GLW: Eyewitness report from Aceh
Green Left Parramatta
glparramatta at SPAMgreenleft.org.au
Tue Nov 16 10:31:31 MST 1999
The following article appears in the latest
issue of Green Left Weekly (http://www.greenleft.org.au),
Australia's radical newspaper.
Millions demand referendum in Aceh
By Sam King
BANDA ACEH -- The mass action that overwhelmed Aceh's capital
city on November 8 is undeniable proof of the people's desire for
a referendum and their resolve to campaign for it. Some 2 million
people took to the streets, in the estimate of all major
Indonesian and Acehnese newspapers. The population of Aceh is
just over 4 million.
Hundreds of thousands of people filled the massive grounds of the
Masjid Raya (great mosque), the surrounding area and the
adjoining streets to hear mostly student speakers who demanded a
referendum and independence.
Hundreds of thousands more flooded the streets with convoys of
trucks, vans and motorbikes carrying banners and wearing
headbands, most with only one word -- ``Referendum'' -- others with
the symbol of the armed right-wing Free Aceh Movement (GAM)
Convoys began late on November 7 and continued through the next
day. The main road from the east, Jalan Medan Aceh, had slowed to
a crawl three hours out of Banda Aceh as early as the evening of
The action was organised by a coalition of the umbrella front
Aceh Referendum Information Centre (SIRA) led by Muhammad Nazar,
Student Solidarity with the People (SMUR) and other student and
traditional Islamic student (taliban) groups. Building at the
grassroots was done mainly by regular student and taliban
The bulk of those attending were peasant farmers or other
ordinary Acehnese. The largest numbers came from the north coast
and northern inland, especially the Pidie district.
Members of GAM helped to organise transport from the countryside
and unofficially watched over the action for provocation or
aggression from military or police. GAM has confirmed its support
for the demonstration's main demand of a referendum. This brings
a new consensus of Acehnese political forces and adds further
pressure on the Indonesian government.
The Indonesian media tried to sensationalise isolated incidents
of cap-ripping (a cap is considered un-Islamic) or women being
told to wear head veils in order to discredit the action as
fundamentalist or anarchic. However, it carried an undeniably
democratic character in its demand and was peaceful -- the latter
fact was attributed by most Acehnese to the total absence of
military and police.
The new movement, formed by pro-democracy student groups in 1998,
has grown massively and without significant defeat for the last
two years. It appears to have won over the overwhelming majority
of Acehnese to supporting independence from Indonesia.
>From the perspective of the Indonesian ruling class, a solution
to the Aceh question is extremely important. The question
dominates the media, front-paging every day in the national
newspapers. The potential destabilising effect in other provinces
is considerable if the Acehnese protest movement continues for
long. Of greater concern to Indonesia's elite (and the rest of
the world's) is that a mass movement makes it difficult for the
Acehnese elite to consolidate its political leadership and
control over the population.
A continuation of mass involvement in politics will favour the
grassroots organising forces -- GAM, student activist groups and
Of particular interest is Aceh's massive natural wealth.
According to Tapol Bulletin, Aceh contributes 11% of Indonesian
government income and receives barely 1% of its expenditure.
Under this mass pressure, President Abdurrahman Wahid outlined a
confused referendum plan which contains three vague options:
``total autonomy''; an economic redistribution scheme under which
75% of Aceh's income would remain in Aceh; and special provincial
The plan did not include a withdrawal of the armed forces (TNI).
``If East Timor can have a referendum, why not Aceh?'', Wahid said
on November 2 before outlining the referendum package. The
announcement came as a surprise because, during a visit to Aceh
earlier this year, he stated that only 500 people in Aceh
supported a referendum, sparking student protest at the time.
Wahid's offer attempts to coopt a section of the Acehnese elite
with economic concessions, in the hope they can win the
population to accepting the package. However, it has focused the
spotlight on the referendum question, causing panic in many of
Amien Rais said a referendum is a ``last resort'' and ``If Aceh
separates we break''. Golkar's chairperson, Akbar Tanjung, came
out against any referendum. Vice-president Megawati Sukarnoputri
has declined to comment, saying it's in Wahid's hands.
