The past is still present in Aceh
Alongside the traditional rencong knives and fabrics of Aceh's glorious
the museum in Banda Aceh features rows of old Chinese bowls and artifacts in
a testimony to this area's pivotal role in maritime trade from the 1500s.
It seemed appropriate therefore, that under the large, ancient bell once
given by a Chinese embassy to Aceh, a fit and neatly dressed man was waiting.
Around him were half a dozen colleagues who looked like labourers - although
a second glance and a few smiles established they were nothing of the sort.
"I'm the field commander for GAM [the Free Aceh Movement] in my area,"
the lead man, Tengku Daud Yusuf. He was from Blancut village in the district
of Sawang in north Aceh and was visiting Banda Aceh for a seminar on logging.
He proceeded to deliver a series of well-ordered statements on the mission
and activities of GAM which, he said, were based on the Acehnese concepts of
history, land, nation, language and culture.
"GAM has never robbed people, is involved in no criminal activity and
like anything against the law," he said. "We never burn offices or school
buildings. We have no programme to tell foreigners or Javanese to leave this
place. We do not kill or torture people, and we don't kill or torture the TNI
[Indonesian defence forces].
"The way we fight is to reclaim the triumphs of Acehnese history, from
time of Sultan Iskandar Muda [1607-36]," said Mr Yusuf, aged 47, who claimed
his group of 80 fighters had grenade launchers, AK47s, AK45s and M16 rifles
at their disposal.
In defiance of historical records, he and his Acehnese translator regard
time as when the Acehnese sultanate ruled all of Sumatra. Iskandar Muda is
also famous for his efforts to include the then trading empires of Malacca
and Johore within his reach, giving modern-day Acehnese a strong sense of
This encounter with GAM was remarkably easy, highlighting several key
about the struggle between Aceh and Jakarta which directly threatens the
existence of a unitary state of Indonesia.
There is firstly an impressive level of organisation for a secessionist
movement long repressed by brutal military actions. With the withdrawal of
Indonesian troops from the interior and the end of their sweeping operations
through the villages, the focus of the struggle is now on skilled propaganda
from both sides, rather than armed battles.
"I think not everyone wants independence here," ruminates Banda Aceh's
Catholic priest, Father Ferdinando. "But GAM propaganda is so high, it is
hard to know the real feeling of the people."
Secondly, Mr Yusuf's own story shows the significant role played by
exiles in Malaysia, many of whom have returned to Aceh recently with all the
necessary techniques of underground organisation and warfare at their
Thirdly, the gathering in the grounds of the museum also produced the
standard recollections of military abuse, as Mr Yusuf and his men rattled off
the names of sisters and wives raped and other relatives killed by Indonesian
One man, Ibrahim, recounted in graphic detail how he was picked up on
25, 1990, by Indonesia's special Kopassus forces. He said he was beaten with
iron bars, kicked in the stomach, and had an iron bar thrust up his anus. He
was in hospital for a year.
"I am not mentally prepared to forgive them," said Ibrahim. "Why should
One of my brothers, Hashim, was shot dead by Kopassus at the end of 1990. So
what I demand is that Aceh must be independent of Indonesia."
Such stories, which need not be doubted given the weight of documentation
proving most claims of military abuse in the past decade, form the basis of
GAM's appeal to ordinary Acehnese. Most people can recount similar stories,
and know of friends or relatives who have died for what the survivors now
call "the cause".
Little wonder perhaps that even the Indonesian military commander in
Aceh, Colonel Syarifuddin Tippe, freely admits the link between GAM and the
"Tactically and strategically, GAM has much influence among the people,"
said. "They are the same ethnic group, with the same language, and feel the
same and have the same purpose."
But Sulawesi-born Colonel Tippe is confident that GAM will never win
independence war. The colonel dashed local dreams of separatism by quoting
American president Bill Clinton's comments on the need for Indonesia to
maintain territorial integrity.
Subsequent meetings with Acehnese show another, little-exposed, aspect
GAM's war against the central government. While Mr Yusuf represents the
traditional wing of the movement, stating his allegiance to exiled and ageing
leader Hasan di Tiro, other Acehnese interpret GAM's mission differently.
Student groups, which form the basis for the campaign for a referendum
Aceh, see a future less tied to the past and more to an open future of
tolerant, market-oriented self-governance. Some liken their dreams to the
oil-based wealth of Brunei. Others, despite differences in history and
experience, take the recent independence of East Timor as their guide.
Yet other Acehnese interpret their separatist dreams in terms of Islam,
calling themselves Taleban fighters, decrying the Indonesian state's
insistence on secularism and seeing the military as kaffir, or enemies of
religion. Some go further, into arguments of race, in which every ethnic
group, especially the Javanese, are deemed inferior to the proud Acehnese.
Yet other claimed members of GAM may be nothing of the sort, confide sources
in Banda Aceh, and here again, it is interpretations of history which are at
When Jakarta declared Aceh to be a Military Operations Area (DOM) in
1989, the authorities named the security threat the Gerombolan Pengacau
Keamananan (GPK), or Gang of Security Disturbers.
The Free Aceh Movement, established in 1976, was not widely talked about
until recently, when freshly trained cadres returned from Malaysia complete
with mobile phones, good English and an organisation capable, for example, of
stimulating flows of tens of thousands of Acehnese displaced persons in
another bid to gain international support.
Vicious military actions against the GPK in the early 1990s disguised
fact that some of the so-called disturbers were actually bands of Indonesian
soldiers who had deserted.
Now, in an atmosphere of suspicion and fear, independent observers and
activists say there are shadowy figures around, claimed by neither GAM nor
the Indonesian military, who act as provocateurs seemingly to keep the
violence alive. Such provocateurs are blamed for forcing non-Acehnese from
their homes, for torching buildings and for killing members of both sides in
In this sense, Mohammad Nazar, leader of the Centre for an Acehnese
Referendum (SIRA), may be romanticising when he insists on the absolute unity
of the Acehnese. "We Acehnese people struggle together, not like in East
Timor," he said. "If Aceh gets independence a good country will be
established - a republican democracy."
Asking Acehnese about exactly what sort of independence they envisage
produces a range of answers. The most common is: "I don't know. I just want a
normal life, and Jakarta cannot be trusted to give it."
At the Syiah Kuala University, the rector, Professor Dayan Dawood, casts
doubt on Aceh's ability to manage itself, given the diminishing oil and gas
reserves and what he calls its lack of human resources. Indeed, many
articulate young Acehnese live in Jakarta where they can find jobs, and one
admitted that even if independence was achieved, he would not return to Aceh
for a few years.
"I don't want what happened in East Timor to happen here," said 59-year
teacher, Abdul Muthalib. "We could have independence in seven months," he
added, referring to President Abdurrahman Wahid's offer of a referendum in
that time frame. "But the Indonesian Government must teach us how to run a
government. If it doesn't help Aceh, this could be a disaster the same as
East Timor. "Yes, maybe Gus Dur [as Mr Wahid is called] is preparing a trap
for the Acehnese with the referendum," he agreed, "because clever people know
we are unable to do it so soon. But lower-class people, the workers, they
don't care about the details and emotion will determine their choice." That
emotion is undoubtedly powerful and, due to decades of Jakarta's neglect and
abuse, is growing by the day.
Even if by "independence" many Acehnese mean a return to peace and civility,
local pride will allow only weeks or months for Mr Wahid to stand by his
commitment to a referendum, or war will be resurgent once more.