It’s awfully convenient for Jakarta, with its long and bitter dispute with Aceh, to broadcast this version of why Aceh is so volatile: “well, it’s nobody’s fault but their own—they’re attacking each other after all.”
Unfortunately, in the history of Aceh, no one comes out smelling like a rose.
Here’s my brief Cliff-notes version (warning: small history lesson ahead):
Remember, the republic of Indonesia was not always independent; it was controlled by the British and then the Dutch until 1945, then after a bloody 4-year war with the Dutch it gained independence in 1949. Aceh (north Sumatra) had been part of a larger and quite prosperous Sultanate (including all of Sumatra and the Malay peninsula) since 1511.
Under the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 the British ceded their colonial possessions on Sumatra to the Dutch; the British named Aceh among these possessions even though they did not control it [of course they did!] The Dutch agreed to respect Aceh's independence at first but couldn’t help themselves and invaded again in 1871, possibly to prevent France or the US from doing it first. This led to the 40-year Aceh War, in which the Acehnese established themselves as a formidable foe with exceptional military and fighting skills (this did not go unnoticed by the rest of Indonesia, which was having its own problems with the colonial powers at the time). The Dutch kind of won, and set up a colonial government in Aceh until World War II and the Japanese occupation of much of Indonesia. During the occupation the Japanese tried to instill as much nationalist sentiment as possible in the more rural and remote parts of Indonesia, including Aceh. Throughout all these events it was Aceh’s belief (fostered by various promises, agreements and assurances) that it would remain independent. Aceh revolted soon after its inclusion into an “independent Indonesia” in 1948, a situation created by a complex mix of what the Acehnese felt were betrayals and transgressions against their rights:
a) Soekarno, the first president of Indonesia (and a member of the nationalist PNI party), reneged on his 1948 promise that if Aceh lent its trained military to assist in the war for Indonesian independence, it would be allowed to rule itself in accordance with its religious values which had been in place for centuries
b) Aceh was politically dismantled and incorporated into the province of North Sumatra in 1950. This resulted in the Acehnese Rebellion of 1953-59, led by Governor and Ulama party leader Daud Bereueh.
c) In 1959, the Indonesian government attempted once again to placate the Acehnese by offering wide-ranging freedom in matters relating to religion, education and culture.
[let me tell you, we are zipping through history—this is by no means a thorough account!]
During the 1970s, under agreement with Indonesian central government (but not with Aceh), American oil and gas companies began exploitation of Aceh’s natural resources. Alleged unequal distribution of profit between Jakarta and Acehnese citizens induced Hasan di Tiro, the former ambassador of Darul Islam, to call for an Independent Aceh. He proclaimed Aceh Independence in 1976—the same year as East Timor proclaimed its own independence. Both provinces were rewarded for this by severe and near-genocidal discipline that in Aceh’s case only ended when the 2004 tsunami killed 170,000 Acehnese with far more rapidity than the Indonesian army could have.
[Darul Islam is a group established in 1942 "aiming for the establishment of an Islamist State of Indonesia." It has many factions but in general the group recognizes only Shari'a as a valid source of law. It’s interesting to remember, however, that the declaration of Aceh independence had to do with the unequal distribution of wealth, and not religious practice. See, it always, always comes down to economics. I'll have a LOT more to say about this in the next post--all my opinions, mind you.]
The movement for Aceh Independence was called the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), and had very few followers initially, but as pressure and human rights abuses from Java mounted over the next two decades, it gained widespread support from Acehnese citizens. A brief bone-throwing by Jakarta in 2001 that ostensibly broadened Aceh’s autonomy was followed by even more brutality, and a state of emergency was proclaimed in the province that was only broken by the Tsunami’s devastation and the subsequent 2005 “peace accord.”
Women soldiers of the Free Aceh Movement with GAM commander Abdullah Syafei’i, 1999
The following text is excerpted from a white paper that we delivered to the Clinton Foundation at their request in 2012 and regards the state of division within GAM and possible reasons for this.
