Conflict and Peacemaking in Aceh: A Chronology


  • The Netherlands begins efforts to colonize Aceh, which had been an independent sultanate for some 500 years. After a bloody 30-year struggle, the Dutch gain control but never fully conquer Aceh.


  • Aceh is occupied by the Japanese during World War II.


  • 17 August: Indonesia declares independence from the Netherlands.


  • 27 December: Following an independence struggle, the Republic of Indonesia achieves formal sovereignty.
  • Aceh contributed to the anti-colonial struggle and agreed to become part of Indonesia, a decision that the Acehnese soon come to regret. Initially, Aceh enjoys significant autonomy, but the government in Jakarta soon pursues increased centralization toward a “unitary” state.


  • 8 August: Aceh’s special status is repealed, and it is incorporated into North Sumatra province.


Female GAM combatants. Photo: The Acheh Times
  • Darul Islam rebellion in West Java; attempt to establish an Islamic state. Acehnese support the rebellion in an attempt to secure independence from Indonesia.
  • 1957: In order to pacify the region, the 1950 incorporation is reversed.
  • 1959: Aceh is granted “special territory” status. But the central government does not follow through on its promises, leading to continued dissatisfaction among the Acehnese.


Indonesian Military. Photo: The Acheh Times
  • General Suharto seizes power; hundreds of thousands of people, accused of being Communist sympathizers, are killed across Indonesia.
  • Suharto’s ‘New Order’ regime is based on the military as the dominant institution in virtually all aspects of life in Indonesia (concept of dwifungsi or dual function).The military consolidates its control over some of the most lucrative sectors of the Indonesian economy.


Female GAM combatants. Photo: The Acheh Times
  • 1971: Discovery of natural gas deposits in Aceh. The Arun fields become the source of about one-third of Indonesia’s liquid natural gas (LNG) production, and help Indonesia become the world’s largest exporter of LNG. But the land of the local population is expropriated without compensation, pushing many into poverty.
  • The Arun facilities are operated by Mobil, in partnership with Indonesia’s state oil company Pertamina and a Japanese company. Mobil (merging into ExxonMobil in November 1999) obtained the contract through kickbacks to the Suharto family.
  • Mobil’s contract stipulates that Indonesian soldiers provide security for the facility. Some 5,000 soldiers are effectively on the company payroll. Human rights groups say the company is complicit with these forces as they carry out killings, beatings, and rapes against civilians, particularly in the 1990s.
  • Natural gas and Aceh’s other resources (such as timber and minerals) are exploited mostly for the benefit of foreign companies and elites in Jakarta. Only 5 percent of the oil and gas profits remain in Aceh.


A banner calling for a referendum on Acehnese independence. Photo: The Acheh Times
  • Aceh’s special status is removed in all but name.
  • Excessive centralization, human rights violations, and unfair exploitation of Aceh’s resources contribute to the establishment of Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM, the Free Aceh Movement), with the goal of independence for Aceh.
  • By 1979, the small uprising is crushed by the Indonesian military. Mass arrests of GAM members; founder Hasan Di Tiro and other leaders go into exile in Sweden.


Photo: The Acheh Times
  • GAM fighters return to Aceh from Libya, where they have undergone intensive military training since 1986, and start a new rebellion.
  • In 1990, Aceh is declared a Military Operations Area (Daerah Operasi Militer, or DOM), essentially placing the province under martial law for the next decade.
  • Jakarta doubles the number of troops to 12,000, and largely suppresses GAM by early 1992. The military carries out massive human rights violations against civilians. An estimated 9,000 to 12,000 people are killed between 1989 and 1998.


  • Severe financial crisis throws the Suharto government into turmoil.


International monitors and representatives of the Indonesian government and GAM mark the end of the decommissioning of rebel weapons in Banda Aceh, December 21, 2005. Photo: Michael Renner
  • May: A popular uprising forces Suharto to resign. He is succeeded by Vice-President B.J. Habibie as the transition from dictatorship to democracy begins.
  • Habibie initiates a wide-ranging programme of decentralization and takes steps to limit the military’s political role. Many civil society groups spring to life, and the military becomes a target of severe criticism from all segments of Indonesian society.
  • However, the military’s business interests remain virtually untouched, and there is no reckoning with human rights violations.
  • 7 August: Aceh’s DOM status is lifted. But military units orchestrate violence to torpedo withdrawal promises and justify their continued presence. Mass graves of Acehnese civilians are discovered.
  • November: GAM resumes its activities. Although not everyone is in favor of GAM, or even of independence, the organization evolves into a genuine mass movement, reflecting Aceh’s growing alienation from Jakarta.


Mass Grave. Photo: The Acheh Times
  • October: Abdurrahman Wahid becomes President. Power struggles intensify as military leaders fear an erosion of their privileged access to power.
  • Wahid’s administration drafts laws that are to give Aceh a larger share of the profits from natural resources. But his proposal to conduct a referendum in Aceh is rejected by the Indonesian Parliament.
  • November: In a mass demonstration, 1.5 million Acehnese gather in Banda Aceh to demand a referendum on independence.
  • The military resumes a brutal counter-insurgency campaign in Aceh. During 1999 and subsequent years, civilian massacres take place, and several human rights advocates are assassinated.


