Refugees and internally displaced persons in Indonesia: Aceh

Findings from USCR site visit, January 11-30, 2000
Internally Displaced Acehnese


1. As of late January 2000, several thousand Acehnese were internally displaced within Aceh. This number is much lower than in previous months, despite increased violence stemming from the conflict between the Indonesian military and separatist rebels (known as GAM). In July 1999, approximately 130,000-140,000 Acehnese were reportedly internally displaced. In August and September, that figure dropped to around 25,000-30,000, where it remained until the end of December 1999, when it dropped again to perhaps only a few hundred. In January 2000, that figure increased to perhaps 3,000-5,000.

The fluctuating level of displacement does not correspond with the level of military activity and human rights abuses, which, according to several international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), are as high as ever (each day brings confirmed reports of killings and disappearances). Rather, displacement seems to be a function of several factors, including manipulation by GAM in an effort to draw international attention to Aceh's political and humanitarian problems (the high level of displacement in the summer of 1999 was likely due in part to such efforts). The recent modest increase in displacement does appear to be a result of stepped-up military operations, including the widespread burning of homes and shops in certain villages. Yet, the Acehnese have experienced military operations for more than a decade and, while their fears are genuine, are inclined to remain in their homes for as long as possible and to return when conditions permit (e.g., when new housing is found). In addition, despite burning people out of their homes, in some areas the military has told villagers they will be killed if they leave - or do not return to - their villages.

2. The internally displaced are living in and around mosques, schools, and other buildings in Aceh, in conditions ranging from fair to inadequate. Acehnese student groups (which are supporting a referendum on Aceh's independence, generally through peaceful means) are providing logistical support for many of the camps for internally displaced persons, including organizing small amounts of assistance. Most assistance comes from private businesses and local NGOs, with a minimal amount coming from the government (primarily through the Indonesian Red Cross). To some extent, the lack of significant government assistance to the Acehnese (compared with that provided in West Timor and other areas of Indonesia) may result from the Acehnese people's refusal of such assistance.

3. Internally displaced persons interviewed by USCR said they fled their homes because the Indonesian military had come to their village, in some cases conducting house-to-house "sweeps" for suspected GAM members or supporters. They told of homes - theirs or neighbors' - being burned by the military and said their long history with the Indonesian armed forces led them to fear for their lives. They said they will return home if the military leaves their villages.

4. A small number of international NGOs are operational in Aceh, including: (1) Oxfam - several staff, based in the Acehnese capital of Banda Aceh, conduct primarily health services, water/sanitation, and capacity-building for local NGOs; (2) Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) - one staff and on-call consultants in Banda Aceh provide water/sanitation and health services); and (3) the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) - a small staff in Lhokseumawe, North Aceh, operating under the auspices of the Indonesian Red Cross, provides protection services for conflict victims and some limited assistance.

5. Local humanitarian workers and human rights activists in Aceh have been subjected to attacks and other abuse by both the military and GAM as they attempt to assist conflict victims, including the displaced. Detailed reports of violence, intimidation, torture, and disappearances indicate that humanitarian workers are in continual danger. While most reports cite abuse by Indonesian military and police, humanitarian workers also say many GAM rebels do not respect their work and sometimes harass or obstruct them.

Many of the workers and activists are student volunteers working for the Peoples' Crisis Center (PCC) in Banda Aceh. On January 14, 50 PCC volunteers began a hunger strike outside the Aceh office of the National Human Rights Commission, to protest the abuse of humanitarian workers and to call upon the Commission to take action to prevent it.

Most reports of abuse concern Acehnese workers and activists. Staff of international NGOs have said their presence in Aceh often provides protection for these local workers. However, there have some reports of international NGO staff being harassed, including having their offices searched. In addition, USCR staff and other international representatives of a human rights mission traveling through Aceh were harassed by members of the military and prevented by police from visiting certain sites where internally displaced persons were located. Such incidents indicate that all humanitarian workers, regardless of affiliation or nationality, are at least hindered in their work and may also be in danger.

6. In addition to displacement in Aceh itself, an unknown number of persons have fled Aceh for Medan, a city just south of Aceh in the province of North Sumatra. The displaced in Medan include not only native Acehnese but Javanese transmigrants. The native Acehnese have fled military violence; many are living with family or friends, while others are in shelters established by long-time Acehnese residents of Medan. The Javanese transmigrants say they have fled threats and abuse from native Acehnese, based on economic competition or suspicion about political sympathies. As of late January, 500 recent arrivals were living in a meeting hall about 20 miles outside of Medan. Most of them - including those with Acehnese spouses - say they do not wish to return to Aceh.