The national daily Kompas on November 12 quoted a group of active
and retired generals, including General Try Sutrisno, as saying
that the problem had to be solved within the framework of an
Large sections of Indonesia's elite are calling for major
economic concessions and the trial of military members who
violated human rights in Aceh. The media are tripping over
themselves to report senior politicians, judges and other public
figures calling for military perpetrators of human rights
violations to be brought to trial.
The armed forces are widely hated for their bloody role,
especially between 1989 and 1998, when an estimated 30,000
Acehnese were killed by military operations.
Moreover, talk of concessions is meaningless if human rights
violations continue. On November 12, the daily Serambi Indonesia
reported two civilians shot dead and five injured in an attack by
police against locals in Samadua. Such incidents occur regularly.
Wahid's offer was immediately rejected by SIRA, SMUR and other
student groups, because it excluded any option for independence.
Muhammad Nazar was quoted in Serambi Indonesia as saying, ``We
don't need too many options; independence and autonomy are
Asked by Green Left whether SIRA would accept a referendum on
independence if the armed forces were responsible for security,
Nazar refused to rule it out, saying, ``Acehnese people are so
united in struggle, it is unlikely an East Timor scenario would
SMUR has stated that it would reject any referendum offer that
gave TNI control of security.
GAM has not publicly responded to Wahid's offer. However, its
highest commander, Teuku Abdullah Syafei, was quoted in Kompas on
November 12 as rejecting negotiations with the new government
because it cannot be trusted.
A majority of the Acehnese provincial parliament has come out in
favour of a referendum, while generally keeping tight-lipped on
Wahid's specific model.
A pro-referendum petition was signed by the governor, Syamsuddin
Mahmud, and the provincial parliamentary head, Muhammad Yus, on
November 11. It also called on international organisations and
the UN to help solve the Aceh conflict by pressuring the
Indonesian parliament over human rights and to allow
The document contained no reference to independence as a choice
in the referendum or the role of TNI. In a press conference on
November 12, Mahmud stated that while he is opposed to
independence, it has to become a choice in the referendum: ``It is
the right of the Acehnese people; it's up to them''.
This politicking comes as the Indonesian elite call for
``intensified dialogue''. Invariably this is phrased as ``with the
people of Aceh'', without reference to which organisations might
represent the people.
Elite pro-independence figures are mostly either little known or
unpopular. This is largely because many politicians are only now
starting to water down their support for Indonesian rule as it
becomes apparent some form of political change is on the cards.
There are not many popular pro-independence figures outside of
GAM because most were killed by TNI between 1989 and 1998. SMUR
activist Arie Maulana told Green Left Weekly, ``The rush of
politicians and government officials stating their support for
the referendum is an attempt by conservative elite political
forces to position themselves at the forefront of the massive
pro-independence movement so that they can control it''.
Significant influence lies with political forces that may be
unreliable friends of big business and the International Monetary
Fund, especially if mass political action continues. The SIRA
leadership is moderate enough to suit business but still has very
close ties with the student and taliban movement.
The influence of SIRA's leaders relies on activists who build the
mass actions. Moreover, they stand at the head of a huge movement
and have to live up to at least some of the people's expectations
in order to stay there.
The democratic student movement generally reflects the political
outlook of Aceh's urban youth and probably a majority of urban
Acehnese. They see their goal as winning independence and setting
up a liberal democracy. The most radical and largest student
organisation is the left-wing SMUR, which is part of Indonesia's
National Student League for Democracy (LMND).
Taliban activist groups have few consistent political
perspectives and do not offer leadership to the movement. Usually
they align politically with GAM.
Easily the strongest grassroots political force is GAM. Most NGO
activists in Banda Aceh accept the number of GAM guerillas as
5000. GAM now moves around the countryside with relative ease and
enjoys unprecedented support. It has an armed presence right down
to the village level and is highly integrated with rural
In Pidie, north Aceh, most of east Aceh and Banda Aceh, GAM has a
greater active military presence than TNI, which at the moment is
able to carry out operations only over a short time before
retreating to barracks. Every few days attacks are reported on
military logistics and personnel. It is unclear to what extent
these attacks are carried out by GAM or staged by the military.
GAM was founded in 1976. It aims to re-establish the pre-colonial
kingdom of Aceh, an Islamic sultanate with Islamic law.
The focus on a referendum means that very little debate has
occurred about what should happen after independence if it is
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