Aceh’s Dual Disasters

On December 25, 2004, one day before Aceh was devastated by an earthquake-driven tsunami, the Indonesian military (TNI) announced that it had just killed eighteen guerrillas in the province.[1] Such news had long since become routine. A week earlier, the TNI killed five.[2] TNI chief Gen. Endriartono Sutarto stated in early December that his men had killed 3,216 Acehnese since martial law was imposed upon the province in May 2003.[3] In all these reported armed clashes, very few Indonesian soldiers died. The war was lopsided, with Acehnese, especially civilians (posthumously labeled “rebels” by the TNI), bearing nearly all the casualties. Aceh was already a killing field before the Indian Ocean wreaked havoc on the land.

Under martial law, the military became the government. The military stationed nearly 40,000 security personnel in the province (about one soldier or policeman for every 100 civilians), replaced many civilian officials (such as district heads) with military personnel, banned foreigners, issued new identification cards, forced Acehnese to attend public ceremonies at which they pledged loyalty to the Indonesian state, and set up countless checkpoints on the roads. The transition from martial law to ‘civil emergency’ in May 2004 was a cosmetic change; the 40,000 troops remained and the killings continued. The seawater was one of the few things the military did not try to control.

One should not imagine that the severity of the tsunami in Aceh (the latest estimate is more than 100,000 dead) renders this history of military rule irrelevant. The Indonesian government is now using the military as its primary coordinator of relief aid. Worse, the military is still waging war on the pro-independence Free Aceh Movement (GAM). Mother nature inflicted enormous damage on Aceh but did not fundamentally alter the pre-existing social institutions. The TNI remains intact (with claimed losses so far of about 500 personnel), as does GAM, whose guerrillas are mostly in the hills. The war between them has been remarkably perdurable; it has lasted on and off since the late 1970s, through the collapse of President Suharto’s dictatorship, through the tenures of three post-Suharto presidents, foreign mediation, peace talks, and cease-fires.

The Indonesian military has been waging a counterinsurgency war against GAM. As in all such wars, including the one the Dutch fought in Aceh during the last thirty years of the nineteenth century, the military’s goal has been to terrorize civilians so that they will not support the guerrillas. The Suharto regime, after very limited hostilities with GAM in the late 1970s, turned Aceh into a free-fire zone in 1990. The terror has been fairly constant since then. The only let-up (and that only partial) was in 1998-99 when the nation’s political system was in crisis after Suharto’s fall. During that brief reformist pause, the government sanctioned a human rights investigation that conservatively estimated that the military had killed about 2,000 to 4,000 people from 1990 to 1998.[4]

As part of the counterinsurgency war, the military indiscriminately rounded up civilians for interrogations that invariably involved torture. Mutilated corpses were left by roadsides in the 1990s as a form of what the military called “shock therapy.” The civilians at whom this ‘therapeutic’ practice was directed did not respond like good patients and retreat into a collective catatonic state. At the start of large-scale military operations in 1990, GAM consisted of several hundred armed guerrillas. It did not have mass support. Most Acehnese were as integrated into Indonesia as any other ethnic group. It was the military’s manner of suppressing the rebels that fueled the revolt. Human rights activist Muhammad Isa noted last year that “when Aceh was declared a military operations zone, there were only a few hundred GAM insurgents in Pidie, North Aceh and East Aceh. Now, there are a lot more throughout Aceh.” [5] Indonesia specialist Edward Aspinall wrote: “Many journalists and others who interviewed new GAM recruits in rural Aceh in 1999 noted that many of them were motivated by a desire to exact revenge for family members who had been killed, tortured or sexually abused by security forces earlier in the decade.” [6]

In a remarkable demonstration of public opinion, nearly a million people (one quarter of the population) attended a rally in 1999 calling for a referendum on independence. After nearly a decade of counterinsurgency warfare, the military had made succession mainstream opinion. Today, it nevertheless stoically persists in its Sisyphus-like labor, creating enemies in the process of killing them.

Not all Acehnese, on coming to hate the military for its atrocities, have turned to GAM as an alternative. GAM has not articulated a coherent political program (its founder wishes to revive a monarchical form of government) and has not always followed the Geneva Conventions (it has, for instance, frequently taken Indonesian civilians as hostages). The military’s repression of all forms of political dissent in Aceh has made it nearly impossible for any resistance to be waged except armed resistance. Acehnese who have tried to resist in civil fashion have been denounced as GAM members in disguise and have either been jailed, killed, or forced into exile. Tens of thousands of Acehnese have fled to other parts of Indonesia or foreign countries.

