ACEH: GAM leader: 'This is the moment to take action'

April 20, 2005

Suadi Sulaiman Laweueng, the Free Aceh Movement's (GAM) spokesperson for the Pidie regency in north Aceh, spoke to Green Left Weekly about the struggle in Aceh. The interview was translated by James Balowski.

Can you explain the situation there?

The conditions on the ground are indeed extremely repressive. Every single civilian has become "prey" for the TNI and police because of their failure to find a target in their hunt for GAM and the Aceh National Army [TNA].

Has there been any recent examples of the TNI's brutality in Aceh?

The most recent example in Pidie was the ransacking of the thursina pesantren (a traditional Islamic boarding school) that is located in Kampung Mesjid in Tiro sub-district. The aim of the attack on the institution was for it to be turned into an interrogation centre for civilians who have been arbitrarily arrested and detained by the TNI. This happened on April 5 and was carried out by the TNI's 515 infantry battalion and the army's Army Strategic Reserve Command, Kostrad.

The victims were tortured by being left with large vicious snakes who bit them. They were also tortured by being beaten with lengths of wood. So far, GAM has recorded data on four of the victims, all civilians from residential areas in Truseb. The TNI has also been arresting, detaining and interrogating civilians in other areas.

Other violations committed by the TNI and police include the creation of a militia whose aim is to play the Acehnese people off against GAM. This month, the TNI formed a new civilian team to hunt down members of GAM, this is the politics of "divide and rule". In this case, the TNI has promised a luxury housing unit in the North Sumatra capital of Medan to anyone who succeeds in killing a member of GAM or the TNA. This would be a blatant violation of "humanitarian law" anywhere, under which civilian non-combatants are guaranteed protection from those waging war.

One-hundred days after the December 26 tsunami devastated Aceh, how does GAM view the government's distribution of aid and is it serious about reconstruction?

Yes, certainly we have heard that the Indonesian government has planned a rehabilitation and reconstruction program for Aceh. But this is just to present a good impression internationally. The reality on the ground is that people won't get housing, sometimes even getting food requires prior consent from the TNI and police, because all of the aid from donor countries is collected at TNI and police barracks and offices. So there we can see new opportunities for corruption by people involved in the National Disaster Management Coordination Board (Bakornas). This was very obvious right after the tsunami occurred, initially aid distribution was handled by civilians then it was transferred into military hands.

Is there discrimination in the distribution of aid from the government and non-government organisations in those areas which are sympathetic to GAM such as Pidie?

There is! Refugees in the Muara Tiga sub-district of Pidie for example only received assistance 10 days after the disaster, they even had to hold a protest at the Pidie 0102 District Military Command. My own family experienced this kind of discrimination, I was forced to buy second-hand clothing for myself and my family. Meanwile the Muara Tiga district chief told refugees who were asking for assistance that they would have to provide for their own livelihood and not to expect that there will be any aid, this was reported to us by the refugees.

What about the program to relocate refugees into barracks? Has the situation become more difficult for GAM since the program was launched?

No matter how repressive the Indonesian military is in Aceh, GAM's activities have never been restricted and it is able to control the situation with the cohesion it has. However, it is very evident that new kinds of violence will be perpetrated against the people, in particular, the TNI will monopolise the people's economic life.

For example, the produce from crops owned by the people that were left over after the tsunami had to be sold to the military at low prices, far lower than the market price, while the people were desperately in need. On the other hand, we have also seen the recruitment of people into extremist and intolerant religious groups, this happened particularly when the agencies of donor countries were still in Aceh, on the grounds that there was an attempt at the "Christianisation" of Indonesia by Western parties. The international community should be aware that the struggle by the Acehnese people since 1976 until this day is a nationalist (independence) struggle, not a religious one, as has been portrayed by the Indonesian government.

How many members does GAM have and in how many areas does it operate? How and what is the main reason people become members of GAM?

Details on GAM's strength and the number of personnel and our weaponry is confidential but GAM is present throughout Aceh at the moment. Becoming a member of GAM is based on the Acehnese people's own desire to fulfill an obligation to defend their country. I became a member of GAM in 1999, based on the history I had studied and my own sense of obligation, there was no element of coercion by anyone.

Can you relate something about the daily work of its membership?

Our members usually stay in the barracks if there is no other work, we constantly hold discussions, our military leaders, teaching us to know about legal issues in our work, particularly about the rules of engagement which are related to the protection of non-combatants. There are those among us who also write opinion pieces on social problems during their free time in the barracks.

Have the Helsinki peace negotiations been positive and is it true that GAM's latest demand is for a ceasefire before a referendum is held?

In relation to the Helsinki negotiations, I am unable to answer because that's up to those who are directly involved in the peace process. The ceasefire that we declared after the tsunami was a "unilateral ceasefire", which was to facilitate the distribution of logistics to the victims of the disaster who were spread across a number of regions in Aceh.

How can the Acehnese people achieve independence and is GAM prepared to work with other social organisations such as students?

GAM is a government for the Acehnese people, its mandate to achieve an independent Aceh was given to us by the Acehnese people themselves, and under GAM is the TNA. So, all social components in Aceh are Acehnese citizens.

How can the international community build solidarity with the Acehnese people?

This is the moment to take action and to work. Because, in accordance with prevailing international conventions, everyone has the right to a decent and equitable life in all countries. The irony is that Indonesia is one of the countries which is included on the United Nations [conventions] but the various conventions which are in force have not been implemented.

So at the moment, the international community shouldn't get fixated with other international cases. Since Acehnese independence was proclaimed by exiled GAM leader Hasan di Tiro on December 4, 1976, human rights activists have noted that almost 100,000 civilians in Aceh have been killed by the Indonesian military. Aceh was closed to foreigners so what has taken place in Aceh over this period was only known by people in Aceh.

[On April 13, Green Left Weekly received a statement from Laweueng about two further abuses. It said that, as of April 8, all the people in two particular kampungs in Pidie were forced by the military to help with the military operation to find GAM-TNA members. On the first day of the return to Helsinki negotiations, the statement explained, this exercise involved the kidnapping of a truck driver, Ismail Pakeh.]

From Green Left Weekly, April 20, 2005.
Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.