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FOCUS September 2003 Volume 33

Searching for Peace in Aceh

Sentot Setya

Violence has been gripping Aceh for the last 26 years bringing misery to its 4.1 million population. Peace negotiations between the government of Indonesia and the armed opposition had been tried several times but all ended up in a deadlock. Worse, every failed negotiation led to greater military operations. Civilians, as a result, suffered from human rights violations and persecution. Their livelihood was adversely affected causing increased poverty, unemployment, spread of diseases, and deprivation of education for the children.

Background of the armed conflict in Aceh

The long history of violence in Aceh started with the massive business expansion facilitated by the "New Order" regime of Soeharto in the 1970s. It was marked by the entry of forest concession holders, large-scale plantations, mining corporations, and large-industries supported by companies from the United States (US), Japan and Europe. Many Acehnese paid a heavy price for this situation. They suffered in various ways such as loss of land, loss of local traditions, getting arrested, killed or otherwise persecuted during the early 1970s. Some Acehnese leaders resisted the central government's policies. With the increasing hostility among the Acehnese against the central government's policies, a group of community leaders formed Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM) or Free Aceh Movement and immediately declared the independence of Aceh on 4 December 1976. The government responded by sending thousands of soldiers to Aceh to quell the rebellion and started a three-year military operation. While the Indonesian military (also called TNI) succeeded in containing the rebellion, some members of the armed opposition remained active. GAM's leader, Hasan Tiro, left Aceh and continued the rebellion while in exile in Sweden.
Violence erupted again in 1989. GAM members who returned from military training in Libya started a new offensive against the government. This new round of conflict was used by some disenchanted officers of the TNI based in Aceh to insist that their unit be maintained in the province.1 The government deployed thousands of troops in Aceh under "Operation Red Net" (Operasi Jaring Merah), after declaring it a Special Operation Area (DOM). A subsequent report by the Independent Investigation Team on Violent Acts (Tim Independen Pengusutan Tindak Kekerasan) showed that Operation Red Net killed 1,000 to 3,000 people, caused the disappearance of 900 to 1,400 more, injured 500 people, and burned down 700 houses.2 The government and the TNI admitted that human rights violations occurred in Aceh during the 1989-1998 period. It was an important development.3 It did not however change the system of governance in Aceh. Repressive acts were still committed and corrupt practices still affected the development projects. The killing of Tengku Bantaqiah and his supporters and the attack on the Komite Nasional Pemuda Indonesia (KNPI)4 office in 1999 are examples. Some Acehnese thought that the charges filed against the soldiers for these crimes were too low and directed only at soldiers in the field. Senior officers or high government officials who should be held responsible were left untouched. This situation, according to the view of the people, would not reduce the rate of violent acts.
GAM took this opportunity to support the people's complaints against the government and launched a campaign against it. In 1999, about half a million Acehnese (around 10% of the Aceh population) took part in mass demonstrations to demand that there be a referendum in Aceh to determine whether the people want Aceh to become independent or not. The failure of the government to give justice to the victims of human rights violations during the military operations was cited as a reason for the call for independence for Aceh.
The people's demand for justice for the suffering they experienced helped GAM gain more support for its cause. The government created more problems for the people by carrying out Limited Military Operations in areas considered to be major bases of GAM.5

Roots of the problem: Deadlocked peace agreement

The change of government after the 1999 elections brought Abdurrahman Wahid (popularly known as Gus Dur) into power. He changed the government attitude and policy toward the demand for the independence of Aceh.6 With the support of the Parliament and the civil society, he was able to do a number of measures to address the issue. Due to human rights violations, he brought TNI units out of Aceh. He sent a special representative to talk with the GAM leaders, and sought the help of a third party to start negotiations. The Switzerland-based Henri Dunant Center (HDC), a non-governmental organization, proposed to be a mediator between the Indonesian government and GAM. The Indonesian government accepted the offer. HDC began to introduce a program to reduce the tension and to address the impact of violence on the people. It then started to implement some agreements such as "Jeda Kemanusiaa" [Humanitarian Pause] Moratorium Agreement (January-February 2001), Masa Damai Melalui Dialog [Peace Period Through Dialogue] (February-April, 2001), and the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement [CoHA] (December 2002- May 2003). CoHA, signed in Switzerland on 9 December 2002, has four main concerns:

  1. Security - ceasefire, reduction of violence, creation of peace zones, demilitarization (relocation of TNI troops and storage of GAM weapons), reorganization of Brimob7 into police force
  2. Humanitarian assistance - provision of humanitarian assistance to the internally displaced people
  3. Recontruction - rehabilitation and reconstruction of the infra-structures destroyed by the armed conflict
  4. Civil Reformation - organizing of dialogues for the strengthen-ing of the democratic process in Aceh.

