Shadia Marhaban on the Origins of the Conflict in Aceh Indonesia

The Free Aceh Movement (Jesse Grayman/Flickr)

The insurgency in Aceh, located on the northern tip of Sumatra in Indonesia, has been escalating in recent weeks. The Asia Society spoke to Shadia Marhaban, an activist in the region, about the origins of the conflict.

Shadia Marhaban has been working as coordinator of the International Network at the Aceh Referendum Information Center (SIRA) since August 2000. She worked previously with the Aceh Unity Front as a human rights activist focusing on women's issues. Ms. Marhaban also volunteers for the Srikandi Foundation in distributing humanitarian aid to refugee camps and to Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Aceh.

In an interview with The Asia Society, Ms. Marhaban discusses the background of Aceh's struggle for independence from Indonesia.

Can you please elaborate the nature of the colonial experience in Aceh and explain how it differed from that of the rest of Indonesia?

The British formally recognized Aceh as an independent state in 1819. While defining all of Sumatra as a Dutch sphere of influence, the 1824 Anglo-Dutch Treaty of London continued to recognize Aceh's sovereignty.

In 1871, Britain effectively reneged on its agreement with the Achenese, when it signed the Treaty of Sumatra, which gave the Dutch an entirely free hand in Aceh. Two years later, the Dutch began unrelenting efforts to to subjugate the Acehnese. Unlike the rest of what would become Indonesia, they never fully succeeded.

While guerrilla war ended in 1912, attacks continued on Dutch soldiers, and the great majority of Acehnese never accepted Dutch rule. Such was the antipathy to the Dutch, that the Japanese invasion was initially greeted with even greater support than it received elsewhere in the archipelago.

When, how and under what conditions was Aceh integrated into Indonesia?

In effect, the Acehnese were re-joined by the Javanese and others in the struggle against Dutch rule after Japan's defeat. The Acehnese played a crucial role in the 1945-49 independence struggle.

Because of the difficult conditions of that moment and Sukarno's promise of far-reaching autonomy and freedom, Aceh's leaders made a strategic decision to work under the Indonesian independence umbrella. It was a decision almost all Acehnese would come to regret.

The Free Aceh Movement (GAM) was born in December 1976. Can you explain the conditions under which agitation in Aceh began? Did this movement initially have much popular support?

The Free Aceh Movement or GAM was born in December 1976, but it expressed the century-old desire for Achenese sovereignty. As an organization, GAM initially consisted of intellectuals and students.

Part of the context of its birth was the discovery in 1971 of vast quantities of natural gas in North Aceh and the realization by GAM founder Hasan di Tiro and others that Acehnese would continue to be denied the benefits of - and even suffer because of - their homeland's natural wealth.

How much of a following does the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) have now? Who comprises its membership? How many people are directly involved in the movement? From where does it receive its funding?

GAM is the political organization; AGAM is the military wing. There are several thousand armed soldiers of AGAM, largely drawn from young men living in rural areas. But increasing numbers of women have become fighters.

Anybody can say they are GAM; many do. Just about everybody you ask will say they support both GAM and AGAM. They are seen as the cutting edge of the independence struggle. GAM and AGAM are largely supported by contributions from the Achenese people.

As an organization, SIRA takes no position on GAM. We have chosen to pursue independence through the demand for an internationally sponsored referendum.

Have the GAM always advocated an independent Aceh? Were they previously willing to negotiate with the central government for greater autonomy? What accounted for the shift from greater autonomy to independence through a referendum?

GAM has always advocated independence and never sought or negotiated for autonomy. Negotiations focus on ceasefires and humanitarian concerns. When Suharto fell, many Achenese came to believe for the first time that they might be allowed to express their sentiments through a referendum, as the East Timorese did and as President Wahid initially promised. This is still our hope, despite Indonesia's escalation of gross human rights violations, including torture, rape, assassinations and extra-judicial killings.

The Indonesian government has a large military presence in Aceh. Can you explain the conditions under which they came, how many military personnel there are, and what their ethnic composition is (and the implications of this)?

By most estimates, between 30,000 and 40,000 Indonesian security personnel are now stationed in Aceh, including thousands of Kopassus special forces. This represents an even greater Indonesian military presence than existed under the 1989-1998 Special Military Operation during which many thousands of Acehnese were murdered.

For a brief time under Habibie, Suharto's successor, and then during the first months of Wahid's presidency, some military forces were withdrawn. But as independence sentiments began to be more publicly and broadly expressed, the government openly reversed any facade of reform.

During the past several months, especially since the Inpres, the presidential order on Aceh, 1,000 more troops were brought in. As always almost all these troops are from the center of the Indonesian colonial empire, Java, which only further fuels Acehnese anger at almost all things Javanese.

What is Operation Rencong? How often, and for how long, has Aceh been under martial law?

Operation Rencong I, II, III are a series of coordinated Indonesian police and military operations in Aceh since Suharto fell. Rencong III marks a clear return to the severe policies of the period of Special Operations.

Aceh has been under military rule for nearly the past half-century, since Java took over the running of the Dutch East Indies territories.

When President Abdurrahman Wahid came to power, he indicated initially that he would permit a referendum on independence in Aceh. He subsequently qualified this offer to say that the only option presented to the Acehnese would be greater autonomy; what accounted for his change of heart?

Pressure by the Indonesian military, which is increasingly reasserting itself, and the dominant nationalist politicians forced Wahid to withdraw the offer of a referendum.

It is clear that at least part of the intransigence of the central government vis-à-vis a referendum in Aceh has to do with the substantial revenues it generates through its oil and gas reserves. How much revenue does it generate and how much goes to the central government?

Aceh is one of the two or three most lucrative provinces of Indonesia. Aceh accounts for between 30% and 40% of all Indonesia's oil and natural gas export production, bringing about $1.5 billion in revenues to the central government. Indonesia is the world's largest exporter of liquefied natural gas, whose sale generates 3 times more income than all other Indonesian exports combined.

The State Department said recently that GAM could be placed on a list of international terrorist organizations if it does not stop its attacks on ExxonMobil. Could you comment on this?

Placing GAM on a list of "terrorist" organizations would be a shame, as it is one of the key organizations representing the true independence desires of the entire Acehnese people.

But we should recall that Nelson Mandela was considered a terrorist, as was East Timor's Xanana Gusmao. The British thought a military leader named George Washington was a terrorist. Not bad company, I think.

Interview conducted by Nermeen Shaikh of The Asia Society.