A massive offensive by the Indonesian army against rebels in the province of Aceh has raised fears that many civilians will be driven out of their homes, adding to previous waves of people displaced by the decades-old conflict.
The government's May 19 declaration of martial law in Aceh dealt a death-blow to a short-lived ceasefire, and was followed by an army offensive to smash the armed Free Aceh Movement, known by the Indonesian acronym GAM. Confirmed press reports of civilian victims of both GAM and government forces, along with physical damage such as the destruction of over 280 schools, suggest that analysts' warnings of mass displacement may be well-founded.
While the number of people who could be displaced by the latest fighting is difficult to gauge, immediately after the declaration of martial law, both the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and Indonesian Health Minister Achmad Sujudi were speaking of as many as 300,000 people. Eighty-five camps have already been set up around Aceh and in neighboring North Sumatra and Medan to cope with a minimum of 100,000 displaced persons.
The renewed fighting in the oil-rich province of northern Sumatra has exacerbated an existing refugee problem. The years of armed conflict that preceded the latest offensive had already driven many Acehnese into camps, where they were joined by fellow Indonesians who had been displaced by fighting elsewhere. Even before the latest offensive, some 23,400 internally displaced persons lived in camps in Aceh at the end of 2002, according to the People Crisis Centre, a non-governmental organization cited by the Jakarta Post.
GAM, founded in 1976 to seek autonomy for Aceh, has its immediate origins in resentment at repressive military behavior and the limited local control of and benefit from the province's rich natural resources. It is the latest reflection of long-established armed resistance to outside control of the area, which was held first by the Dutch and then by the Indonesian government. Jakarta gave Aceh the status of an autonomous province in 1959, but the political rights extended failed to satisfy many Acehnese.
Given this history and the most recent developments, there is little likelihood of a quick or long-lasting resolution to the conflict in Aceh. The probable effect of the latest fighting will be to dramatically increase the number of internally displaced persons in Indonesia, where ongoing conflicts smoulder in regions such as Timor, the Moluccas, and West Papua. Indonesians displaced by such conflicts numbered 74,000 in 2001, according to estimates by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.