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Gerakan Aceh Merdeka: freedom fighters or terrorists?

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The Free Aceh Movement or Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM) portrays its struggle against the Indonesian state as a legitimate war of national liberation seeking to free the Acehnese people from the yoke of Indonesian-Javanese domination, repression and neo-colonial exploitation. In the eyes of the Indonesian government, GAM guerrillas have increasingly been seen not just as rebels but as criminals and even terrorists who have systematically targeted the Indonesian education system, the local government structure, and health services in Aceh as well as being responsible for some 300 kidnappings over the past year. This paper will look at GAM as a movement and as an organisation. It will discuss its political aims and ideology, its leadership and organisational structure, its strategy, the way it finances its struggle, and last but not least its support base. It will show that neither the term freedom fighters nor terrorists is an adequate way of characterising GAM as both only touch upon aspects of GAM. It will further demonstrate that GAM has evolved since its establishment in 1976 and particularly since 1999. It added a distinct political element to its strategy with the negotiations from 2000-2003. In fact, ‘internationalisation’ and the negotiations became the focus of GAM’s strategy. At the same time, with GAM’s post-1998 expansion, the nature of the movement on the ground in Aceh has changed. GAM today is no longer a ‘vanguard’ organisation of ideologues and idealists comprising doctors, engineers, academics, businessmen, and small farmers but a movement that is now attracting mainly poorly educated and unemployed young men as well as thugs, petty thieves, and criminals.

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