7. The political situation in Aceh is at a violent stalemate, despite President Wahid's optimistic assertions that a resolution is at hand. A referendum on independence appears unlikely, and most Acehnese say promises of greater autonomy are meaningless. While many Acehnese do not support all of GAM's tactics, and may even have reason to fear some elements of GAM, most appear to support the insurgency in general, given their common enemy - the Indonesian military. GAM has also engendered support by re-building homes burned by the military and providing some level of security. Often, however, civilians are targeted for their real or perceived support for GAM, or simply victims of the crossfire between the two parties.

The struggle between the civilian government of President Wahid and the powerful military establishment - a struggle causing much of the violence elsewhere in Indonesia - exacerbates the situation in Aceh (as do the tensions among the military and police branches). Some analysts believe the military could easily eradicate the insurgent threat but chooses to keep it at "a slow boil" to justify its own continued importance. In addition, calls for a more professionalized military, while well-founded, are unlikely to be heeded without significant economic reforms.

Many Acehnese leaders, as well as the student groups and organized Muslim clergy, are calling for a negotiated cease-fire between the military and GAM, with the assistance of a third party mediator such as the U.S. or UN (reports of Malaysia being discussed as a possible third party were met with resistance by many Acehnese). The military is unlikely to support such negotiations, so as not to legitimize GAM or give up its strategic advantage. Yet, without a halt to the violence, human rights abuses - and with it displacement - will continue.

8. Acehnese continue to resent not only the military presence but also the draining of resources from Aceh (rich in oil and natural gas), as well as Javanese transmigration. According to some international NGOs, however, the widespread support for a referendum has occurred only recently, mainly as a result of the well-organized student movement. East Timor's success in breaking away from Indonesia (albeit with much bloodshed) has also strengthened the separatist tendencies.

Recommendations from USCR site visit, January 11-30, 2000

Internally Displaced Acehnese


To The Government of Indonesia:

1. Treat internally displaced persons in full accordance with the UN's Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, with particular regard to their needs for adequate shelter, health care, and safety. Observe the Guiding Principles with regard to the prevention of arbitrary displacement.

2. Provide increased assistance to internally displaced persons in Aceh, through local chapters of the Indonesian Red Cross, local NGOs, and/or other agencies acceptable to both the government and the displaced persons.

3. Ensure that the military and police cease all human rights abuses against Acehnese civilians. Comply fully with international human rights and humanitarian law, including that governing internal conflict and the protection of civilians. Take steps to achieve an organized, professionalized military and police force trained in appropriate tactics, versed in applicable international law, and sufficiently compensated to lessen the chances of corruption.

4. Ensure that those responsible for military atrocities in Aceh during the military operation period known as DOM (1989-1998), as well as continuing abuses, are removed from their posts and prosecuted under a full and fair procedure.

5. Provide compensation to the victims of abuse and their families.

6. Take immediate and concrete steps to reach a peaceful, nonviolent solution to the conflict in Aceh, through dialogue with GAM and other relevant parties including student groups and religious leaders. Consider an immediate cease-fire as well as the possible involvement of an acceptable third party.

7. Ensure the protection of local, national, and international human rights and humanitarian workers in Aceh. Provide full access for human rights monitors going to Aceh, as well as for NGOs seeking to assist the displaced.

8. Cease new transmigration into Aceh (from Java or other parts of Indonesia). Take steps to ensure that any transmigrants wishing to leave Aceh are able to do so. Provide relocation assistance for those transmigrants who have fled to Medan or elsewhere and who do not wish to return to Aceh.


1. Cease all abuses against civilians and respect international law concerning internal armed conflict.

2. Respect the work of international, national, and local humanitarian workers and human rights advocates; refrain from any harassment of such persons.

3. Take steps to negotiate with the Indonesian government toward a peaceful resolution to Aceh's political dispute. Propose or accept a cease-fire and, potentially, the involvement of a third-party mediator.

To the International Community:

1. Press the Indonesian government to ensure that Indonesian military and police do not violate the human rights of Acehnese civilians, including humanitarian workers; to investigate and prosecute all reports of such abuse; to compensate the victims and their families; and to work to achieve a nonviolent solution to the conflict in Aceh.

2. Support programs to monitor displacement and assist displaced persons in Aceh and elsewhere in Indonesia. Consider expanding programs, where necessary, to ensure the protection of civilians and to provide adequate level of assistance.