CoHA is different from all other peace agreements that preceded it. It has international monitors in place. Its structure for investigation and reporting of violations is far more transparent than those in the previous accords. It is backed at the highest levels of the Indonesian government and by a broad range of international donors. After it started to be implemented, there were many positive developments, most strikingly, a dramatic drop in the level of violence.8
Despite the strong will to stop the fighting in Aceh, the implementation of the peace program was difficult. Incomplete transition to democracy and economic problems diverted the government's full attention from the Aceh issue.1 On the other hand, GAM leaders admitted their own difficulty in controlling their undisciplined troops who violated the peace agreement.10
The government could not fully guarantee the implementation of the peace agreement due to opposition from TNI.11 Military operations and continuing violence against civilians sabotaged the implementation of the peace agreement. This situation violated Law No. 18/2002 on special autonomy for Nangroe Aceh Darussalam (NAD). The military operations weakened the government service in Aceh.12 TNI pressured the government to issue directives (Inpres No. 7/2001 and Inpres No. 1/2002 regarding comprehensive stages toward the resolution of the Aceh conflict) that run counter to the peace process.13
The GAM troops meanwhile continued to commit violence and extortion against Acehnese civilians during the "humanitarian pause" period under CoHA.14 The killing of a GAM military commander (Abdullah Syafei) is considered to be a protest against GAM's offenses.15 This case led GAM to attack TNI posts and barracks, which subsequently caused the failure to attain peace by end of 2002.
CoHA has many shortcomings. It failed to address the root causes of the Aceh conflict. It did not have concrete stages of action for attaining peace. The two sides have their own interpretation of the agreement, showing lack of trust between them.16 Demilitarization and establishment of democratic system in Aceh should not be tackled together. Ceasefire and demilitarization should be dealt with before implementing the democratic development program.
The weak involvement of the civilian population is one of the causes of the failure of the peace agreement. The entire peace process (from negotiation to implementation of the agreement) hardly involved the civilian population. Also, the weak involvement of the international community in the implementation of the peace agreement is a factor. It should not have put the task of implementing the peace agreement on the shoulders of HDC alone. Experience shows that active pressure from other governments (US and Japan) and donor institutions (such as the World Bank) forced the cessation of hostilities in Aceh and the meeting in Tokyo of the two sides.17 It forced the TNI to withdraw the use of war equipment (jet fighters, tanks, and warships) in Aceh.18

Table 1 Comments on the peace agreements
Main Problems in AcehHumanitarian PauseCoHA
Violence and armed activitiesLess violent acts for 30 days.Less violent acts for 40 days.
Judicial and institutional reformNo provisionDemilitarization process not clear on this issue; demobilization program for the guerrilla groups unclear.
Investigation and prosecution of acts of violence and gross human rights violationsNo provisionNo provision
Economic, social, and cultural problemsThe program for the rehabilitation, compensation, and reconstruction of post-war Aceh is not clear. Humanitarian pause was only dealing with the humanitarian assistance.Program not implemented because of
a. lack of financial support as well as capability on the part of the national government;
b. corruption in the local government;
c. weak support from the international community.
DemocratizationNo provisionProgram not properly implemented because the military components of both sides rejected the involvement of civilian community
Independence and capacity of monitoring bodies and power to demand accountabilityLack of support for strong involvement of civilian community, and lack of mandates for the investigation and prosecution of acts of violence and gross human rights violationsLack of support for strong involvement of civilian community. Monitoring body does not have power to pressure TNI and GAM to hold violators accountable.

Impact of failure of the peace agreement

War in whatever form always creates suffering and sorrow on the civilian population. Acehnese civilians became even more impoverished by the conflict. The military operations after the collapse of CoHA contributed even more sufferings. They became victims of abduction, killings, arbitrarily arrest, torture (especially against women), harassment, seizure and destruction of properties committed by both sides. Though there are no definite figures, the media reported big number of casualties during the 1999-2003 period.

