Millions demand referendum in Aceh


By Sam King

BANDA ACEH — The mass action that overwhelmed Aceh's capital city on November 8 is undeniable proof of the people's desire for a referendum and their resolve to campaign for it. Some 2 million people took to the streets, in the estimate of all major Indonesian and Acehnese newspapers. The population of Aceh is just over 4 million.

Hundreds of thousands of people filled the massive grounds of the Masjid Raya (great mosque), the surrounding area and the adjoining streets to hear mostly student speakers who demanded a referendum and independence.

Hundreds of thousands more flooded the streets with convoys of trucks, vans and motorbikes carrying banners and wearing headbands, most with only one word — "Referendum" — others with the symbol of the armed right-wing Free Aceh Movement (GAM) guerillas.

Convoys began late on November 7 and continued through the next day. The main road from the east, Jalan Medan Aceh, had slowed to a crawl three hours out of Banda Aceh as early as the evening of November 7.

The action was organised by a coalition of the umbrella front Aceh Referendum Information Centre (SIRA) led by Muhammad Nazar, Student Solidarity with the People (SMUR) and other student and traditional Islamic student (taliban) groups. Building at the grassroots was done mainly by regular student and taliban activists.

The bulk of those attending were peasant farmers or other ordinary Acehnese. The largest numbers came from the north coast and northern inland, especially the Pidie district.

Members of GAM helped to organise transport from the countryside and unofficially watched over the action for provocation or aggression from military or police. GAM has confirmed its support for the demonstration's main demand of a referendum. This brings a new consensus of Acehnese political forces and adds further pressure on the Indonesian government.

The Indonesian media tried to sensationalise isolated incidents of cap-ripping (a cap is considered un-Islamic) or women being told to wear head veils in order to discredit the action as fundamentalist or anarchic. However, it carried an undeniably democratic character in its demand and was peaceful — the latter fact was attributed by most Acehnese to the total absence of military and police.

Mass action

The new movement, formed by pro-democracy student groups in 1998, has grown massively and without significant defeat for the last two years. It appears to have won over the overwhelming majority of Acehnese to supporting independence from Indonesia.

From the perspective of the Indonesian ruling class, a solution to the Aceh question is extremely important. The question dominates the media, front-paging every day in the national newspapers. The potential destabilising effect in other provinces is considerable if the Acehnese protest movement continues for long. Of greater concern to Indonesia's elite (and the rest of the world's) is that a mass movement makes it difficult for the Acehnese elite to consolidate its political leadership and control over the population.

A continuation of mass involvement in politics will favour the grassroots organising forces — GAM, student activist groups and GAM-influenced talibans.

Of particular interest is Aceh's massive natural wealth. According to Tapol Bulletin, Aceh contributes 11% of Indonesian government income and receives barely 1% of its expenditure.

Referendum Wahid-style

Under this mass pressure, President Abdurrahman Wahid outlined a confused referendum plan which contains three vague options: "total autonomy"; an economic redistribution scheme under which 75% of Aceh's income would remain in Aceh; and special provincial status.

The plan did not include a withdrawal of the armed forces (TNI).

"If East Timor can have a referendum, why not Aceh?", Wahid said on November 2 before outlining the referendum package. The announcement came as a surprise because, during a visit to Aceh earlier this year, he stated that only 500 people in Aceh supported a referendum, sparking student protest at the time.

Wahid's offer attempts to coopt a section of the Acehnese elite with economic concessions, in the hope they can win the population to accepting the package. However, it has focused the spotlight on the referendum question, causing panic in many of his ministers.

Amien Rais said a referendum is a "last resort" and "If Aceh separates we break". Golkar's chairperson, Akbar Tanjung, came out against any referendum. Vice-president Megawati Sukarnoputri has declined to comment, saying it's in Wahid's hands.

The national daily Kompas on November 12 quoted a group of active and retired generals, including General Try Sutrisno, as saying that the problem had to be solved within the framework of an integrated nation.

Large sections of Indonesia's elite are calling for major economic concessions and the trial of military members who violated human rights in Aceh. The media are tripping over themselves to report senior politicians, judges and other public figures calling for military perpetrators of human rights violations to be brought to trial.

The armed forces are widely hated for their bloody role, especially between 1989 and 1998, when an estimated 30,000 Acehnese were killed by military operations.

