The Free Aceh Movement (GAM): Anatomy of a Separatist Organization


Kirsten E. Schulze

Policy Studies, No. 2


Washington, D.C.: East-West Center

Publication Date: 2004
ISBN: 1-932728-02-3
Binding: paper
Pages: ix, 76
Free Download: PDF


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. These problems date back to promises made by Indonesia's first president, Sukarno, to give Aceh special status in recognition of its contribution to the struggle for Indonesian independence. The promises were broken almost immediately. Acehnese efforts to safeguard their strong regional and ethnic identity–derived from Aceh's strict adherence to Islam and its history of having been an independent sultanate until the Dutch invasion in 1873–presented too much of a challenge to Sukarno's "secular" Indonesian nation-building project. They were also an obstacle to the highly centralized developmentalist ideology of his successor, President Suharto. Political grievances were further underscored by perceptions of economic exploitation since the mid-1970s and Jakarta's security approach to deal with the insurgency rather an addressing the reasons for the widespread alienation from Jakarta.

This paper looks at the Acehnese conflict since 1976–specifically, the GAM insurgent movement. It presents a detailed ideological and organizational map of this national liberation movement in order to increase our understanding of its history, motivations, and organizational dynamics. Consequently this paper analyzes GAM's ideology, aims, internal structure, recruitment, financing, weapons procurement, and military capacity. Further, it discusses the inspiration AM has drawn from East Timor's successful struggle for independence–with respect to its attitude toward negotiations as well as its broad political-military strategy–and seeks to explain the dynamics and ultimately the collapse of the peace process between GAM and the Indonesian government.

Although this paper looks at the history and evolution of GAM since 1976, the primary focus is on the recent past. The fall of Suharto not only allowed the Indonesian government to explore avenues other than force to resolve the Aceh conflict but also presented GAM with the opportunity to modify its strategy and transform itself into a genuinely popular movement. In fact, since 1998 the Aceh conflict has escalated as GAM poses a more serious challenge to the Indonesian state. The insurgents have been able to increase their active membership fivefold, expand from their traditional stronghold areas into the rest of Aceh, and successfully control between 70 and 80 percent of the province including local government through their shadow civil service structure. GAM has grown from a small, armed organization with an intellectual vanguard into a popular resistance movement.

This transformation of GAM was the result of three key factors: first, the impact of Indonesia's counterinsurgency operations from 1989 to 1998 (conventionally, albeit incorrectly, referred to as a military operations zone); second, Jakarta's failure to ensure the implementation of special autonomy since January 2002 (coupled with the ineffectiveness and corruption of the provincial government); and third, the opportunity provided by the peace process from January 2000 to May 2003. The first two factors created powerful motives for the Acehnese population to join GAM: together they combined the desire to extract revenge for the brutality of the security forces with the alienation caused by the lack of significant change in the everyday life of the average Acehnese despite post-Suharto decentralization and democratization. The third factor created the space for GAM to broaden its strategy of guerrilla warfare on the ground to include political elements–most importantly internationalization. It also provided GAM with legitimacy and a platform from which to advocate independence. And finally, the absence of Indonesian military pressure during the 2000-2001 Humanitarian Pause and the 2002-2003 Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (COHA) enabled GAM to introduce a number of organizational changes, recruit, train, and rearm, all of which strengthened its military capacity.

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. Above all, this strategy shows that for GAM the negotiations were not a way to find common ground with Jakarta but a means to compel the international community to pressure Jakarta into ceding independence. For GAM the dialogue was about gaining world attention and support form the United States, the United Nations, and the European Union. Alongside deep-seated suspicion of Indonesian intentions and cease-fire violations by both sides, which created a destructive dynamic on the ground, this strategy of internationalization reveals why GAM did not opt for a symbolic act of disarmament during the COHA period and why it did not embrace regional autonomy tactically. Instead it increased both its membership and its arsenal during each cease-fire and used every opportunity to tell the people of Aceh that independence was imminent. Further underscored by the exiled leadership's belief that Indonesia is a failed state about to implode, internationalization goes a long way toward explaining by GAM refused to accept autonomy and refused to lay down its arms. This, among other issues, caused the peace process to collapse on May 18, 2003.