Resumption of martial law in Aceh

On 6 November 2003, the Indonesian government announced that the existing state of emergency and the massive military offensive in Aceh were to be extended for a further six months. Meanwhile, international media and humanitarian organisations remain virtually barred from Aceh and their Indonesian counterparts are intimidated and harassed. The extension of martial law in Aceh, while hardly surprising to many observers, will further impede any outside assessment of the need for protection and assistance, and resultant distribution initiatives.

The Indonesian armed forces (TNI) have made the management of IDP camps and the distribution of relief goods to IDPs a high-profile component of its military campaign, which has also featured 'embedded' journalists. Such efforts, however, must be viewed in the wider context of TNI campaigns in Aceh, involving forced displacement of villagers, compulsory participation in mass loyalty oaths and rallies, and 'special screening' of civil servants and others for new national identity cards. These campaigns suggest that, in the current climate in Aceh, forced displacement is perhaps best understood as a strategy of war deliberately pursued by the TNI.

The problems of forced displacement due to the conflict in Aceh go beyond mere numbers, which have tended to fluctuate and, in recent months, have declined to an estimated 9,000 IDPs in designated camps. However, these numbers do not necessarily reflect the reported and sometimes repeated movements of people in and out of villages and towns due to the conflict. Within the refugee camps, it also remains unclear what kind of medical assistance is available, not least in view of the Indonesian government's vice-like grip on humanitarian assistance to IDPs in Aceh. (The budget for humanitarian assistance for Aceh is about $45 million - compared to an estimated $200 million for the military operation.)

Elsewhere in Indonesia, Acehnese have also found themselves the target of new forms of government surveillance and control. For example, the Indonesian military has established checkpoints to monitor the internal border between Aceh and North Sumatra. Such checkpoints, where travel documents and the new national identity card are required for inspection, create considerable difficulties for those seeking to leave war-torn Aceh for North Sumatra. There are also reports of a wider climate of fear and intimidation for the many thousands of Acehnese currently living in North Sumatra as IDPs. The Indonesian security forces have reportedly been keen to monitor Acehnese communities in many parts of the country, and the police have been particularly active in conducting regular 'sweep operations' in the capital city of Jakarta.

In neighbouring Malaysia, where the largest number of Acehnese outside Indonesia have sought refuge, the government has adopted a notably punitive regime on migration. Not a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, Malaysia introduced an amended Immigration Act in 2002 under which illegal immigrants may face mandatory whipping, considerable fines or five years in jail. More recently, during a joint press conference with President Megawati Sukarnoputri in late August 2003, (former) Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohammad declared that "Malaysia will not grant asylum to those who flee here from the war-torn Indonesian province of Aceh…. They will be treated as illegal immigrants, hence subject to arrest and deportation." Indeed, 232 Acehnese were reportedly arrested and detained outside the UNHCR office in Kuala Lumpur, and others were targetted in raids on several homes in Penang. Some reports have expressed concern that deportees from Malaysia to Indonesia are met at port by the TNI, only to be returned to Aceh, despite the ongoing armed conflict.

Despite abundant evidence of human rights abuses, violations of international law and a continuing humanitarian crisis in Aceh, the response of the international community has been muted. A recent joint US-EU-Japanese statement of concern over the extension of martial law in the province earned a sharp rebuke from Jakarta, their criticisms and demands for greater transparency and access quickly brushed aside. Against the backdrop of the global 'War on Terror', it appears that Jakarta remains free to wage a brutal campaign to reassert control over Aceh.


Eva-Lotta Hedman is Senior Research Fellow at the RSC. Email:


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