Academic journal article Southeast Asian Affairs

Aceh

Academic journal article Southeast Asian Affairs

Aceh

Article excerpt

The revival of the Acehnese separatist movement following Soeharto's resignation in May 1998 poses the most significant regional threat to Indonesian national unity. At its core are two main groups. The Free Aceh Movement (GAM) has an armed force of several hundred soldiers whose titular head is Hasan di Tiro, who has lived abroad since the 1950s. He founded the movement in 1976, and declared Aceh's independence on 4 December that year. Jakarta easily suppressed the movement in the late 1970s, but the GAM regrouped during the 1980s and launched a rebellion in 1989. By 1993, the Indonesian military had quelled that rebellion, but its brutal tactics strengthened anti-Jakarta sentiment. As many as 5,000 people are believed to have died in the crackdown, and the uncovering of mass graves in 1998 refuelled public animosity towards Indonesian troops and sparked fresh violence.

In the more open political climate since 1998, another group has emerged. Under the leadership of university students in Banda Aceh, the Aceh Referendum Information Center (SIRA) was established in February 1999. It loosely unites a broad range of non-governmental organizations behind a demand that Jakarta permit the province to hold a referendum on independence. On 8 November 1999, just two weeks after Abdurrahman Wahid was elected President, SIRA organized a public demonstration in the provincial capital, Banda Aceh, that is commonly estimated to have attracted nearly one million people out of the total provincial population of just over four million.

Both groups have a common set of grievances, which the majority of Acehnese appear to share. One is the sense that ever since the 1950s, successive governments in Jakarta have broken promises to grant Aceh autonomy commensurate with its status as a "special region", rather than a mere province. In particular, they seek authority over religious and educational affairs. A second grievance arises from Jakarta's exploitation of the region's economic resources, especially its natural gas. Thirdly, they resent Jakarta for the widespread human rights abuses that occurred in the military's anti-insurgency campaign during Soeharto's last decade in power.

At the beginning of his presidency, Wahid adopted a two-pronged approach towards Aceh. On the one hand, he attempted to isolate Aceh from international support. In late 1999, he secured pledges of support for Indonesia's territorial integrity from countries that had backed East Timor's independence, following the August 1999 ballot in the territory, such as the United States and Australia, as well as predominantly Muslim countries that might sympathize with predominently Muslim Aceh. On the other hand, he signalled a desire to accommodate Acehnese demands in order to reduce their support for independence. On 25 January 2000, the President visited Aceh. He avoided the mainland, where security forces clashed regularly with rebels, in favour of Sabang, a port city on the Singapore-sized island of Weh. Since Soeharto withdrew the city's duty-free status in the mid-1980s, the island has lost nearly half its population. To many Acehnese, Sabang's fate symbolized the negative impact of national policies on the provincial economy. During his visit, Wahid announced that he had issued a Presidential Decision (No. 2 of 2000) that returned the port's free trade status, and ordered his Cabinet to co-ordinate the development of the island's infrastructure. However, progress was slow. Not until 22 December, during a visit to the island, did Vice-President Megawati Soekarnoputri officially reopen the port and announce government funding to construct a new pier to handle ships of 10,000 tons, ten times larger than the existing pier can accommodate.

Despite Wahid's efforts, the level of violence between Indonesian security forces and the GAM intensified. Human rights groups estimated that 350 people died in the first two months of the year, compared to 273 during the whole of 1999. …

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