Table 2 Summary of Violent Acts in Aceh
(8 August 1998 - July 2003)
PeriodKilledTorturedMissing/ AbductedRaped/ Sexually harassedBurning /Building DestructionSeizing/extortion
Post- DOM(8 August 1998 - 31 December 1999)47120915701.321 Units(1.321 burned)na
Pre-Humanitarian Pause(1 January - 1 June 2000)398196907780 Units(780 burned)na
Humanitarian pause phase I (2 June 2000 -2 September 2000)na*na*na*na*na*na*
Humanitarian pause phase II (2 September 2000 - 15 January 2001)42981734251.396 Units(1.322 burned) (74 destroyed)76
Moratorium Agreement(16 January - 5 February 2001)5495140184 units(169 burned) (15 destroyed)13
Peace period through dialogue (16 February - 8 April 2001)196196140500 units(494 burned) (6 destroyed)19
CoHA period (9 December 2002 - 16 May 2003) na*na*na*na*na*na*
Post-CoHA(19 May - 30 July 2003158na804577 school buildings burnedna

Military hostilities caused physical as well as psychological damage to the civilian population. They lost their properties when they evacuated to military barracks for a year or more. Life in the barracks was not good either as they suffer from diseases due to bad sanitation and health facilities. Children suffered the most. With increasing number of refugees in the barracks, cases of malaria, dysentery, and Acute ISPA (infection of respiratory tract) diseases increased.

Table 3 Numbers of Internally Refugees in Aceh (as of 8 July 2003)
DistrictsTotal NumberDominant Diseases
South Aceh14,386Diarrhea, ISPA, skin diseases
Aceh Utara10,581Diarrhea, ISPA, skin diseases
Bireun8,770Diarrhea, ISPA, skin diseases
Aceh Jaya3,196Diarrhea, ISPA, skin diseases
Data drawn from various sources

The economic activities (mainly farming) stopped in the main conflict areas of Pidie and eastern and southern Aceh due to the fighting during the 1999-2003 period. Coffee harvest in February 2000 decreased by 40% compared to the 1999 harvest because people were frightened to go to the field for weeks.19 Unemployment also increased. Poverty spread even more during this war in Aceh, and it is getting worse.

Table 4 Number of Poor People in Aceh(1999-2001)
Data from Nangroe Aceh Darussalam (NAD)
(August 2003)

The conflict affected the education of the children in Aceh. 107,882 Acehnese students were forced to endure bad quality education because of lack of teachers and the burning of a big number of school buildings. Killings and abduction of teachers led to the decrease in their number. There is now a lack of 27,850 kindergarten teachers, 14,260 elementary school teachers, 6,829 junior high school teachers, and 3,320 senior high school teachers and 1,361 vocational teachers.20

Learning from experience: Searching for peace in Aceh

The still on-going military operations in Aceh have not led to peace. It shows that the military option is not the appropriate way to achieve peace. It instead caused a heavy toll on the Aceh civilian population.

The "humanitarian pause" in the conflict and the CoHA are steps forward. They show that both sides must persevere and learn from experience in order to bring the conflict back to the negotiating table. There are problems with the previous peace agreements that should be resolved.

Some considerations have to be taken into account in the future peace negotiation between the Indonesian government and GAM:

  1. There should be clear aims and phases of implementation of the peace agreement. The peace agreement should provide for detailed steps and phases for demilitarization and establishment of democratic process. This avoids differences in interpretations of the agreement that become excuses for new clashes in Aceh.
  2. There should be capacity-building and appropriate institutional, financial and personnel resources available for the implementation of the agreement. Corruption in government and the breakdown of government system down to the village level, serious problems that contributed to the failure of the peace agreement, should be addressed.
  3. Both the Indonesian government and GAM should be held accountable for the violations committed by their respective combatants.
  4. The civil society must support and be involved in the implementation of CoHA to address the weaknesses of control and monitoring.
  5. There should be a re-formulation of the role of the mediator or Third Party. The main problems faced by the monitoring team for the implementation of CoHA were the dependence of the mediator on the goodwill of the Indonesian government, personnel capacity limitations, passive method of monitoring, and lack of coordination (lack of mutual relationship) between the monitoring body and the local communities.

There should be a determination of the real capacity of the mediator or Third Party in carrying out the mediation role. The mediator or Third Party should be able to get the support of the civil society organizations to assist it in planning and implementing activities./p>

The international community should have more effective role in providing concrete support to conflict resolution and not just leave the work to HDC or any other institution as mediator or Third Party. The involvement of the international community motivates the Indonesian government to implement the peace agreement.

The prospect for peace in Aceh is still a question up to now. Both sides must go back to the negotiation table to find a solution to the conflict. There is no option other than negotiation because war has not solved the problem. It instead brought even more suffering not only to the Acehnese but to the Indonesians as whole.

Sentot Setya is the Information and Documentation Coordinator of the Institute for Policy Research and Advocacy (ELSAM).

