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Free Aceh (Aceh Merdeka)
Free Aceh Movement [Gerakin Aceh Merdeka (GAM)]
Aceh Security Disturbance Movement (GPK)

Aceh (Ah-chay), located in the northern tip of Sumatra, is considered one of Indonesia's three most "troubled areas" along with East Timor and Irian Jaya. Over 2,000 deaths that are believed to have been caused by local security forces have occurred in the area since 1989, and more than 10-thousand people have died in sporadic fighting between the two sides since 1976. The Aceh Merdeka (Free Aceh) movement has been fighting for a independent and Islamic state in Aceh since the 1970s and its activities surged in the late 1980s. Reports by the media and NGOs and complaints by families of victims point to the occurrence of a human rights tragedy in Aceh in the period 1986-1993. More than 1,600 people have been declared missing. They were accused of membership in a rebel organization, without a trial. Most of them were found dead. Reportedly, not only men but women were among the victims.

Aceh, also known as Acheh, Atjeh or Achin, is the westernmost part of Sumatra and the part of Indonesia where the Islamic character of the population is the most pronounced. The Acehnese demand for autonomy, expressed in support for the 1950s Darul Islam rebellion, was partially met by the central government's acceptance of a "special region" status for the province in 1959, allowing a higher-than-usual official Indonesian respect for Islamic law and custom. This special region status, together with growing prosperity, brought Aceh into the Indonesian mainstream. This change was reflected in the growing support among Acehnese for the central government, as indicated by votes for Golkar in national elections. In 1971, Golkar won 49 percent of the region's vote; in 1977, 41 percent; and in 1982, 37 percent. By 1987, however, with 51.8 percent of the vote, Golkar obtained its first majority, increasing it in 1992 to 57 percent.

Separatists who sought to establish an independent Islamic state in the Special Region of Aceh in northern Sumatra and combined their religious and nationalist appeal with exploitation of social and economic pressures and discontent, continued to cause unrest in portions of the region. Many Acehnese perceived themselves as disadvantaged in Aceh's major industrial development projects because income flowed out of the region to the center, and outsiders--especially from Java--were perceived as receiving better employment opportunities and the economic benefits of industrialization than did the resident Acehnese. A criminal element involved in cannabis cultivation and trafficking and other illicit activities was also involved in the unrest.

During the early 1990s, the idea of an independent Islamic state was kept alive by the Free Aceh (Aceh Merdeka) movement, known to the central government as the Aceh Security Disturbance Movement (GPK). Thought to have been crushed in the mid-1970s, the guerrilla campaign of the insurgents, under the leadership of European-based Hasan di Tiro and with Libyan support, renewed its hit-and-run warfare in the late 1980s, hoping to build on economic and social grievances as well as on Islamism. But moderately pro-Golkar 1992 election results suggested there was no widespread alienation in Aceh.

Aceh was put under Operational Military status in 1991 after a resurgence of separatist activity. Special permission is necessary for foreign journalists to travel to Aceh. Indonesian Armed Forces [ABRI] reacted with crushing force and, as it sought to root out the separatists, civil-military relations were imperiled. Soldiers fighting separatists have been accused of human rights abuses. Rights groups, citing local residents, say military abuses have involved abductions, tortures, rapes and mass killings.

As of late 1996 the Government claimed that the "Aceh Merdeka" movement had been eliminated, although Aceh was still officially listed as one of Indonesia's three "trouble spots" (along with East Timor and Irian Jaya), and the Government issued public calls for the "rebels" to come home to their families. The Aceh Merdeka movement still exists, but its activities were underground as of 1996. Early in 1998, several caches of foreign arms were discovered, which raised the fear of separatist rebellion developing in Aceh. The incident resulted in the arrest of suspected rebels who were imprisoned and threatened with torture. In addition, criminal suspects continue to be shot and killed by police in suspicious circumstances and disappearances and extrajudicial executions of alleged political opponents occur often. On 07 August 1999 armed forces chief General Wiranto announced a troop pullout and apologized for any excesses. With the revocation of the military operations area status, said Wiranto, the term "security-disturbing movement" (GPK) [government terminology for the Acehnese Muslim-oriented separatist rebels] is no longer relevant, and will be replaced by the term "unauthorized agitation movement" (GPL) or an agitation movement named after its leader.

