Aceh, located in the northern tip of Sumatra, is considered one of Indonesia's three most "troubled areas" along with East Timor and Irian Jaya. The Aceh Merdeka (Free Aceh) movement has been fighting for a independent and Islamic state in Aceh since the 1970s.Aceh, also known as Acheh, Atjeh or Achin, is the westernmost part of Sumatra and the part of Indonesia where the Islamic character of the population is the most pronounced. The Acehnese demand for autonomy, expressed in support for the 1950s Darul Islam rebellion, was partially met by the central government's acceptance of a "special region" status for the province in 1959, allowing a higher-than-usual official Indonesian respect for Islamic law and custom. This special region status, together with growing prosperity, brought Aceh into the Indonesian mainstream. This change was reflected in the growing support among Acehnese for the central government, as indicated by votes for Golkar in national elections. In 1971, Golkar won 49 percent of the region's vote; in 1977, 41 percent; and in 1982, 37 percent. By 1987, however, with 51.8 percent of the vote, Golkar obtained its first majority, increasing it in 1992 to 57 percent.
Separatists who sought to establish an independent Islamic state in the Special Region of Aceh in northern Sumatra and combined their religious and nationalist appeal with exploitation of social and economic pressures and discontent, continued to cause unrest in portions of the region. Many Acehnese perceived themselves as disadvantaged in Aceh's major industrial development projects because income flowed out of the region to the center, and outsiders--especially from Java--were perceived as receiving better employment opportunities and the economic benefits of industrialization than did the resident Acehnese. A criminal element involved in cannabis cultivation and trafficking and other illicit activities was also involved in the unrest.During the early 1990s, the idea of an independent Islamic state was kept alive by the Free Aceh (Aceh Merdeka) movement, known to the central government as the Aceh Security Disturbance Movement (GPK). Thought to have been crushed in the mid-1970s, the guerrilla campaign of the insurgents, under the leadership of European-based Hasan di Tiro and with Libyan support, renewed its hit-and-run warfare in the late 1980s, hoping to build on economic and social grievances as well as on Islamism. But moderately pro-Golkar 1992 election results suggested there was no widespread alienation in Aceh. Aceh was put under Operational Military status in 1991 after a resurgence of separatist activity. Special permission is necessary for foreign journalists to travel to Aceh. Indonesian Armed Forces [ABRI] reacted with crushing force and, as it sought to root out the separatists, civil-military relations were imperiled. Soldiers fighting separatists have been accused of human rights abuses. Rights groups, citing local residents, say military abuses have involved abductions, tortures, rapes and mass killings.
As of late 1996 the Government claimed that the "Aceh Merdeka" movement had been eliminated, although Aceh was still officially listed as one of Indonesia's three "trouble spots" (along with East Timor and Irian Jaya), and the Government issued public calls for the "rebels" to come home to their families. The Aceh Merdeka movement still exists, but its activities were underground as of 1996. Early in 1998, several caches of foreign arms were discovered, which raised the fear of separatist rebellion developing in Aceh. The incident resulted in the arrest of suspected rebels who were imprisoned and threatened with torture. In addition, criminal suspects continue to be shot and killed by police in suspicious circumstances and disappearances and extrajudicial executions of alleged political opponents occur often. On 07 August 1999 armed forces chief General Wiranto announced a troop pullout and apologized for any excesses. With the revocation of the military operations area status, said Wiranto, the term "security-disturbing movement" (GPK) [government terminology for the Acehnese Muslim-oriented separatist rebels] is no longer relevant, and will be replaced by the term "unauthorized agitation movement" (GPL) or an agitation movement named after its leader.