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The mountainous province of Aceh consists of the entire northern tip of Sumatra, and guards the entrance to the most important sea-route of Asia: Malacca Strait. Almost all traffic over sea between West and East passes this sea-lane, and Aceh has been the first land for Arab and Indian merchants for centuries.

Peace after conflict in Aceh
A tsunami was needed to end decades of conflict

The insurgency in Aceh was waged by the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) between 1976 and 2005 in order to obtain independence from Indonesia. Destruction caused by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake brought a peace deal and an end to the insurgency.


There is a cultural and religious divide between Aceh and the rest of Indonesia as well. A more conservative form of Islam than is mainstream in most of Indonesia is widely practiced in Aceh. The broadly secular policies of Suharto's New Order regime (1965-1998) were especially unpopular in Aceh, where many resented the central government's policy of promoting a unified 'Indonesian culture'.

Centralizing tendencies of the government of Suharto led Hasan di Tiro, a descendant of the last sultan of Aceh, to form Free Aceh Movement (GAM) on 4 December 1976 and declare Acehnese independence. The main perceived threats were to Acehnese religion and culture from the "neo-colonial" government and the rising numbers of Javanese migrants. The uneven distribution of income from Aceh's substantial natural resources was another point of contention.

At first the guerrilla war of GAM was almost entirely unsuccessful, and the government appeared to have entirely neutralised the group by 1977. The group renewed its activities in 1989, apparently with financial support from Libya and Iran, fielding around 1,000 guerrillas. Although it failed to gain widespread support, the group's actions led the government to institute repressive measures. The area was given "Operational Military" status from 1991 to 1995. This measure, although tactically successful in destroying GAM as a guerilla force, alienated Acehnese people which helped GAM re-establish itself when Indonesian military was almost totally withdrawn from Aceh by order of President Habibie in late 1998.

Negotiations between the two sides, beginning after the toppling of Suharto, were endlessly broken off, and both the military and GAM were often accused of human rights abuses.

Second phase

In 1999, chaos in Java and an ineffective central government due to the fall of Suharto gave an advantage to Free Aceh Movement and resulted in the second phase of the rebellion, this time with large support from the Acehnese people. In 1999 a troop withdrawal was announced, but the deteriorating security situation led to re-introduction of more soldiers and troop numbers were believed to have risen during the rule of Megawati Sukarnoputri to around 35,000 by mid-2002.

Security crackdowns in 2001 and 2002 resulted in several thousand civilian deaths. Through out the conflict an estimated 15,000 people have been killed. The government launched an offensive and a state of emergency was proclaimed in the Province. The war was still going on when the Tsunami Disaster of 2004 struck the province. In November 2003 the martial law was extended for a further six months. According to a Human Rights Watch report, the Indonesian military committed widespread human rights abuses during the invasion and occupation, with more than 100,000 people being displaced in the first seven months of martial law and extra-judicial killings being common.

The peace agreement and first local elections

After the devastating tsunami in December 2004, both sides declared a cease-fire and reiterated the need to resolve the conflict. However, sporadic armed clashes continued to occur throughout the province. Because of the separatist movement in the area, the Indonesian government has had access restrictions in place on the press and aid workers. The Indonesian government has, however, opened the region up to international relief efforts.

It drew a lot of international attention to the conflict, wiped out many supplies, and killed many personnel from both sides. Earlier efforts had failed, but for a number of reasons, including the tsunami, peace prevailed in 2005 after 29 years of war. Post-Suharto Indonesia and the liberal-democratic reform period, as well as changes in the Indonesian military, helped create an environment more favorable to peace talks. The roles of newly elected President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Vice President Jusuf Kalla were highly significant.

At the same time, the GAM leadership was undergoing changes, and the Indonesian military had inflicted so much damage on the rebel movement that it had no choice but to negotiate with the central government. The peace talks were facilitated by a Finland-based NGO, the Crisis Management Initiative, and led by former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari. The resulting peace agreement was signed on August 15, 2005.

Under the agreement, Aceh would receive special autonomy under Republic of Indonesia, and non-organic government troops would be withdrawn from the province (leaving only 25,000 soldiers) in exchange for GAM's disarmament. As part of the agreement, the European Union dispatched 300 monitors. Their mission expired on December 15, 2006, following local elections.

Aceh has been granted broader autonomy through Aceh Government Legislation covering special rights agreed upon in 2002 as well as the right of the Acehnese to establish local political parties to represent their interests. Human rights advocates protested that previous human rights violations in the province needed to be addressed, however.

During elections for the provincial governor held in December 2006, the former GAM and national parties participated. The election was won by Irwandi Yusuf, whose base of support consists largely of ex-GAM members.

All text in this article is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License
Last revised on January 17, 2010
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