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Aceh rebel chief with a bloody cause

Melbourne Age - June 11, 2010

Damien Kingsbury – Teungku (Lord) Hasan di Tiro, who led the bloody independence movement in the troubled Indonesian province of Aceh for three decades, has died of complications from leukaemia in the provincial capital, Banda Aceh. He was 84.

He had earlier suffered two strokes, which limited his activity in the final years of the Aceh separatist rebellion that he initiated in 1976. The movement was disbanded under a peace accord in 2005.

Hasan di Tiro was born in the village of Tiro, near Pidie in Aceh, and came from a long line of influential Muslim religious scholars. Notably, di Tiro was the grandson of Cik di Tiro, who was killed in 1899 leading Acehnese resistance to Dutch colonial forces that had invaded Aceh in 1873.

It has been claimed that when the Sultan of Aceh abandoned his besieged capital in 1874, he abdicated and made Cik di Tiro sultan. This claim was reinforced by the sultan not naming a successor when he died in 1907. Hasan di Tiro was thus widely viewed in Aceh as the legitimate successor to the Acehnese sultanate.

Following Indonesian independence in 1949, di Tiro studied in Yogyakarta and then in New York, where he worked part-time for the Indonesian mission to the United Nations. Following Jakarta reneging on an earlier autonomy agreement, Aceh joined the Darul Islam (House of Islam) Rebellion in 1953. Di Tiro quit the Indonesian mission in New York and set himself up as Darul Islam's "foreign minister".

The Darul Islam Rebellion ended in Aceh in 1962 when it was offered autonomy by Jakarta. However, the tumultuous political events of early 1960s Indonesia and then the establishment of the New Order government of President Suharto in 1966 meant that autonomy was never meaningfully implemented.

Di Tiro reappeared in 1974 when he unsuccessfully applied for a contract for what was to become Aceh's major natural gas field. With the increasing alienation of Acehnese from the Jakarta-dominated natural gas processing, in 1976 di Tiro established the Aceh-Sumatra National Liberation Front, better known as the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, or GAM).

He claimed that Indonesia was an illegitimate state and that Aceh should reclaim its pre-1873 independence. GAM launched its separatist campaign, including attacks on the new Exxon-Mobil LNG refinery. After being wounded the following year, di Tiro fled to Malaysia and then to Sweden, where he took out Swedish citizenship and oversaw the separatist struggle and GAM's political wing.

The separatist struggle rose and declined over the following three decades in response to Indonesian military repression and, in the late 1980s, the training of GAM fighters in Libya. The death toll of Aceh's brutal war has been estimated at between a low of 15,000 and more than 30,000.

In the 1990s, di Tiro suffered two strokes, which limited his capacity to direct the war. He continued, however, to be treated with great reverence by GAM political and military leaders, being referred to as "teungku" and "wali" ("saint"); all major decisions were put before him before action was taken. At the height of GAM's power in 2002, the organisation started by di Tiro controlled much of Aceh. In response to these successes, in 2003, the Indonesian army launched its largest ever military campaign, sending 70,000 troops and paramilitary police into Aceh, pushing GAM from most of its "liberated zones".

Following previous failed peace attempts, in 2004 the Indonesian government under the reformist President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono began to sound out new peace talks. This led to an agreement on December 24, 2004 to hold an initial meeting early in 2005. Two days later, the Boxing Day tsunami struck Aceh, killing about 170,000 people, destroying much of the province's infrastructure and adding new urgency to finding a resolution to the war.

Di Tiro was too frail to participate in the eventual peace talks but, through regular meetings in Stockholm, GAM negotiators received his blessing for each stage of the process. Di Tiro told this author that the final agreement – brokered in the Finnish capital, Helsinki – on genuine autonomy for Aceh was an honorable outcome and in keeping with the intentions of the earlier Darul Islam rebellion. He also endorsed Aceh's democratisation and the recreation of GAM as a democratic political party. Di Tiro's son, Karim, an American citizen, had much earlier given up interest in Aceh and in succeeding his father as "teungku".

Though very frail, Di Tiro returned to Aceh in 2008 and again, permanently, in 2009, taking out Indonesian citizenship the day before he died. He was buried in the di Tiro family cemetery next to his grandfather Cik di Tiro. He is survived by his wife, Dora, and son, Karim, who lives in Ohio.

[Professor Damien Kingsbury met Hasan di Tiro regularly between 2004 and 2007 and was adviser to the Free Aceh Movement at the Helsinki peace talks in 2005.]