Contemporary Background to Aceh Conflict

Contemporary Background to Aceh Conflict

Islamic Human Rights Commission

4 June 2003

Briefing: Contemporary Background to Aceh conflict

Although both Indonesia (est. 201 million population) and the northern province of Aceh (est. 4.3 million population) share a predominantly Muslim make-up, separatist Aceh movements, mainly nationalist in orientation, have agitated for independence over the last 26 years. Often armed conflict has been a feature of this movement. Under the dictatorship of Mohamed Suharto (1965-1998) an estimated 650,000 people were killed or taken as political prisoners.

Ever since Indonesia’s inception in 1949 by its former Dutch colonial masters, Aceh’s separatist movements have claimed that the former Kingdom of Aceh was forcibly integrated into the fledging Indonesian state. Hence they call for the restoration of Aceh’s sovereignty.

Advocating a Jakarta-based unitarian state, Indonesia’s current premier, Megawati Sukarnoputri, espouses a doctrine of secular nationalism, which finds very little appeal in Aceh and other similar Indonesian provinces. Under Megawatti’s administration, as with her predecessors, regional grievances, especially those pertaining to economic exclusion and human-rights abuses by the Indonesian army, remain effectively ignored. It is these factors which inform Indonesia’s regional movements and which fuel Acehnese resentment against the Jakarta government.

Islam and Acehenese identity

The Acehenese place great emphasis on their Muslim identity, in stark contrast to the secularised elites of Jakarta. It is this predominance of Islam in Acehnese identity that further underpins separatist support. In an attempt to placate the civilian populous, the central government introduced a localised expression of Sharia law.

Escalation of conflict

On the 18th May 2003, following the collapse of a five-month old ceasefire, the Indonesian army launched a new offensive aimed at asserting control of Aceh and neutralising armed opposition to Jakarta. As a prelude to the offensive, Sukarnoputri imposed martial law on Aceh. This has come at a high human cost. Conservative estimates put the human cost of 26 years of conflict at 12,000 lives. The new offensive has added to that toll, with claims of human rights abuses levelled at the army. Commentators on Indonesia have remarked that the recent discovery of large reserves of oil and gas in Aceh is a partial motivator in the government’s decision to escalate military hostilities.

Position of the Indonesian army

The Indonesian military, despite claims of its pro-Muslim interventions in Muslim-Christian conflicts elsewhere in Indonesia, is no harbinger of pro-Islamic sentiment. Rather its current behaviour in Aceh, as with past interventions, reveals serious human-rights abuses concurrent with what can only be described as ‘religio-ethnocide’. Furthermore, following 9/11 and the Bali bombing, the government has utilised the current climate of anti-Islamism as a pretext to pursue opposition groups. The recent Acehnese intervention fits this pattern.

Human rights abuses by Indonesian Army

Aceh has been saturated with 45,000 soldiers and 8,000 police. The renewed conflict in Aceh has received little international outcry and condemnation. The harshest rebuke has come in the form of a ‘deeply concerned’ comment form United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, in response to reports of extra-judicial killings and school-burnings by the Indonesian Army. According to the Indonesian Ministry of Social Affairs, an estimated 21,000 civilians have fled their homes since the beginning of military operations. Many have taken refuge in mosques and schools, with overcrowding and sanitation a serious problem. With shortages in food and medicine, international NGOs raise the spectre of a humanitarian crisis.

In 2002, local human rights monitors estimate that over 1,300 people have been killed, the majority of them civilians. Disappearances, unlawful arrests, torture, destruction of homes and other facilities have also been commonplace

Death Squads and ‘Proxy’ Militias

IHRC has received information from local journalists who estimate that the Indonesian Army destroyed approximately 280 schools during the first week of hostilities. Local journalists have also informed IHRC that the Indonesian Army is operating a notorious death squad, ‘The Assassination Squad’ (part of the Indonesian Special Forces). This same army death squad is held responsible for the notorious 1991 Idi Reyeuk massacre, in which 31 Acehnese civilians were killed.

Further information reveals that the Indonesian Army has established proxy militias. International NGOs have claimed that the Indonesian Army had used shadowy militias to destabilise Aceh and prompt a rupture in the then fragile peace process. In early May it was claimed that these unofficial militias were responsible for attacks on international monitoring groups in central Aceh. On 11 May two human rights activists went missing in separate incidents. The body of one of them, Raja Ismail, was found in a river two days later. The other is still missing.

Cases of extra-judicial killings

Other claims of human right abuses cite the army pulling civilians from their homes and shooting them. In other cases, the mass beating of villagers:

  • The Indonesian Red Cross claims it has found about 80 bodies in Aceh, where the military launched an offensive against rebels during the first week
  • Indonesian Army accused of massacre in the village of Mapa Mamplam, Bireun district. Eight males shot dead. The oldest victims were 20 yrs old. The youngest was 11, with two other victims at 13 and 14. Other villagers report a possible further 10 victims.
  • Farmer shot dead after house surrounded near the garrison town of Lhokseumawe after the imposition of martial law.
  • Villages in parts of northern Aceh have been reporting that homes are being raided at night by unidentified armed men. The men are said to be confiscating identity documents, without which civilians cannot safely move about.
  • Paramilitary police launch two-hour violent assault on Aceh’s State Islamic Institute’s students\’ union. 15 people, including Red Cross volunteers, refugees and students, were arrested
  • According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), there have been six recorded gun attacks on foreign and Indonesian journalists. CPJ claims these attacks are part of a concerted effort by the army to prevent reporting of the Aceh conflict. This follows comments by the army calling upon journalists not to report rebel comments.

Civilian detentions

With the Indonesian army chief General Endriartono Sutarto attempting to massage civilian casualties, the Foreign Ministry announced plans to intern 200,000 Aceh civilians in mass camps. A spokesperson claimed that the army would be ‘persuasive’ towards civilians who refuse to be interned. The spokesperson refused to detail the period of detention.
IHRC concerns over the Aceh crisis
IHRC is deeply concerned at the violations of the rights of Aceh’s inhabitants, who have previously suffered grotesque treatment, including killings, at the hands of the army. IHRC is calling on the Indonesian government to cease its military campaign and all its measures that curtail the basic freedoms of the Acehnese people.

IHRC fears that the lack of international scrutiny with regard to the situation in South East Asia is compounded by Australia’s position, effectively in support of increasingly repressive measures by the Indonesian government.
With regard to the position of President Megawati Sukarnoputri’s failure to check and control the military’s activities and bring those perpetrator’s to account, IHRC feels that Megawati is both morally and legally held responsible for the atrocities carried out in Aceh against its civilians. Her silence thus far suggests her complicity in grotesque human rights abuses.

IHRC demands that all campaigns in Aceh should be suspended immediately and all measures that affect the population’s basic rights should be rescinded forthwith.
For more information please contact:

Islamic Human Rights Commission
PO Box 598
United Kingdom

Telephone (+44) 20 8902 0888
Fax (+44) 20 8902 0889

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