Two Backgrounders on the Separatist Movement in Aceh

The East-West Center has just published two useful backgrounders on the separatist movement in Aceh in northern Sumatra in Indonesia.

The Free Aceh Movement (GAM): Anatomy of a Separatist Organization, by Kirsten E. Schulze. Policy Studies 2. Washington, DC: East-West Center Washington, 2004. ix, 76 pp. Paper, $5.00.

The province of Aceh is located on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra in the Indonesian archipelago. Since 1976 it has been wracked by conflict between the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka; GAM), which is seeking to establish an independent state, and the Indonesian security forces seeking to crush this bid. At the heart of the conflict are center/periphery relations and profound Acehnese alienation from Jakarta. This paper aims to provide a detailed ideological and organizational “map” of GAM in order to increase the understanding of its history, motivations, and organizational dynamics. Consequently this paper analyses GAM’s ideology, aims, internal structure, recruitment, financing, weapons procurement, and its military capacity. The focus of this study is on the recent past as the fall of Suharto not only allowed the Indonesian government to explore avenues other than force to resolve the Aceh conflict, but also provided GAM with the opportunity to make some changes to its strategy and to transform itself into a genuinely popular movement. It will be argued here that the key to understanding GAM in the post-Suharto era and the movement’s decisions, maneuvers and statements during the three years of intermittent dialogue can be found in the exiled leadership’s strategy of internationalization. This strategy shows that for GAM the negotiations, above all, were not a way to find common ground with Jakarta but a means to compel the international community to pressure the Indonesian government into ceding independence.

Security Operations in Aceh: Goals, Consequences, and Lessons, by Rizal Sukma. Policy Studies 3. Washington, DC: East-West Center Washington, 2004. ix, 58 pp. Paper, $5.00.

Since Indonesia’s independence in August 1945, the province of Aceh on the northern tip of Sumatra island has often been described as a center of resistance against the central government in Jakarta. The first uprising-the Darul Islam rebellion-began in 1953 and ended only in 1961 after the central government promised to grant special autonomy status to Aceh. When this promise was not fulfilled, another rebellion erupted in the mid-1970s. Unlike the Darul Islam rebellion which sought to change Indonesia into an Islamic state, the rebellion in 1970s took the form of a secessionist movement led by the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka; GAM). Despite its defeat in 1977 after the Indonesian military launched a security operation, another GAM-led rebellion broke out again in 1989–and again the Indonesian government responded swiftly with another military crackdown.

This paper examines the purpose, consequences, and lessons to be drawn from the security operations conducted by Indonesian forces in Aceh since 1990. As the vested interests of the TNI and its emphasis on a military solution have contributed to an escalation of the conflict, it argues that the military requires an exit strategy to be followed by socio-economic reconstruction. The paper is divided into four sections. The first outlines the root causes of the conflict and discusses military operations during the period 1990-98 when Aceh was designated a Military Operations Area (Daerah Operasi Militer; DOM). Security operations in Aceh between the downfall of Suharto’s New Order regime in May 1998 and May 2003, when the government finally decided to impose martial law and launch a full-scale military crackdown in the province are explored in the second section. The third explores the conduct of the counterinsurgency operation during the first six months of martial law in the province. The final section looks at how the government’s failure to consider the wider context of the conflict undermines the relative gains achieved on the military front. While security operations during the 1990s contributed to the aggravation of the problem–due primarily to the failure of Indonesia’s litary to protect human rights–the military operation since May 2003 will not end the conflict in Aceh if the government fails to undertake non-military measures to address the root causes of the problem in the province.

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