ACEH: Indonesian-backed militia behind terror?

July 24, 2002


In the remote area of Aceh Tengah (central Aceh) there is a new and growing problem for the civilian population: the presence of Indonesian-backed militia. The rarely visited area has experienced a devastating attack on its social and economic fabric. The enclave's economy has almost ground to a halt, many schools and clinics have been destroyed, and whole villages burned or deserted. The smell of fear is tangible.

Official local government figures for 2001 state that more than 1900 houses were burned in this small district alone, and there were almost 400 conflict-related deaths. To the local population of only 300,000, this is a devastating blow. However, the real figures are substantially higher.

A local journalist (whose identity must be protected for fear of reprisals) has been keeping his own tally of the death and destruction. He alleges that more than 2200 houses were burned and 450 died. In addition, many people have disappeared (presumed dead), many others have been tortured and several thousand have fled the area.

Who is responsible for the havoc and destruction in Aceh Tengah? The official Indonesian government story is that the Aceh Sumatra National Liberation Front (ASNLF, more commonly known as the Aceh Merdeka or Free Aceh movement — GAM) or groups of unidentified persons are responsible.

The casual observer may be forgiven for assuming that this violence too, as elsewhere in Aceh, is the result of actions by the military and police. And to a degree it is. But there is a more sinister element in this remote area.

There are many allegations that the house burnings, killings and disappearances are carried out by groups of militia. These militia have allegedly been recruited, trained and armed by the military, and often operate in conjunction with them. But they also operate alone. There is strong evidence to link the army's special forces command, Kopassus, with the militia. It is now common knowledge that Kopassus was instrumental in the setting up of the militia groups in East Timor.

It is extremely difficult to prove a military-militia connection. But when one listens to the many witness accounts from various areas in Aceh Tengah, clear evidence emerges. The truth can no longer be ignored. There is convincing anecdotal evidence that these groups of "unknown thugs", often said by the government to be Aceh Merdeka personnel, are in fact well organised militia.

The militia are not merely backed by "rogue" elements of the military, but by the local commanders. Their mission is to seek and destroy members of the ASNLF and their supporters. In addition, there is a systematic attempt to destroy the economic and social fabric of this remote community.

An ex-militia member, now in hiding as he fears for his life, said: "We had orders from the army to make the Acehnese suffer. To show them they cannot win. To destroy their society."

Of the many stories of militia attacks, one was particularly troubling. Not because of the sheer brutality of it — there are many similar stories — but because of the severe state of trauma of the victim.

The victim is in a remote and "safe" village in Aceh Besar. The attack had taken place in Aceh Tengah but he had fled to safety. The identity, location and the date must remain undisclosed as the perpetrators were given to believe the victim did not survive the attack. Also, his family remain in the area.

According to "D", eight members of the militia came to his house looking for him. He was not home at the time and his wife told them she did not know where he had gone. When the militia eventually caught up with D, they accused him of being a member of the independence movement, which he denied.

The group then travelled to the outskirts of the village where D was beaten with an iron bar to force a confession. When the militia began to hit him around the head he feared he would lose consciousness. D begged for mercy. So the beating stopped — temporarily — to allow him to regain his composure. The torture then began again, even more viciously than before.

The militia then took D to the local graveyard, where, he says, "I was forced to dig my own grave. But I was very weak and the grave was shallow. I thought then I would die."

The iron bar was used to push him into the grave, where he was buried.

"When they had covered me with earth and everything was dark, they started to stab me with their bayonets through the grave. I passed out. Just before the darkness covered my brain, I thought of my wife and baby, and asked God to keep them safe", D recounted.

But by some miracle, D survived the vicious attack and woke up much later. He doesn't know how long he was unconscious. Unable to walk, he began to crawl toward the village. Friends found him and took him to the local hospital.

The mental scars suffered by D from this trauma are almost as visible as the physical ones. He speaks in barely a whisper, his mind frozen in the moment of horror when he thought he would die. His chilling account of what happened to him is not so unusual in Aceh.

How does D know the group who attacked were the militia and not members of the independence movement? According to D, the distinction is quite easy: "These people were Javanese. They looked Javanese, and did not speak Acehnese. Also, they were well known in the area as army-backed militia."

In Aceh, a struggle for independence has been raging for the past 30 years. In the past few years the ASNLF has been enjoying increasingly widespread support from a majority of the population.

Since 1998, about 5000 people have died because of the conflict, more than 500 this year alone. The number of deaths, disappearances, tortures and rapes that is generally attributed to the military and police (and now to the military-backed militia) is one of the reasons for the increasing support for the ASNLF.

[Lesley McCulloch lectures in Asian Studies at the University of Tasmania.]

From Green Left Weekly, July 24, 2002.
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.