Numbers vary slightly, but approximately 3,000 of the 21,000 known GAM combatants were reported by GAM leaders to the government immediately following the  peace agreement/MoU signing. There are many reasons why the large remaining numbers were not reported, chief among them being that GAM feared that the Indonesian government, once receiving the surrendered weapons of GAM’s entire militia, would renege on any peace agreement and retaliate with violence on now-unarmed “enemies of the state.” Subsequently, the 3,000 who were registered were compensated in the form of government positions, financial remuneration, etc. GAM members felt that these 3,000 would be the harbingers of a finally integrated province and would act as their advocates and supporters in the form of insuring that their remaining ranks of 14-18,000 would receive reintegration assistance as well.
This was not the case. While many of the 3,000 registered members became quite powerful and “reintegrated” comfortably into their communities (Governor Irwandi himself is a former GAM leader) they abandoned many of the promises to their constituents that had elevated them to this status in the first place. Former combatants had taken to heart Governor Irwandi’s promise of approximately $40 million for rural development projects, as well as assurances that they would receive land and livelihoods training as part of reintegration activities. Although many public documents state that all ex-combatants have received some type of assistance, the reality is that very few have received any assistance at all. They live in remote districts where few if any government officials or agency has visited, and the assistance that they may have received has come through tsunami relief, which was far more broadly distributed and tracked than any relief to former GAM Members. Indeed, the tsunami relief (Multi-Donor) funds were significantly lacking in any mandated provisions for ex-combatants and their particular issues and needs. Notes one publication, “In their rush to provide assistance to tsunami victims, many international agencies signed undertakings that they would not ‘interfere’ in the conflict. By and large the US$600 million Multi-Donor Fund (MDF) could not be used in conflict-affected areas that were not hit by the tsunami. As a result, there has been a significant discrepancy between the aid reaching tsunami-affected areas and that to many heavily conflict-affected regions, creating an artificial dichotomy between post-tsunami and post-conflict Aceh.”
Many of the authors of the documents extolling the (relative) success of the reintegration programs were in fact hand-picked by those government officials eager to put a successful face on the reintegration issue, and much of the data and conclusions are suspect.
In successive Governor’s Decrees, BRA (the agency responsible for reintegration) has been tasked with “formulating programs for the reintegration of former GAM into society in the fields of government, political participation, integration, and community empowerment in the social and economic spheres.” Public documents also indicate that BRA “has managed to directly facilitate individual assistance to approximately 20,000 conflict actors.” This is not true. Very little money has flowed directly to former combatants. The reason for this are presented eloquently in a number of publications, usually accompanied by complaints from BRA as to why they could not comply, but the results are the same: approximately 15,000 fighting-age males in Aceh province feel as though they have been abandoned by the government that they believed, through the peace accord, had promised to welcome them as citizens with bright futures.
The violence surrounding the elections is a culmination of sentiment that has been percolating in Aceh for years. The Aceh party [PA –Partai Aceh], comprised of former GAM members, is furious with Governor Irwandi [former PA and now PNA] for what they perceive as near treasonous actions towards them. BRA and other agencies have not bothered to address the issue of appropriate reintegration and what it means. Much-needed education and vocational training programs, land allocations, agriculture and livestock and training have never been launched, despite claims to the contrary. “Field reports” go out of their way to explain the complexity of the MoU and how it can’t be implemented easily due to language regarding individual vs. community-wide benefits. Partai Aceh is now seen as filled with strong-arming thugs who disrupt elections in order to get their needs met and who have their fingers on the pulse of all large development projects. In a sense, these non-3,000 former GAM members have played as cast—marginalized, ignored troublemakers who according to those in power should have been grateful they weren’t all rounded up and dispatched.
These former combatants extend through the province like a web, earning money by growing marijuana, logging illegally in protected forests, and sometimes committing robbery and shootings for hire, trying to compensate for the sustainability the government refuses to give them, says it has already given them. They are also resourceful, determined, and in some cases very well-respected in the communities they inhabit, and their disgust with the care that has been extended them and their families transmits exponentially through the districts so that young men in remote villages with few opportunities of their own begin to see these disenfranchised fighters as their role models.
It is JMD’s belief that far more attention should be paid to providing education assistance (high school equivalency programs) and vocational training to former combatants, and that the Acehnese government can facilitate this initiative quite easily. The hardest thing for NGOs to address is a community of former GAM saying “Our government gave us nothing. We were promised land and training. We were promised that we’d be able to care for our families legally and respectfully. There is no way for us to survive now except through violence and crime.” Because we can’t tell them “No, that’s not true, you weren’t abandoned, your government cares about you.”