The tide of violence in Indonesia's northern province of Aceh almost never seems to recede. Local media report nearly daily on the deaths of civilians, allegedly at the hands of the Indonesian military, and hit-and-run ambushes, allegedly carried out by separatist rebels on Indonesian police and soldiers.

The government in Jakarta has approved three separate plans to broaden the scope of military action in Aceh since 2001, and, so far, none has been able to crush the guerrilla Free Aceh Movement.

In late July 2002 the Indonesian government said it may send thousands of extra troops to the northern province of Aceh, in a new effort to end 20 years of separatist fighting. But the idea came under fire, both in- and outside government circles, amid worry the plan may only worsen the conflict. Indonesia's senior political and security affairs minister proposed eight-thousand more troops be deployed to the province to join the 25-thousand there now. To end the conflict with Aceh's separatist guerrillas, Minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said the government should also consider imposing a state of civil emergency in Aceh. The proposal to increase troop-strength in Aceh came days before Indonesia's highest legislative body convenes for its annual session. The People's Consultative Assembly has the power to remove a president from office -- and one purpose of its annual meeting is to judge how well the administration has performed.

The security situation in Aceh had vastly improved in the first half of 2002, and observers were not sure why the government has proposed deploying more troops. Some Indonesian legislators, along with international and domestic human rights groups, said the proposal to increase troop strength in Aceh would only worsen the violence.

Highly secretive negotiations between the two sides have been held in Geneva, Switzerland, since 2000. In addition to the military campaign, the Indonesian government has tried to appease demands for independence by passing special autonomy legislation. The law would give Aceh's provincial legislature increased powers over local affairs. The law also allows the province to keep 70 percent of the revenue derived from Aceh's natural gas reserves, which could amount to almost 200-million dollars a year.

Local media report nearly daily on the deaths of civilians, allegedly at the hands of the Indonesian military, and hit-and-run ambushes, allegedly carried out by separatist rebels on Indonesian police and soldiers. In April 2002 rebel leaders in the Indonesian Province of Aceh said they were not satisfied with an Indonesian offer of "special autonomy" for the province. Indonesia's security minister had been in Sweden discussing the peace offer, but leaders of the main rebel movement in Aceh said it is not enough.

In addition to the military campaign, the Indonesian government has tried to appease demands for independence by passing special autonomy legislation. The law would give Aceh's provincial legislature increased powers over local affairs. The law also allows the province to keep 70 percent of the revenue derived from Aceh's natural gas reserves, which could amount to almost 200-million dollars a year. But many Acehnese object to the government in Jakarta deciding what may or may not be good for them. They want the right to self-determination.

Foreign observers arrived in Aceh in mid-November 2002 to monitor a plan to end 26 years of civil war. The observers arrived as Indonesian troops continued a week-long siege of a rebel camp. The rebels say they support the peace plan in principle, but they say the troops must withdraw or the rebels will start shooting instead of talking peace. Hundreds of Indonesian troops have been besieging the rebel camp in Cot Trieng, North Aceh, for a week. They say they will stay until the rebels surrender and sign the peace plan.

The plan was brokered by Switzerland's Henri Dunant Center. It aimed to end 26 years of bloodshed and civil war, which has cost some 12-thousand lives in the past decade. The plan offered more autonomy for the province's four million people, elections for a provincial legislature and administration, and a cessation of violence. The peace plan would mark an end to the bloodshed in the gas and oil rich province, which earns the central government in Jakarta millions of dollars in revenue each year. Many in Aceh claim that not enough of that money has been returned to the province for development. The peace plan calls for the setting up of a 150-member team of monitors, including 50 mostly ex-military representatives from Europe and Southeast Asia. This team would be operational within a month after the accord is signed, and would monitor security, investigate violations and be the point of reference for all complaints.

