Security Operations in Aceh: Goals, Consequences, and Lessons


Rizal Sukma

Policy Studies, No. 3


Washington, D.C.: East-West Center

Publication Date: 2004
ISBN: 1-932728-04-X
Binding: paper
Pages: ix, 58
Free Download: PDF


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.

Rampant human rights abuses and the military's failure to apply basic principles of counterinsurgency characterized the military operation during the 1990s. Instead of winning the hearts and minds of the people, the military planted the seeds of hatred and resistance among the general population. Even though by 1992 the military had managed to undermine GAM's military strength, it continued to conduct operations in the province until the fall of Suharto's regime in May 1998. Indeed, when GAM resumed its activities in November 1998, it soon found a pool of support from large segments of the society, especially in rural areas. Despite the decision by the post-Suharto government to grant special autonomy status for Aceh, the Acehnese continued to express their grievances over social and economic conditions in the province, which they saw as a result of the central government's excessive exploitation of natural resources and its politics of excessive centralization. And when their demands that the perpetrators of human rights abuses be brought to justice met with a culture of impunity, the resentment grew even stronger.

Political changes in Jakarta in the late 1990s put the military on the defensive and forced the government to change the security operation in Aceh from a military offensive to an operation to restore security and public order led by the police. Unlike the 1990s, the primary actor for security operations in Aceh was now the police and the military played only a supporting role. The transfer of command to the police did not, however, bring about any significant change in the style of the operation. The use of excessive force and violations of human rights by police and military personnel alike continued.

The post-Suharto period also marked the beginning of government efforts to find a peaceful solution to the conflict through dialogue with the rebels. After a series of peace talks facilitated by the Switzerland-based Henry Dunant Center (HDC), Jakarta and GAM reached an agreement on May 2000 to start a "humanitarian pause" in the violence to enable both sides to start finding a peaceful political solution to the conflict. The agreement did little to stop the violence, however, and officially collapsed in April 2001 when President Abdurrahman Wahid authorized another round of security operations in Aceh. Another agreement to find a political solution, the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (COHA), was signed on December 9, 2002. When COHA began to show signs of failure by April 2003, the military prepared for another showdown in Aceh. At the same time, demands and non-Acehnese public support that the government take resolute and firm action against GAM grew stronger.

The last effort to save the peace process in Tokyo, however, ended with failure on May 18, 2003. When Jakarta's demands–that GAM must recognize the Unitary Republic of Indonesia, accept the special autonomy arrangement for Aceh, and agree to immediate disarmament–were rejected by GAM representatives, COHA finally ended. The government, through Presidential Decree 28/2003, decided to impose martial law across Aceh and began what it calls Operasi Terpadu (Integrated Operation) in the province. Unlike previous military operations, the government this time has made it clear from the outset that the main objective of the campaign is to win the hearts and minds of the people. To achieve this purpose, the military operation is only one element together with a humanitarian operation, law enforcement, and governance.

After the first six months of Operasi Terpadu, it is not immediately clear how the problem in Aceh will be resolved. The conduct of the campaign still gives the impression that the military offensive against GAM constitutes the core component of the operation. The other three components are just additional measures to cope with the impact of the military operation on the population or to support the ongoing military offensive against the rebels. Such a military-centered operation might be able to undermine, if not eliminate, GAM's current military strength. But it is not clear how Operasi Terpadu will be able to eradicate the armed separatist movement but also to remove the conditions that sustain the people's resentment against the central government in Jakarta and their support for independence. Clearly Operasi Terpadu is not designed to address this fundamental problem. In other words: so long as the Indonesian government continues to emphasize a military approach in its Aceh policy, it is difficult to see how the political objective of Operasi Terpadu–curbing the Acehnese aspiration for independence by winning hearts and minds of the Acehnese–can be fully attained.