Aceh: How Not to Win Hearts and Minds
Aceh: How Not to Win Hearts and Minds
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Indonesia's Police: The Problem of Deadly Force
Indonesia's Police: The Problem of Deadly Force
Briefing / Asia 5 minutes

Aceh: How Not to Win Hearts and Minds

In April 2001, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister of Security and Political Affairs, gave a long interview on Aceh to Media Indonesia, a Jakarta newspaper. The interview appeared just after a presidential instruction had been issued authorising military action as part of a comprehensive strategy to address the Aceh problem.

I. Overview

In April 2001, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister of Security and Political Affairs, gave a long interview on Aceh to Media Indonesia, a Jakarta newspaper. The interview appeared just after a presidential instruction had been issued authorising military action as part of a comprehensive strategy to address the Aceh problem. Yudhoyono stressed that social discontent was at the heart of any insurgency and that winning hearts and minds of the local population was the primary goal of a counterinsurgency strategy, so as to reduce local support for the separatists.[fn]Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, “Aceh Perlu Keadilan Kesejahteraan dan Keamanan”, Wawancara  Dengan Menko Polsoskam Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono Seputar Kebijakan Komprehensif Penyelesaian Masalah Aceh, Jakarta, April 2001, p. 30.Hide Footnote “Our brothers and  sisters in Aceh want respect, justice, and prosperity”, he said.[fn]Ibid, p. 4.Hide Footnote

Those words are worth reviewing as Aceh prepares to endure the third month of a planned six-month military emergency declared by  President Megawati  Soekarnoputri  at  midnight  on  18 May 2003.[fn]The   official   name   of   the   decree   authorising     the
emergency is “Presidential Decision No. 28/2003 on the Declaration of a Dangerous Situation and the Imposition of a Military Emergency in the Province of Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam”. For background, see ICG Asia Report No.  47, Aceh: A Fragile Peace, 27 February 2003, and ICG Indonesia Briefing Paper, Aceh: Why the Military Option Still Won’t Work, 9 May 2003.
 Hide Footnote
 The government appears to have no clear objectives  in  this  war,  no  criteria  for   “success” other than control of territory and body counts, and no exit strategy.

Despite the strict controls exercised by the army (TNI) over information – the government has drastically limited access to the province, 

particularly by foreigners[fn]Presidential Decision No. 43/2003 forbids foreign tourists from going to Aceh and requires all other foreigners to get permission from the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights to travel there. Any activities by Indonesian or foreign NGOs that might run counter to the aims of the martial law administration are banned. All humanitarian assistance must be coordinated by the Coordinating Minister for People’s Welfare. The decision also imposes major new restrictions on the press.Hide Footnote – the message coming through clearly is that far from winning hearts and minds, Jakarta is managing to alienate Acehnese even further. Virtually everything it is doing now – forced participation in mass loyalty oaths, forced displacement of villagers, arrests not just of GAM fighters but of people branded “GAM sympathisers”, and background checks on civil servants – are tactics used before, to disastrous effect. They do not help end separatism: they generate more support for it.[fn]All these tactics were used during an earlier counterinsurgency period known as DOM (short for    Daerah
Operasi Militer). The DOM period officially lasted from May 1990 to August 1998 but was most intense from 1990 to 1992. The military was responding then to a genuine security threat but its response was so excessive that a newly resuscitated GAM emerging in the aftermath of Soeharto’s fall was able to tap into local resentment to mobilise widespread support. The present emergency is part of an "Integrated Operation" that also includes humanitarian, law enforcement, and governance components.Hide Footnote

The gravity of the security threat posed by GAM is not at issue. This is a guerrilla group that in  addition to routine ambushes of Indonesian military and police has engaged in targeted assassinations, hostage-taking,  arson,  and  extortion.[fn]

It is still an unanswered question as to which side is responsible for the burning of more than 500 schools across Aceh since the military emergency began. It is clear, from ICG interviews, that GAM members were responsible for some. The alleged motivation may have been to prevent the schools from being used as billets for troops, to prevent them from housing the displaced so that the humanitarian problem would get more international attention, or to  ensure that they were not used to turn Acehnese children into  Indonesians.  But  most  Acehnese  with  whom   ICG spoke expressed scepticism that so many schools  could have been burned so quickly without some level of complicity on the part of government forces.

 Hide Footnote One NGO source told ICG just before the military emergency began that if the government had avoided a military response to the collapse of the 9 December 2002 cessation of hostilities agreement, it might have been able to take advantage of growing disaffection with GAM, even in some insurgent strongholds. With the tactics being used now, support for GAM in these areas could return. 

In the process, the notion of “special autonomy” for Aceh has been completely undermined. Not only is policy over everything – security, social welfare, governance – now directed from Jakarta, but also the additional revenue that Aceh was to receive from the autonomy legislation is being ploughed directly back into military operations.[fn]The deeply flawed Law No.18 from 2001 that granted
autonomy to the province of Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam has been wholly superseded by the military emergency. Perhaps the legislators in Jakarta who drafted that law  could actually turn that fact to advantage and plan a post- emergency consultation process with stakeholders in  Aceh
that could lead to an amended law with far greater legitimacy than the current one.Hide Footnote

While international criticism of the conduct of military operations is mounting, domestic criticism remains muted. This reflects the current  nationalistic mood that has led to popular support for a tough stance against threats to the country’s unity, as well as the control over information and the political manoeuvring taking place in the lead- up to the 2004 elections.[fn]In early July 2003, ICG asked a member of parliament from Golkar, the  former  ruling  party  that constitutes  the
major opposition to President Megawati’s Indonesian Democratic Struggle Party, why no one in his party had raised questions about the government’s Aceh strategy. “We have to wait until the Supreme Court rules on our chairman’s case”, he said. The chairman and presidential aspirant, Akbar Tanjung, has been convicted of corruption and is awaiting the outcome of an appeal to the Supreme Court. An acquittal would almost certainly be less on the legal merits of the case than the result of a political deal with Megawati’s party. If senior Golkar figures speak out against Aceh policy now, any Supreme Court deal could be jeopardised.
 Hide Footnote

All this means that the chances of returning to negotiations any time soon are slim. The military is determined to finish off the rebels, once and for all, and any non-military solutions have been put on hold.

Jakarta/Brussels, 23 July 2003

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.