The rebels and the government both signed the peace agreement on 09 December 2002, but the two sides have very different interpretations of what it means. The government is willing to grant Aceh considerable autonomy, but says the rebels have to drop their demands for full independence. The rebels say they retain the right to break free of Indonesian rule in the future.

By mid-May 2003 the chances of salvaging the peace process in Indonesia's Aceh Province seemed remote, as international cease-fire monitors began leaving the country. The government and rebels met in Tokyo for negotiations, the meetings were fruitless and peace talks were halted on the 19th. President Megawati Sukarnoputri declared a six month period of martial law the same day, and on the 20th of May the Indonesian army launched an offensive. The offensive brought 35,000 troops to the Aceh region, which represents the largest such deployment of Indonesian troops since the occupation of East Timor in 1975. Several dozen rebel casualties were reported. The rebels set schools ablaze, and continued their guerrilla attacks. The Indonesian Red Cross reported 12 civilian deaths. Later that month, the Indonesian government announced their intention to make all occupants of the Aceh region carry ID cards in an effort to distinguish between rebels and civilians. NGOs and aid organizations were told to halt operations and exit the country. The government announced all aid was to be coordinated through Jakarta, and distributed through local government and the Indonesian Red Cross.

In May 2004 the Indonesian government downgraded the status of its restive northern province of Aceh from martial law to civil emergency. Indonesia's acting security minister Hari Sarbono announced the much-anticipated move after a regular cabinet meeting 13 May 2004. The government imposed martial law in Aceh just under a year earlier in an effort to wipe out guerrillas who have been fighting for a separate state for more than a quarter of a century. The government claimed several significant advances, with thousands of members of the Free Aceh Movement killed, captured or surrendered. Critics of the military operation countered that most of those killed were civilians, and say the heart of the separatist movement, known as GAM, is still relatively untouched.

In August 2005 GAM rebels and the Indonesian government signed a comprehensive peace accord bringing an end to fighting that during the first half of the year claimed approximately 180 lives. The early phases of the peace accord were implemented by both sides. This accord led to the passage of a bill by the Indoensian government in 2006 granting considerable autonomy to the Aceh province.

Under the 2006 Law Onon the Government of Aceh, on December 11, 2006, Aceh held its first direct elections. In an unprecedented act, the Indonesian government allowed separatist parties in the province to run. Aceh was the first and only province in Indonesia to have such an authorization. On 12 December, Irwandi Yusuf, a former rebel leader, was the frontrunner for governor with 39% of the vote. Violent clashes between the Indonesian government and the GAM rebels were minimal in 2006, and while certain steps towards resolution of the conflict, such as the formation of an ad hoc human rights court that could investigate severe human rights violations that occurred before 2000, have not occured.under the 2006 Law, it seemed that the conflict in Aceh has ended.

Aceh struggled to exert its autonomy in the years since separatist fighters signed a peace treaty with the central government, ending three decades of bloody insurgency. That treaty granted Aceh special autonomy status and the power to choose its own flag and symbol. In March 2013, the local government passed a bylaw to allow the flag used by the former separatist Free Aceh Movement, or GAM, to serve as the province’s official banner and its symbol - a lion and a mythical horse with wings - to become the provincial emblem. Since then, thousands of people held rallies in the provincial capital to wave the flag and show their support for the bylaw.

Thousands of demonstrators rallied in April 2013 in Indonesia’s northernmost province, Aceh, to support using a separatist flag as their official symbol. The dispute about the flag raised tensions between Aceh lawmakers who support that change and the central government in Jakarta, which said such symbols remain outlawed. Despite being rich in oil and other natural resources, Aceh has some of Indonesia’s highest rates of poverty and unemployment and efforts to address the abuses committed during the separatist insurgency remained stalled.

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Page last modified: 30-08-2013 12:54:07 ZULU