The refrain one often hears from Acehnese is that the military has never bothered to distinguish GAM members from non-combatants. TNI troops view all Acehnese with suspicion. The main English daily newspaper in Indonesia, The Jakarta Post, in a rare moment of candid reporting, noted last month that a frequent remark by soldiers at the checkpoints was “Are you Acehnese? Then you must be GAM.” Human rights campaigner Munir was not being hyperbolic when he stated last year that “ninety-nine percent of those detained are non-combatants, not GAM but NGO people, local politicians, students.” [7]

For the Acehnese, the tens of thousands of soldiers in the province are not a source of security; they are equivalent to a plague of locusts. The troops are expected to earn their own money, as the government covers only a part of their expenses. Thus, checkpoints have become moneymaking franchises; soldiers shakedown passing truckers, motorists, and motorcyclists. Many journalists have written about this practice since it is carried out so openly. Other fundraising methods are less obvious. It is unknown how much the military receives from the ExxonMobil natural gas plant in Aceh (which was unaffected by the tsunami). ExxonMobil pays the military to guard its enclave and, like all other businesses in Indonesia, must pony up money to meet periodic TNI requests for funds. This plant is a sore point for Acehnese. The Indonesian government earns about $1.2 billion annually from it but the Acehnese people see very little of that money. Most of the profits are pocketed by officials in Jakarta.

Jakarta would like to use the tsunami as a means of wiping the slate of history clean. In the Indonesian media, officials frequently comment that they hope the tragedy will prompt Acehnese to put aside their comparatively petty political concerns and cooperate with the Indonesian government in the common struggle against nature. If the military suddenly abandoned its ingrained, institutional ethos of treating all Acehnese as subversives, ended its corruption, and began to selflessly assist in Aceh’s recovery, then perhaps Jakarta’s hopes will be fulfilled. This tiger, however, is not likely to change its stripes.

Reports by Indonesian volunteers and journalists in Aceh indicate that the military has not changed even in the midst of such staggering devastation. Consider the following account written by a wealthy Indonesian woman who flew to Aceh with her mother to carry some medical supplies. Within her narrative (which she wrote in English and circulated on an email list), she describes an encounter with a military checkpoint on December 31 while driving out of the capital city of Banda Aceh. The city was in ruins, but the soldiers still practiced their customary shakedowns at checkpoints:

“As we reached the outskirts of the city we were stopped by military with rifles in hand. They initially blocked the way and refused to allow us to continue driving along the coast. They checked all of our boxes and asked us to hand over the goods to them. We knew that if we gave them the goods that they would never be distributed so a friend lobbied until we were able to pass in exchange for some women’s underwear that we had brought. We are still puzzled by that one, but it was a small price to pay.”

When she returned to the city she brought with her several starving villagers who approached a colonel at the military headquarters, the center for the distribution of relief aid:

“When one of the villagers explained to him that his village was in desperate need of food aid the colonel started interrogating and giving him a hard time. My mother and I listened on incredulously as he began asking for proof that there were indeed 300 hundred survivors and he said that he had a hard time believing that there were even that many survivors. Again with a friend’s persuasion, the villagers were finally able to convince the colonel to give in and allow them to take 50 boxes of supermie [instant noodles] and a few hundred kilos of rice. We couldn’t believe our eyes that this man was giving these villagers such a hard time as all around us there were hundreds of boxes of aid in the form of food, chainsaws, generators, pipes, buckets, you name it, piled high against the walls. My mother and I were even offered to help ourselves to a buffet of food that was laid out on two big tables. It dawned on us that the military was controlling all of the incoming domestic and foreign aid and that there had been little done to distribute any of it! Apparently they were expecting the villagers to come to the posko [command post] or refugee camps in Banda Aceh, which was unlikely since a lot of these stranded survivors were just too far away, not to mention some severely wounded, with no means of transport to get themselves there. We also discovered that the military was afraid that the aid would come into the hands of GAM rebels, which seemed to us such a minor problem in the face of such a catastrophe.”

The Jakarta government took the very positive step of allowing foreign journalists, relief workers, and military personnel into Aceh. Reports indicate that the military is no longer trying to monopolize aid distribution; though they are selling some aid that should be distributed freely, including food. But with foreigners inside Aceh, the military is worried, that the unaccountability it has enjoyed for 19 months may be coming to an end.

Journalists are reporting that the military still checks Acehnese for their identity cards. Soldiers try to determine a person’s political loyalty before handing out aid. Soldiers are weeding out people at the refugee camps and taking suspected GAM supporters into detention. The military is being stingy with its aid since it wants to ensure that not a grain of rice winds up in the hands of GAM. Any person carrying more than he or she can immediately consume is suspected of carrying goods for GAM. One journalist, reporting on January 7, observed soldiers at a checkpoint 40 kilometers outside of Banda Aceh: “All morning, troops wearing combat kit had been stopping those heading south, accusing them of forming new supply lines for rebels in the hills.” [8]

Most of the some $4 billion that has been raised worldwide for tsunami relief will likely be devoted to Aceh. The only other country that needs a large amount of aid is Sri Lanka. Both Thailand and India have stated they do not need foreign aid. This means that Indonesia’s military in Aceh is now under an international microscope. There is no reason to believe, however, that this will guarantee better behavior.

