TCS Daily

GAM and the Future of Aceh

By Yang Razali Kassim - March 9, 2005 12:00 AM

Within days of the tsunami disaster, several Indonesian organisations sent volunteers to Aceh to provide humanitarian relief. Amongst them were two Islamist groups, the Majlis Mujahidin Indonesia (the Mujahidin Council, or MMI) and the Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defenders Front, or FPI). The two groups set up a command post at an air force base in Banda Aceh to help bury the dead and distribute aid. The gestures of MMI and FPI were however opposed by the separatist Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (the Free Aceh Movement or GAM).

GAM's exiled leaders in Sweden issued a statement to say that the presence of MMI and FPI would be unhelpful to the cause of a free Aceh as the two groups' objectives were to establish an Islamic state. "FPI and MMI are not welcome in Aceh and have never been supported by the Acehnese people, nor has their presence been requested. Their intervention in Aceh is therefore counterproductive," GAM added.

The Indonesian military in Aceh however responded to the presence of MMI and FPI with conflicting signals. The army said sentiments against MMI and FPI were unfairly overblowing the threat from these groups. A military spokesman, Col. Djazairi Nachrowi, was reported as saying that volunteers from both MMI and FPI were doing good humanitarian work and should not be discriminated against just because of their militant tendencies. But the air force took a harder line, expelling several MMI volunteers from the airbase. An MMI official, Fauzan Al Anshari, said the air force did not give any reasons for the expulsion, but it was believed to have been under foreign pressure.

According to Al Anshari, there had been rumours that MMI could be linked to GAM. In reality, however, GAM and MMI are ideologically not on the same page.

GAM and Islam

There is a general misconception that GAM wants an independent Islamic state of Aceh. This misreading must have arisen from the historical fact that the struggle for a free Aceh first began as a quest for an Islamic state. Fiercely independent-minded, the Acehnese were, historically, the last to fall to the Dutch colonising power in the 19th century. They then joined a Darul Islam rebellion across Indonesia to set up an Islamic state in the 1950s when the incipient Indonesian nation failed to give Aceh a provincial status as promised. The Aceh revolt ended when the government in Jakarta gave Aceh the status of a "special territory". But by 1976, a new movement emerged calling itself the "Acheh/Sumatra National Liberation Front" (ASNLF), using the old spelling for Aceh. Also known as the Free Aceh Movement or GAM, it fought for an independent Aceh following Acehnese disillusionment with what they regarded as "Javanese economic and political domination".

Led by Teuku Hassan di Tiro, or Hassan Tiro, GAM was driven more by Acehnese ethno-nationalism than any Islamic ideology. Indeed, GAM's objective is a secular-nationalist state, not an Islamic nation. Hassan Tiro is ideologically more a socialist than an Islamist. GAM was formed by di Tiro along with a group of other foreign-educated Acehnese with commercial interests in the West. Indeed, GAM in its website, describes di Tiro as the president of Doral International Ltd, New York, a company active in such fields from investment banking and aviation services to petroleum, natural gas and shipping. However GAM in its initial years did not enjoy wide ground support in Aceh and its leaders subsequently moved to Malaysia, Libya and finally Sweden where several of its leaders acquired citizenship. It is from Sweden that GAM leaders like Hassan Tiro directed and rebuilt the separatist drive in Aceh.

After the fall of Suharto in 1998, Jakarta's strategy to resolve the separatist problem was to give the Acehnese people as much as they wanted -- so long as they remained within the unitary state of Indonesia. Hence Jakarta implemented a "special autonomy" package in 2001 that would provide for the return of 85% of oil and gas revenue to Aceh. More significantly, the special autonomy would allow the implementation of syariah or Islamic law, even though GAM has not generally demanded for syariah. It was a strategy to win over the "hearts and minds" of the Acehnese people and hopefully marginalise GAM in the process. GAM however refused to accept the special autonomy deal and the truce that took effect in December 2002 collapsed in March 2003. Jakarta subsequently declared GAM a terrorist organisation.

GAM and the Indonesian government have never been able to sit down to settle their disputes -- until the tsunami tragedy struck and brought them to the negotiating table.

So nature has succeeded in bringing the two sides together where politics has failed. The question is, will the talks lead to permanent peace and resolve a dispute that is as old as Indonesia itself?

Yang Razali Kassim is a Senior Fellow with the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.



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