Aceh: Slim Chance for Peace
Indonesia's efforts to end the separatist rebellion in Aceh entered a new phase in April 2001 with the launching of a military offensive against the guerrillas of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM). Three months later, the government passed a law conferring "special autonomy", or limited self-government, on the province. This briefing paper charts recent events in Aceh, updating two ICG reports in 2001 which analysed these two strands of Indonesian policy: military force and the offer of autonomy.
The military offensive has done some damage to GAM but the guerrillas do not seem close to defeat. The majority of the war's victims are civilians and both sides are thought to have committed atrocities in the last year, including mass murder. One of the worst periods of violence was in the district of Central Aceh in mid-2001, during which hundreds of people were killed by GAM, the military or local militias.
The military has had some success in improving its battered public image in Aceh, though soldiers still seem largely unaccountable to the law, and reports continue of civilians being killed. This lack of accountability is also true of the police, who have an even worse reputation. As for GAM, parts of the movement have degenerated into banditry, costing it some support in Aceh. Although civilian views are hard to assess in the midst of the conflict, disillusionment and despair appear widespread.
Against this gloomy background, the meeting between representatives of the Indonesian government and GAM in Geneva on 2 and 3 February 2002 was a welcome development. They agreed to turn the armed conflict into a political dispute and involve other Acehnese groups than GAM in the discussions. However, previous agreements along these lines were violated by both sides, and there is a risk the current round of talks will meet the same fate. There is a need for concerted international pressure on both sides to continue talking and to uphold any future agreements that are reached, or the war is likely to drag on for some time at great human cost.
Indonesian policy aims to balance military action with political and economic measures to win back the loyalty of Acehnese who favour independence. In practice, military action is still the dominant factor. The implementation of special autonomy, intended to reduce Acehnese grievances against the government, is still in its early stages, and progress on fleshing out the law with local regulations has been slow. The implementation of autonomy is likely to take some time, and its final shape is far from clear. Given that GAM cannot force Indonesia to leave Aceh and the lack of international support for self-determination in the province, some form of autonomy still offers the only realistic chance of an eventual compromise peace. Such a plan is unlikely to work, however, without further reform of the Indonesian military and bureaucracy, which are still largely unaccountable for their actions to the Indonesian public and to the law.
Jakarta/Brussels, 27 March 2002