The last time the whole world was watching, in East Timor in 1999, the military laid a country to waste, accomplishing a level of destruction to rival a tsunami. The TNI worried little about international opinion during that September 1999 scorched earth campaign. It burned down 70% of East Timor’s buildings, looted much of the country’s wealth, killed hundreds, if not thousands, and forcibly deported about 250,000 people — all while in the international spotlight. The generals responsible for those atrocities have enjoyed impunity; there has been no international tribunal. The general first appointed to head up Indonesia’s Aceh relief effort was Adam Damiri, one of the key commanders responsible for the 1999 destruction of East Timor. The military high command replaced him at the last moment to avoid causing any friction with other governments.

Although foreigners are now in Aceh, one should not believe that they are immune from eviction. Jakarta allowed in international observers in December 2002 after it signed a peace agreement with GAM. It then sent them packing only five months later when martial law was declared. Morever, the military high command, especially under the army chief of staff Gen. Ryacudu, has cultivated a paranoiac attitude towards foreign governments, arguing that they are fomenting internal unrest in a conspiracy to break up Indonesia.[9]

Acehnese attitudes concerning independence will probably not change even with the remarkable outpouring of sympathy from Indonesian civilians, who have volunteered to serve as relief workers and contributed large sums of money. The Acehnese have never had major problems with Indonesian civilians; their problems have been with the military. Only if Indonesian civilians in Java and the rest of the archipelago are able to appreciate what Acehnese suffered prior to the tsunami and work to restrain military operations will there be a possibility for true rapprochement with Acehnese. But substantive military reform appears a distant goal, especially with a former general just voted in as president.

It is obvious that immediate relief work and long-term reconstruction can not proceed if Aceh is a warzone. Foreign governments and international agencies need to pressure Jakarta to resume negotiations with GAM so that a cease-fire can be established. Both sides say they would like a cease-fire and that they are only carrying out defensive actions. But both blame the other for not reciprocating. Without negotiations to iron out the details and relieve the atmosphere of tension the armed clashes will continue.

Jakarta has been quick to blame GAM for any gunfire (such as a shooting near the UN compound on January 8 which some Indonesian officials now say was done by a stressed-out soldier) or accident (such as the crash of a US navy helicopter that cabinet minister Alwi Shihab suggested was the work of GAM). A journalist has noted that Jakarta wishes to make foreign relief workers frightened of GAM as “gun-toting killers who are attacking aid convoys and using survivor camps as hideouts.” [10] GAM, meanwhile, has issued statements assuring relief workers that it will neither attack them nor interfere with the aid distribution.

SIRA, the leading popular organization supporting a referendum on the region’s political future, has called for international mediation in the war: “A political resolution between Indonesia and GAM must be found immediately at the international negotiating tables and the war must end for the sake of humanitarian aid, peaceful development, and the long-term liberty of the Acehnese people. If a peace process is not immediately conducted then the suffering and oppression of the Acehnese people will be compounded in the aftermath of the tsunami disaster.” [11]

JOHN ROOSA, Assistant Professor of History at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, is co-editor of The Year that Never Ended: Understanding the Experiences of the Victims of 1965: Oral History Essays (Jakarta: Elsam, 2004).


1. Agence France Press (AFP), December 25, 2004.

2. AFP, December 17, 2004.

3. Jakarta Post, December 3, 2004.

4. Laporan Akhir Komisi Independen Pengusutan Tindak Kekerasan di Aceh [Final Report of the Independent Investigation Commission on Violent Actions in Aceh] (Jakarta: Komisi Independen Pengusutan, July 2000). The report estimated 1,000 to 3,000 killed plus another 900 to 1,400 disappeared persons presumed dead. Human rights groups estimate that another two to three thousand Acehnese were killed from 1999 to the declaration of martial law in May 2003. Some 1,300 people were killed in 2002 alone. Human Rights Watch, “Indonesia: Human Rights Key to Lasting Peace in Aceh,” press release, December 11, 2002.

5. Jakarta Post, December 13, 2004. Gen. Sutarto stated that GAM had 10,000 guerrillas by May 2003. Jakarta Post, January 11, 2005.

6. Inside Indonesia, Oct-Dec 2003.

7. AFP, May 18, 2004. Munir was given a lethal dose of arsenic while on a Garuda flight in early September 2004. Many suspect a military hand but no proof of that has emerged yet. The case is still under investigation.

8. The Australian, January 7, 2004.

9. December 25, 2003 (“60,000 foreign agents enter Indonesia to weaken TNI ­ Ryacudu”); Kompas, December 26, 2003 (“Pernyataan KSAD Soal Pemilu dan Agen Asing Perlu Diperhatikan” [The Chief of Staff’s statement on the election and foreign agents needs attention]; and, May 12, 2004 (“Aggressor States Conspiring to Destroy and Control Indonesia: Army Chief”).

10. Michael Casey, Associated Press (AP), January 10, 2005. Also see the interview with Gen. Sutarto, Jakarta Post, Jakarta Post, January 11, 2005.

11. Open Letter by Sentral Informasi Referendum Acheh, Banda Acheh, January 6, 2005.