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Aceh Independence Struggle Enters New Phase
Background on Aceh: 1999-2000 nonviolent independence movement.
Aceh Independence Struggle Enters New Phase
Indonesia Alert!, Winter 2000
The movement demanding independence for Aceh, Indonesia’s westernmost province, reached new levels of popularity, organization, and visibility in late 1999. Confronted by this, the Wahid regime has responded with offers of additional power and resources and promises of accountability for the past decade of military repression, as well as continued use of force and a hardline against independence.
The fall of Suharto in May 1998 led to open discussion of the effects of nine years of counter-insurgency and militarization of Aceh, dominating local newspapers and television coverage. Over that time, thousands of murders, rapes, and "disappearances" were committed—civilian casualties in the government’s war against the guerrillas of the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka or GAM). GAM, whose 1989 attacks targeted non-Acehnese transmigrants as well as soldiers, is itself responsible for manipulating refugee flows and intimidating civilians into supporting it. In late 1998 and early 1999, a movement independent of GAM emerged with a platform of independence by referendum, rather than independence by force.
Despite the new openness about atrocities and an August 31, 1998, withdrawal ceremony which ended the official classification of Aceh as a military operations area, the old pattern of military repression has continued. For example, in February 1999, soldiers and police attacked thousands of protesters in Idi Cut, first turning their guns on streetlights then on the crowd, killing dozens in the darkness, then raping several women. At least 39 protesters died in a similar attack on protesters in Kreung Geukueh on May 3. And on July 23, Islamic boarding school teacher Tengku Bantaqiah was executed along with his wife and fifty-four villagers. Soldiers alleged he was supplying guns to GAM—four were found.
The struggle for independence in Aceh reached a new level of popular support last November 8, when over a million people gathered in Banda Aceh, the capital of the province of four million people. The protest, organized by the student-led Aceh Referendum Information Centre (SIRA), demanded demilitarization and a referendum on the future of the province, including the possibility of independence. The organizers unveiled a giant billboard reading "The People of Aceh Want a Referendum on Staying or Breaking Away from RI [the Republic of Indonesia.]"
Since then, the Indonesian government has offered a series of responses under the personal direction of President Abdurrahman Wahid. Wahid initially accepted the idea of a referendum, but quickly clarified that a referendum would only allow the Acehnese to choose rule by Islamic law within Indonesia. Since then the government has used a series of carrot and stick measures to encourage residents to accept autonomy within Indonesia. The government has offered a formal apology for human rights abuses, a 50% increase in the state budget, and a consultative conference, in which 400 Acehnese would negotiate its future with the government, but with independence off the table. Meanwhile, President Wahid has threatened "repressive measures" against separatists and visited the province predicting a peaceful resolution of the conflict while soldiers carried out a weeklong military crackdown. The week left at least 38 dead and 20 homes destroyed.
Simultaneously, the military seem to be working to maintain its hold on the province and to avoid accountability for human rights abuses. The military has been reluctant to give up Indonesian sovereignty or its own power over the province in part because of a network of connections that allow officers to profit from Aceh’s extractive economy. As in East Timor, it has been arming Javanese militiamen to terrorize the public. In Aceh, this Timor strategy is being followed with a twist: the military claims the militia are actually part of GAM, providing an additional reason for crackdowns. Efforts to provide accountability for past abuses have so far been held up by violence. The vice-chairman of the parliamentary commission investigating abuses in Aceh, Nashiruddin Daud, was found dead and wounded in late January. On February 7, the trial of twenty soldiers charged with the July 1999 massacre of fifty-six people, was delayed because a key witness had gone missing.
The oil and gas industry has been at the center of rising discontent against Indonesian rule and supportive of the government crackdown against it. Mobil Oil Indonesia discovered massive natural gas reserves in Aceh in 1971. By the late 1980s, the province was supplying 30% of Indonesia’s oil and gas exports. However, most profits flowed to Jakarta and abroad, most jobs went to non-Acehnese, and economic policy focused on an industrial enclave while the rural majority’s losses from pollution were ignored.
As Indonesia’s military cracked down on dissent, the oil industry hosted and supported the military forces carrying out the crackdown. PT Arun, a refining partnership that includes Mobil, state-owned Pertamina, and Japanese companies, built Camp Rancong, the base of Indonesia special forces (Kopassus), who have been responsible for numerous human rights abuses in the province and throughout Indonesia. Mobil built Military Post 13, used as an interrogation post, and supplied excavation equipment to dig mass graves following military massacres.
Mobil, Aceh’s largest foreign investor. has displayed concern about the rising tide for independence, quietly suspending gas exploration the day before province-wide protests on December 4. While the demonstrations were generally calm, at least ten demonstrators waving independence flags were shot and wounded by Indonesian soldiers in front of the military barracks in Sigli.
Note: An abundant source of news from Aceh as well as Indonesia as a whole is provided by Action in Solidarity with Indonesia and East Timor at http://www.asiet.org.au/.