The Military’s Tracks in Aceh and Papua

Tempo Magazine
No. 23/VIII
February 05-11, 2008

Cover Story

Suharto used the military approach to deal with the Aceh and Papua conflicts, resulting in thousands of victims.

THERE was a time when Zarkani (not his real name) would ask everyone he met endless questions about his missing father. “Where is my father? Has my father died? If he did, where was he buried?” He kept on asking until about two years ago. Then the questions stopped.

Born in 1969, Zarkani has been traumatized since the age of 20, when his father was summoned to appear at the Krueng ABRI (Armed Forces) HQ in Pase, North Aceh. The Suharto government had designated Aceh as a Military Operations Zone (DOM). That was the last time anyone saw Zarkani’s father. He never returned home. It clearly affected Zarkani’s mental state. Once, Zarkani was found in a local mosque courtyard, playing in a pool of sacrificial goat’s blood, shouting, “This is my father’s blood.” At other times, he would build a mound of earth in his house’s yard, saying, “This is my father’s grave.”

Thousands of children in the land of Seulawah (Aceh) have gone through the same trauma as Zarkani. They wait for their fathers to come home. Days, weeks, months and years pass, but there has never been any news of their fates.

The military operations that lasted until 1998 began in early 1989 when about 300 Libya-trained armed members of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) returned to Aceh. Equipped with a specific ideology and weaponry, the GAM army attacked military and police posts in the area. The GAM’s guerrilla war against the government had begun.

The attacks began in Syantalura. A policeman guarding the Arun oil and gas refinery located in North Aceh was enjoying the morning air when suddenly a group of armed men stormed the  premises, firing at the police post. “A bullet hit a corporal,” said Ramli Ridwan, a former North Aceh Regent.

Fighting between the Indonesian Armed Forces and GAM rebels had been going on since Acehnese leader Tengku Hasan Tiro declared the formation of GAM on December 4, 1976. Indonesian security forces counterattacked. Seven years later, Tiro and other GAM leaders fled to Sweden. The movement was taken over by a younger generation of Acehnese, trained in Libya.

The critical situation led Aceh Governor Ibrahim Hasan to assemble regents and public figures as well as local military chiefs under the Korem 011/Lilawangsa, in Lhok Seumawe. They decided to take the matter to Jakarta. President Suharto immediately deployed 6,000 members of the Army’s Special Forces (Kopassus) to Aceh. Some 12,000 troops were to remain there until May, 1990. The operation was codenamed Operation Red Snafrie. Officers who led operations there were Sjafrie Sjamsoedin, Prabowo Subianto and Syarwan Hamid.

The military approach operation was typically Suharto’s way of dealing with regional conflicts. This method was applied to suppress rebellion in Papua. Since the December 1, 1969 referendum (Pepera) which validated the transfer of West Papua from The Netherlands to Indonesia, many Papuans were unhappy. They claim that the Dutch East Indies government had promised to give the Papuans independence.

On July 28, 1965, long before the referendum, a number of Papuan leaders, such as Ferry Awom, had proclaimed Papuan independence in Manokwari. They recruited Biak youths to wage guerrilla warfare. One of the strong guerrilla groups of the Free Papua Organization (OPM) was the Mandacan group.

Suharto ‘dealt with’ the security problem in Indonesia’s easternmost province by continuing to reinforce military troops. Former Cenderawasih Military Region commander, Maj. Gen. (ret) Samsuddin, who was assigned to his post in 1975, reported: “Toward the 1977 general elections, the situation in Papua was very tense. The troops had to secure certain areas during the elections.”

History notes that guns, mortars and blood did not succeed in restoring peace in Papua and Aceh. In Aceh, thousands of women and children were traumatized by the effects of the war. The National Human Rights Commission fact-finding team reports that during the DOM (in Aceh) period, some 3,000 women became widows and 20,000 children were orphaned-some of whom like Zarkani, have lost their sanity. Some women were raped.

It is the same story in Papua. Sociologist and anti-Pepera activist, Arnold Clemens A.P., was shot dead. As many as 10,000 Papuans took refuge in neighboring Papua New Guinea.

Papua continues to smolder. History has noted the bloody tracksof military boots in the two regions