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Last Updated: Tuesday, 24 February, 2004, 01:10 GMT
Aceh's war for 'hearts and minds'

By Rachel Harvey
BBC in Aceh

The Anti-Gam Front
Civilian groups have formed to help the military
It has been more than nine months now since the Indonesian government launched its military campaign in the north-western province of Aceh.

The stated aim was to crush separatist rebels of the Free Aceh Movement, known by its Indonesian acronym, Gam.

It was meant to be all over in six months, but it has not turned out that way.

The rebels have been pushed away from the major towns and roads, where the security forces now have control.

But elsewhere the fighting is continuing. And the death toll is rising.

According to figures provided by the military authorities, more than 1,300 suspected rebels have been killed, and around 2,000 have surrendered or been captured.

But the Indonesian military spokesman in the regional capital, Banda Aceh, Colonel Ditya Soedarsono, said the success of the operation should not be measured in terms of body counts.

"What we want is for our brothers to come back to the Republic of Indonesia" he said. "The main aim now is to win hearts and minds."


The security forces are appealing to the public for help. One group, calling itself the Anti-Gam Front, has responded to the call.

Its leader, Sofyan Ali, said the group was formed to stand up to what he calls the intimidation of the rebels, and to provide information to the military.

Claiming a membership of around 20,000, the Anti-Gam Front aims to have five people working for it in every village, but their identities are kept secret.

It's like an intelligence network with the people and the military working together to secure the area
Sofyan Ali
Anti-Gam Front
"These people gather information about the rebels and their sympathisers, and we then report that back to the TNI (the Indonesian military)" said Mr Ali proudly.

"It's like an intelligence network with the people and the military working together to secure the area."

The Front said it was not armed ("other than with bamboo sticks - but that is just a tradition left over from the fight against Dutch colonial rule"), and received no practical support from the military.

But under martial law, it must have at least the moral support of the security forces to be allowed to operate at all, and clearly the military are happy to use the information it provides.


Once captured, many Acehnese accused of being rebel supporters end up in what the authorities call "re-education" camps.

Camp residents here lectures on the virtues of Indonesia

One such camp sits on a hillside about half an hour's drive out of the town of Lhokseumawe.

Long wooden huts, with blue tarpaulin walls are gathered around a dusty parade ground.

Inside, benches with lines of plastic sleeping mats and buckets for washing mark the personal spaces of the inmates.

Banners on the side of the dormitories spell out a simple message: "If you support the rebels you will have nothing but grief. If you support the Republic of Indonesia you will get welfare."

Prisoners are held at the camp for five months.

Those who cannot read or write are given literacy classes. Others are offered practical skills such as motorbike maintenance or sewing.

But all are obliged to attend lectures extolling the virtues of belonging to the Republic of Indonesia.

And each morning they report for role call beneath a huge flag flying the red and white colours of Indonesia.

Mind set

The camp offers three square meals a day and some genuinely useful training. But with soldiers listening to every word, it is hard to be sure what the prisoners really feel.

They are our brothers and sisters, we're like a big family, so we have to bring them back to the right path
Lieutenant Tatok
Re-education camp

Many said they were forced to join the rebels, and were happy to have been given the chance to surrender.

Their tales of intimidation by Gam were plausible, yet some responses sounded a little rehearsed.

The security forces, however, seemed convinced that their methods would genuinely change the mind-set of the prisoners.

"I'm 200% sure this will work," said Lieutenant Tatok, one of the soldiers in charge of the camp.

"We recently let some of them out on leave, and they all came back on time. They even said they missed us.

"They are our brothers and sisters, we're like a big family, so we have to bring them back to the right path," he said.

The right path in the eyes of the Indonesian government is unquestioning allegiance to the Republic of Indonesia.

Under martial law it is very hard for Aceh's civilians to refuse. The test of such pressurised loyalty will come when the soldiers go home.

But there is absolutely no sign of that happening anytime soon.


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