  • January: Talks begin between the government and GAM, facilitated by the Swiss-based Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (later known as the Henri Dunant Center).
  • 2 June: “Joint Understanding on a Humanitarian Pause for Aceh” is signed (a ceasefire lasts officially until January 2001).
  • But military leaders are ambiguous at best, and some move to sabotage the agreement (through informers and anti-GAM militias). Violence actually increases.


House burned during conflict. Photo: Andrea Woodhouse
  • April: Politically beleaguered by impeachment proceedings against him, Wahid signs a Presidential decree giving the military a freer hand in Aceh.
  • July: Wahid is ousted. Megawati Sukarnoputri is appointed President, with the strong backing of the military and police elite, who enjoy a resurgence in their influence.
  • July: Megawati signs special autonomy legislation for Aceh, which is to give Aceh 70 percent of its oil and gas revenues.
  • But implementation, starting in 2002, is largely limited to the imposition of religious Shariah law (which many Acehnese say they did not want).
  • The prospect of more oil and gas revenues remaining in Aceh leads to new opportunities for corruption (jockeying for a share of the windfall among provincial government officials, the military, and others).
  • A total of 21,000 soldiers and 12,000 police are present in Aceh. GAM is believed to have 3,000 fighters.


University professors at the Aceh Recovery Forum discuss their role in drafting a new governing law for Aceh. Photo: Michael Renner
  • February: New peace talks commence.
  • 9 December: Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (CoHA) signed (leading to the establishment of peace zones and a Joint Security Committee, and raising the prospect of international donor funding for reconstruction).
  • Drastic reduction in killings, but failure to build trust and mutual confidence. No disarmament takes place. GAM acquires new weapons and fighters.


Villagers. Photo: Elizabeth Wong
  • March and April: Militias trained and financed by the military attack CoHA offices, leading to collapse of the agreement.
  • May: Negotiations in Tokyo, intended to revive and save the peace process, fail.
  • Subsequently, martial law is imposed in Aceh. Some 50,000 military and police forces launch “Operasi Terpadu” to eradicate GAM.
  • The military crackdown, including human rights violations, heightens resentment among the Acehnese.


Photo: The Acheh Times
  • 19 May 2004: Martial law ends, replaced by a state of civil emergency. This makes little practical difference to the situation in the towns and villages of Aceh, as violence and repression continue.
  • October: Having defeated Megawati Sukarnoputri in national elections, former General and Security Minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono becomes Indonesian president. His election manifesto included a pledge to seek peace in Aceh.
  • 26 December: An earthquake measuring 8.9 on the Richter scale occurs in the Indian Ocean just 150 km off the west coast of Aceh. The earthquake triggers a massive tsunami. An estimated 170,000 Acehnese perish in the waves.


A sign in the industrial city of Lhokseumawe celebrates the signing of the peace agreement. Photo: Michael Renner
  • Late January: Government-GAM peace negotiations begin in Helsinki, facilitated by the Conflict Management Initiative headed by former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari.
  • 18 May: State of emergency is lifted by the government.
  • 17 July: Government and GAM negotiators agree on a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), detailing the terms of a peace agreement. Among other provisions, GAM is to demobilize its fighters and turn in 840 weapons, and the government to withdraw all “non-organic” soldiers and police (forces that are not regularly stationed in Aceh outside of martial law).
  • 15 August: The MOU is signed in Helsinki.
  • 30 August: Indonesian government grants amnesty to GAM members, in accordance with the MOU.
  • 15 September: The European Union-led Aceh Monitoring Mission begins its work, supervising implementation of the MOU.
  • September-December: Decommissioning of GAM weapons and withdrawal of “non-organic” government forces from Aceh proceeds successfully.


The signing of the Aceh peace agreement ("Memorandum of Understanding"), on August 15, 2005 in Helsinki. Photo: CMI, Jenni-Justiina Niemi
  • March: In accordance with the MOU, the Indonesian parliament is to pass a new Aceh governing law to give the province greater autonomy and greater control over its resource revenues, to permit the formation of provincial political parties contesting elections slated for April.

Sources (selected): Lesley McCulloch, Aceh: Then and Now (London: Minority Rights Group International, May 2005); Rizal Sukma, Security Operations in Aceh: Goals, Consequences and Lessons, Policy Studies No. 3 (Washington, D.C.: East-West Center, 2004); Kirsten E. Schulze, The Free Aceh Movement (GAM): Anatomy of a Separatist Organization, Policy Studies No. 2 (Washington, D.C.: East-West Center, 2004); Sejarah Indonesia, “An Online Timeline of Indonesian History,”; Peter Kreuzer, “Aceh: Nach der Flutwelle Neue Hoffnung auf Frieden?,” in Ulrich Ratsch et al., eds., Friedensgutachten 2005 (Münster, Germany: Lit Verlag, 2005), pp. 115-124. Acheh Times,