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Aceh: Can Autonomy Stem the Conflict?


Indonesia is offering broad autonomy to the province of Aceh in the hope of ending an increasingly bloody conflict with Acehnese separatists. The aim of autonomy is to allay Acehnese resentments at the political domination and economic exploitation of the province by the central government, thereby reducing support for independence.

This autonomy is encapsulated in a law now being debated by Indonesia’s parliament. Although its final details have yet to be determined, the law is likely to give Aceh a greater share of income from its natural resources, chiefly gas, to allow it the freedom to run its internal affairs, to refashion local government in line with local traditions and to base the legal system of the province on the Islamic Sharia. This “special autonomy” for Aceh is much broader than the “regional autonomy” applied across Indonesia since the start of this year.

Indonesia’s armed forces are currently mounting a military offensive with the aim of destroying the armed wing of the Aceh Liberation Movement (GAM). An earlier ICG report concluded that this military solution is unlikely to succeed because human rights abuses by the security forces will further alienate ordinary Acehnese. Since GAM cannot defeat the Indonesian forces either, and given that there is no international support for Acehnese independence, the autonomy plan is the only alternative at the moment to prolonged conflict.

ICG’s research for this report focussed on the better-educated, urban minority of Acehnese, whose views are nonetheless likely to influence public opinion among the largely rural population. This research suggests that if Acehnese were asked to choose now between autonomy and independence, a deep distrust of the government would lead most to choose independence. However, if autonomy reduces poverty and brings people in Aceh a greater sense of justice and identification with the governance of their province, then support for independence may gradually diminish.

There are varying views within Aceh on the merits of autonomy. GAM is opposed, because it wants independence, and the movement’s control over large parts of Aceh’s territory means that it may be able to block or impair the implementation of autonomy in many places. Acehnese legislators in the provincial and national parliaments are in favour of autonomy and played a key role in designing the law, but they appear to command only weak legitimacy in much of Aceh.

Some religious leaders and NGO activists support self-determination for Aceh via a referendum on independence, an event ruled out by Jakarta. Others believe autonomy is a good option, while yet others assert that the priority is peace, irrespective of political arrangements. After a history of broken promises by the government that dates back to the 1950s, there is little belief in Aceh that Jakarta means to implement the autonomy law in good faith.

Amongst those Acehnese who are prepared to consider autonomy as an alternative to independence, the redistribution of revenues is considered the most important issue, followed by clauses in the draft law that would give the province a greater say in its own security arrangements. The latter clauses may not survive into the final law, however, because of objections by the Indonesian military and police. Many Acehnese may support the application of Islamic Sharia to the legal system, but this provision is not generally seen as relevant to the conflict or acceptable as a substitute for political and financial autonomy.

Autonomy will have to be implemented in the midst of a conflict in which both armed sides use murder and terror to intimidate civilians. GAM could prevent autonomy from being successfully implemented in areas under its control by blocking or disrupting government programs. The widespread practices of murder, torture and robbery by members of the Indonesian military and police could erase any goodwill that autonomy creates amongst the Acehnese.

There is also a risk that if the central government meets its commitments under the autonomy law in an ambivalent or poorly coordinated way, or if the implementation of autonomy within Aceh itself is not seen to be transparent, then many Acehnese will conclude that the government is deceiving them again. The likely result would be a rise in support for independence.



In order to ensure the successful implementation of a special autonomy law that reflects the aspirations of the Acehnese and reduces support for independence, it would be appropriate for the Government of Indonesia to consider the following steps:

In the short term:

1. Ensure that the final version of the autonomy law is as close as possible to the draft law submitted by Acehnese legislators

2. Cease offensive military operations in Aceh, which are likely to erode any goodwill gained through the autonomy law.

3. Resume the legal process initiated by the Independent Commission on Aceh for human rights abuses by the military, using court trials to establish the command responsibility for such abuses

4. Consider wider compensation for victims of military and police abuses

After the special autonomy law is passed:

5. Appoint a Coordinating Minister or Special Minister for Aceh, with the task of overseeing all aspects of Aceh policy

6. Ensure that all funds due to Aceh under the special autonomy law are obtained promptly and in full by the provincial government

7. Make public the amount of funds that Aceh can expect each year under special autonomy and the calculations by which this amount is decided

8. Continue negotiations with GAM on the future of Aceh, with a view to involving other Acehnese parties (such as NGOs and ulama) as soon as is practicable.

9. Ensure that the forthcoming revision of the national election law allows political parties based on one province, and that the law’s provisions are not so restrictive as to prevent GAM members joining such a party.


10. Prioritise development spending on small-scale, labour-intensive projects that generate an immediate economic benefit for local communities, such as infrastructure repair projects using local labour and materials.

11. Involve local communities as fully as possible in the planning, implementation and monitoring of development projects, making use of locally accepted mechanisms such as musyawarah (a process of community consultation guided by local elders)

12. Ensure transparency by publishing public spending plans in the media and consider commissioning independent audits of public spending.

13. Involve NGOs as fully as possible in the monitoring of public spending, after a vetting process to ensure these NGOs’ suitability. The latter could be organised in conjunction with foreign or multilateral aid agencies.


14. Continue to press Indonesia to cease offensive military operations in Aceh

15. Make clear that continued human rights violations by the military and police in Aceh will incur tangible sanctions such as the suspension of existing military cooperation and sales of military equipment

16. Insist that humanitarian workers be given full access to the field in Aceh, and that the security forces cease the intimidation of local NGO workers

17. Make clear to GAM that human rights abuses by its members, including acts of terror against non-Acehnese civilians, will lead to direct measures such as designation as a terrorist organisation or action to cut external sources of funds

18. Offer to provide technical assistance and training to support the implementation of autonomy in Aceh.

19. Consider ways to continue providing capacity-building assistance to NGOs in Banda Aceh, to help them act as monitors in the implementation of autonomy, even if conditions are too dangerous to work elsewhere

Jakarta/Brussels 27 June 2001


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