Moreover, talk of concessions is meaningless if human rights violations continue. On November 12, the daily Serambi Indonesia reported two civilians shot dead and five injured in an attack by police against locals in Samadua. Such incidents occur regularly.

Wahid's offer was immediately rejected by SIRA, SMUR and other student groups, because it excluded any option for independence. Muhammad Nazar was quoted in Serambi Indonesia as saying, "We don't need too many options; independence and autonomy are enough".

Asked by Green Left whether SIRA would accept a referendum on independence if the armed forces were responsible for security, Nazar refused to rule it out, saying, "Acehnese people are so united in struggle, it is unlikely an East Timor scenario would be possible".

SMUR has stated that it would reject any referendum offer that gave TNI control of security.

GAM has not publicly responded to Wahid's offer. However, its highest commander, Teuku Abdullah Syafei, was quoted in Kompas on November 12 as rejecting negotiations with the new government because it cannot be trusted.


A majority of the Acehnese provincial parliament has come out in favour of a referendum, while generally keeping tight-lipped on Wahid's specific model.

A pro-referendum petition was signed by the governor, Syamsuddin Mahmud, and the provincial parliamentary head, Muhammad Yus, on November 11. It also called on international organisations and the UN to help solve the Aceh conflict by pressuring the Indonesian parliament over human rights and to allow self-determination.

The document contained no reference to independence as a choice in the referendum or the role of TNI. In a press conference on November 12, Mahmud stated that while he is opposed to independence, it has to become a choice in the referendum: "It is the right of the Acehnese people; it's up to them".

This politicking comes as the Indonesian elite call for "intensified dialogue". Invariably this is phrased as "with the people of Aceh", without reference to which organisations might represent the people.

Elite pro-independence figures are mostly either little known or unpopular. This is largely because many politicians are only now starting to water down their support for Indonesian rule as it becomes apparent some form of political change is on the cards.

There are not many popular pro-independence figures outside of GAM because most were killed by TNI between 1989 and 1998. SMUR activist Arie Maulana told Green Left Weekly, "The rush of politicians and government officials stating their support for the referendum is an attempt by conservative elite political forces to position themselves at the forefront of the massive pro-independence movement so that they can control it".


Significant influence lies with political forces that may be unreliable friends of big business and the International Monetary Fund, especially if mass political action continues. The SIRA leadership is moderate enough to suit business but still has very close ties with the student and taliban movement.

The influence of SIRA's leaders relies on activists who build the mass actions. Moreover, they stand at the head of a huge movement and have to live up to at least some of the people's expectations in order to stay there.

The democratic student movement generally reflects the political outlook of Aceh's urban youth and probably a majority of urban Acehnese. They see their goal as winning independence and setting up a liberal democracy. The most radical and largest student organisation is the left-wing SMUR, which is part of Indonesia's National Student League for Democracy (LMND).

Taliban activist groups have few consistent political perspectives and do not offer leadership to the movement. Usually they align politically with GAM.

Easily the strongest grassroots political force is GAM. Most NGO activists in Banda Aceh accept the number of GAM guerillas as 5000. GAM now moves around the countryside with relative ease and enjoys unprecedented support. It has an armed presence right down to the village level and is highly integrated with rural communities.

In Pidie, north Aceh, most of east Aceh and Banda Aceh, GAM has a greater active military presence than TNI, which at the moment is able to carry out operations only over a short time before retreating to barracks. Every few days attacks are reported on military logistics and personnel. It is unclear to what extent these attacks are carried out by GAM or staged by the military.

GAM was founded in 1976. It aims to re-establish the pre-colonial kingdom of Aceh, an Islamic sultanate with Islamic law.

The focus on a referendum means that very little debate has occurred about what should happen after independence if it is won.

If you like our work, become a supporter

Green Left is a vital social-change project and aims to make all content available online, without paywalls. With no corporate sponsors or advertising, we rely on support and donations from readers like you.

For just $5 per month get the Green Left digital edition in your inbox each week. For $10 per month get the above and the print edition delivered to your door. You can also add a donation to your support by choosing the solidarity option of $20 per month.

Freecall now on 1800 634 206 or follow the support link below to make a secure supporter payment or donation online.