. 

The two events of Nov. 8 and Dec. 4 are milestones in what might become the Acehnese version of, let's say, changes in Eastern Europe ten years ago. For, just as the Czech opposition forces were united in Prague "Velvet Revolution" after decades of pains and silence, so the pro-referendum rally and the celebration of GAM in Aceh too, mean that something painful has run deep into the heart of members of the society, which unite the Acehnese to peacefully confront the state. 

The December 4 Celebration 

Like it or not, the fact is that GAM has gained growing sympathy. The GAM formal anniversary celebration on Dec. 4 was unique because it was GAM's first public event, attended by a hundred domestic and foreign journalists, local prominence and some thousands of local people; a parade of hundreds members of GAM infantry, elite troop, police units, intelligence unit and woman soldiers was organized as a show of force. The unity of GAM and the Acehnese people was shown by stressing the importance of Islamic values and common religious symbols and by praying together. 

On that day Banda Aceh and other towns became almost dead cities as the public carefully observed both the authorities' and GAM's call to keep the peace and not to raise the flag of GAM. Such a public restraint represented respectable efforts to prevent incident and casualty. For a country deeply traumatized by past terrors, it was a test for latent public anger and frustration. In the countryside too, no GAM flag was seen in private yards, but the villagers peacefully celebrated the day by raising the crescent, star and stripes red flag along the main streets, on the trees, gates and bridges. Like the rally, the helm boycott and the ignoring traffic lights on Nov. 8, it was a massive expression of protest. The faces of the villagers returning home from the GAM ceremony - a mixture of euphoria and worry - reminds one to the sight of East Timorese on the ballot day last August. 

Like the East Timorese then, the Acehnese never experienced greater freedom like those days while at the same time realizing that some dangers were and are still looming from the corner as the military backlash can occur any time; the post ballot carnage and killings has proven this for East Timor. Like in the pro-referendum rally too, no single police and army member was seen in public on Dec. 4 except in their offices. Knowing the real situation on the ground, the military too had to exercise great restraint, which they never did in the last two decades. The situation thus reflects the seriously weakening political position of the state security apparatuses in the present day Aceh. 

Refugees Crisis 

The refugees' crisis provides another example of the intensity of the Aceh problem. There are two kinds of refugees in Aceh today. First, the few thousands non-Acehnese, mostly Javanese transmigrates, but also Christian-Bataks, who flee from the present day hot spots in Aceh, i.e. the districts of South, Southeast and West Aceh, to areas around Medan (Belawan, Pancing and Sidikalang). Some testimonies suggest clear cases of ethnic cleansing (even Javanese men married to Acehnese had to be separated and left their families), but neither those victims nor observers could absolutely be sure about who really were behind the act of ethnic cleansing. Either GAM, the army or provocateurs could be involved in this. The situation is unclear as the propaganda's and accusations from either side on just this matter, are now going on. 

What is clear is that the waves of non-Acehnese out of their villages also reflect social dissatisfaction and political protest against Jakarta rule and anything associated with it. This is demonstrated by stigma like "Anak-Anak Soeharto" (Soeharto's children) used by local Acehnese when they refer to the Javanese transmigrates and Javanese soldiers in their homeland. The fact that many Javanese migrants i.e. planters and traders, (as differ from Javanese peasants on government's transmigration program), also suffer discrimination, may reflect some social jealousy as they were generally better off than the locals in these poverty ridden Aceh southern districts were. 

The second type of refugees represents the biggest tragedy which reveals the depth of the Acehnese' trauma. These are refugees inside Aceh or IDP's, internally displaced persons, totaling some 140.000 persons. Most are located around the capital of Banda Aceh and Lhokshemauwe which are relatively more secure. 

Thousands of villagers have ran simply because they were terrified by the army. Testimonies from camps in Seulimeum, Beureunuen and Darussalam suggest, whenever armed soldiers enter certain areas, hundreds poor villagers will run away. No wonder, however much they suffer, the refugees refuse any help from the government and completely rely on dedicated student-activists and local supports who take care of them with society's own resources, i.e. contributions from wealthy Acehnese, and with aid from outside (i.e. Japanese rice). This crisis too is thus a highly political protest at grass roots level. 

Jahiliah Image 

At issue, basically, is the accumulation of pain and humiliation. Once the atrocities become widely known (as they should), they created an increasing momentum of public fear and anger. On top of that, some cases - i.e. the barbaric rapes and physical offence against women without any mea culpa and compensation, the tortures of respectable ulama's (religious scholars), the killings without the corpses being found or returned and the lost of young sons without further notification - symbolize the era of evil and decadency, the Jahiliah (pre-civilization) and, as such, are particularly painful. 

For Acehnese - both as Moslem and as Acehnese - such experiences mean a great humiliation to Islamic values and Acehnese pride. The public hate is such that they reserve the strongest Acehnese pejorative word "pa'i" (originally means "slave", but here used as "bandit") for the TNI (the Indonesian army) and the special troops Kopassus. As the graffiti at the former torture camp Rumah Geudong reveals, the title of "the greatest pa'i" is designated for "the Soeharto-Prabowo regime". This regime, the TNI and the Kopassus are assisted by a considerable number of locals who act as (occasional) intelligence agents, called by another pejorative term "cuak". Jakarta's repression throughout decades has thus created a set of local conceptions of "Acehnese" ("We") versus others TNI ("The Enemy"). 