For further information please contact: The Institute for Policy Research and Advocacy (ELSAM), Jl. Siaga II No 31, Pasar Minggu, Jakarta12510, Indonesia, ph (6221) 797-2662; 7919-2564; fax (6221) 7919-2519; e-mail:;


1. In the early 1980s, the then Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces (PANGAB), Benny Moerdani, decreased the number of Territorial Military Commands (KODAMs) in Indonesia. KODAM Iskandar Muda, one of the KODAMs based in Aceh, was planned to be merged with KODAM Bukit Barisan. This plan would make many middle-ranking and senior officers of TNI in Aceh lose their positions. The renewed fighting against GAM therefore became a reason for them to justify the retention of KODAM Iskandar Muda in Aceh.

2. See Final Report of the Independent Committee on Violent Acts on its investigation on Aceh case (Jakarta: July 2000) page 7.

3. On 7 August 1998, President Habibie and Armed Forces Commander Wiranto apologized for the military abuses and began the withdrawal of 1,000 troops. See Pembentukan Pengadilan HAM Ad-hoc Bagi Kasus DOM Aceh [Setting Up an Ad-Hoc Human Rights Court for Cases on Military Operations in Aceh], Position Paper of Coalition of Aceh Human Rights NGOs, No. 1/2003.

4. KNPI is the National Committee of Indonesian Youth. KNPI was created by Soeharto to organize the Indonesian youth into supporting the New Order regime.

5. Claiming to be running after the supporters of Ahmad Kandang who was accused of kidnapping and killing of military officers in 1998, TNI launched 5 military operations in 1999 in several areas: Operasi Wibawa, Operasi Sadar Rencong, Operasi Meunasah, Operasi Pemulihan Keamanan Aceh.

6. The pre-Wahid government policy is similar to the policy for Timor Leste. The government never recognized the existence of the National Council of Timor Resistance (CNRT) and the Armed Forces of the National Liberation of East Timor (otherwise known as Falintil) as parallel powerholders. The peace process did not succeed in East Timor due to the refusal of the TNI to come to the negotiation table.

7. Brimob means Brigade Mobile, a special unit in the police department that handles emergency situations such as riots.

8. Overnight, people started behaving as if peace had indeed come. They stayed out late, traveled further afield, reunited with friends and family. GAM fighters came down from the hills and in some areas took part in traditional feast with the local military.

9. See Aceh: Mengapa Kesepakatan Penghentian Permusuhan Sulit Dipertahankan [Why is the Agreement to Stop Hostility Hard to Maintain], Briefing Paper of ELSAM No 2/2003.

10. Ibid., page 6.

11. The Aceh conflict became a means for TNI to recover its political role, which it lost after the 1998 change of government. TNI urged the civil government to adopt a policy giving it full political role in the handling of armed conflict in Aceh.

12. See "Aceh: Can Autonomy Stem the Conflict?," ICG Asia Report No.18/2001

13. During 2000-2003, a number of presidential decrees were issued regarding the handling of the Aceh conflict which were clearly opposed to the People's Consultative Council decisions such as the Broad Outlines of the Nation's Direction (TAP MPR NO IV/ 1999), Broad Outline of State Policy 1999-2004 (Garis-Garis Besar Haluan Negara, Chapter IV, Point G No. 2), and Peaceful Solution of Aceh Conflicts (MPR Resolution No. IV/2002).

14. Briefing Paper of ELSAM No. 2/2003.

15. Tengku Abdulah Syafeii was a Commander of GAM who supported plans for peaceful resolution of the Aceh conflict. But GAM's leadership opposed him. See "Pemerintah Harus Buka Ruang Dialog Meski Syafeii Tewas [Government Must Open Possibility for Dialogue Even Though Syafii is Dead]," in Tempo Interaktif, January 24, 2002.

16. GAM objected to the idea Nangroe Aceh Darussalam (NAD) under the Integrated State of Indonesia Republic (NKRI) concept as an initial step to the dialogue between the two sides. Also, GAM allegedly violated the peace agreement by adding personnel and military equipment, and refusing the "storage of arms." See Briefing Paper of ELSAM No. 2/2003.

17. The Tokyo meeting was held on May 17, 2003. In another meeting, the Indonesian government proposed special autonomy for Aceh and disarming of GAM. But GAM strongly demanded independence for Aceh.

18. A number of ambassadors of donor countries as well as the Foreign Ministers from the European Union visited Indonesian military officials inquiring about war equipment being used in Aceh. The British government, in particular, emphasized its objection to the use of war equipment they sold to TNI in the military operations in Aceh.

19. See "Aceh Ekologi Wilayah Perang [Aceh: Ecology of the War Zone]," in Down to Earth, 47 November 2000.

20. Statement of Yulizar Usman, Head of Education Sub-Office, Provincial Education Office of NAD, Banda Aceh, 18 July, 2003.