Old pains, meanwhile, remain fresh in Aceh. In March 1993, for example, some two hundreds villagers in Jeunip, North Aceh, were forced to help identify the GPK (security disturbance actors, the army's term for GAM), but they said, they knew little to nothing. So they had to lie down on a football field and the soldiers punished them by running on their bodies. The event left all of them with trauma and many with permanent injuries. As the method failed, the local commander Col. Syarwan Hamid came in 1995 to the Baitil Istiqanah Mosque, Tepin Raya, Pidie, and issued, according to three witnesses, a strong warning: "Anyone who helps the GPK, even giving one cigarette, will be killed!" 

The New Momentum 

Similar or even worse human rights violations were noted in East Timor. But if the Timorese could seek for protection in the local church and call for international support, the Acehnese had to turn to themselves and "to Allah, God Almighty," as they put it. They had to build a strong determination, self-confidence and solidarity in their efforts to unite and resist, which, in turn, strengthened both their religious bond and Acehnese identity. It shaped a new consensus, enabling the society to support and unite in rallies and celebration as on Nov. 8 and Dec. 4. 

It is this, rather than the small groups of GPK, which had revolutionized the Acehnese political arena. The GAM 'only' added a new, but significant dimension into the public consciousness by campaigning on "the historical continuity of Aceh's independence". But it was Jakarta's atrocities and humiliation during its military campaign (DOM) which created and sustained the new momentum. Only five to six years ago, few Acehnese knew GAM and many hated the GPK, whose actions provoked army's harsh actions, but once the cycle of state violence started and the horrors widely socialized, the pendulum swings swiftly to GAM. 

Widows (inong balee), who lost husbands in TNI's hand, now proudly join GAM's Cut Nyak Dien unit. As of today, many GAM members or symphatisants are mixed within the society; at coffee shops (kedai kopi) - the place where most public discourse among ordinary people takes place - they talk about GAM, TNI, and security situation, though not always publicly; so much are the popular discontent and sympathy with GAM that the locals tend to avoid talking negatively on GAM in public. In the countryside, TNI members sometimes even met GAM individuals peacefully though without exchanging words. "We are all Agams," local men in Banda Aceh said, half jokingly, but proudly. ("Agam" is the Acehnese name for boy or man; incidentally also a short for Angkatan Perang Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, the military wing of GAM). 

The local commander Col. Syarifuddin Tippe has publicly recognized that his soldiers and the police have been instructed to avoid entering areas known to be ruled or dominated by GAM. In fact, the authority of the security apparatuses has considerably weakened, thereby shaping greater space for maneuvering for the pro-referendum civil society. Student- and NGO 
activists have built up wide networks penetrating the villages and cooperating with the locals to strengthen communities' local defense. They maintain contacts with both TNI and GAM to avoid horizontal conflicts and irresponsible actions by provocateurs and subsequently break up their connections by reporting and confronting the TNI or GAM with the arrested provocateurs who claim to have been instructed either by TNI or GAM. They operate in urban centers by activating student intelligence networks called B.K.H (Brigade Kucing Hitam, the Black Cat Brigade) and in the countryside by applying the concept of "pagar gampong" (local security maintenance) in close cooperation with the local communities. 

These are another example of strength and self-reliance of pro-referendum civil society i.e. in terms of local defense. In so doing, they also, of course, provide political education and campaign on the concept of referendum as the Acehnese right to self determination as their common political demand in the struggle to save Aceh from repressive threats, improve its future and secure their political support. However, Jakarta realizes these and other revolutionary changes in Acehnese society only much later, lagging perhaps a decade behind. Today, it is a general consensus here that Aceh should be independent through referendum. As the key role shifts to the civil movement, i.e. the students, NGO's and ulama's (implicitly supported by the GAM), the demand for a referendum (with independence option) becomes inevitable and non-negotiable. 

Gus Dur & the Army 

Time is running short for Gus Dur. Last July, when he planned a trip to East Timor and Aceh, he told Radio Netherlands (7/7), "As a nationalist, I wish both will remain parts of the Republic, but as a democrat, I know, I should respect their rights to self-determination". 

So, is Gus Dur going to choose to be a "nationalist" or a "democrat"? The tension, in any case, between the principle of nationalism and human rights and democracy hinted here, should encourage one to rethink on our nationalism, and search for a new discourse. 

If Gus Dur has been consistent on East Timor, on Aceh he says, he as president has to work with others, including the TNI. With too many atrocities perpetrated by the army and firmly kept in Acehnese' memory, the TNI actually has little moral grounds left. As the TNI only has few (appointed - sic!) seats in the parliament, its political weight too should be much reduced. One wonders, then, why the TNI still assumes the same role and moral position as before, and why Gus Dur should also ask the generals to decide on Aceh. Whatever the decision President Gus Dur will take on Aceh (and the TNI), soon or later, it will be crucial for his government and the Republic. 

* Banda Aceh Dec.1999. The writer is an Indonesian journalist with Radio Netherlands, Hilversum. He was in Aceh recently. 

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Last modified: June 23, 2000