INDONESIA: Streets deserted on Free Aceh anniversary
BY MAX LANE
The cities and towns of the northern province of Aceh were almost like ghost towns on December 4, the 25th anniversary of the GAM, the Free Aceh Movement.
In the two largest cities, Banda Aceh and Lhokseumawe, all public transport vanished from the streets. The banks were open but there were no customers. Shops were closed all morning until Indonesian army soldiers appeared and ordered that they open, but they did little business.
According to Beureuh news service, the most silent area was Darussalam, the university and college town near the capital, Banda Aceh. All classes and lectures stopped. There was nobody on the streets. Even the banks were closed.
While not particularly popular in its first two decades, the GAM emerged as a symbol of resistance in rural Aceh after former dictator Suharto launched an all-out war against the then small group. Now, with more than 90% of the population seeking independence, the GAM flag has become a de facto national flag of independence.
In 1999 and 2000, December 4 was marked by the population raising the Acehnese flag. Prior to this December 4, the commander-in-chief of the GAM armed forces, Tengku Abdullah Syafii, issued a statement apologising to the Acehnese people for ordering them not to participate in this year's commemoration. In a statement sent to the Acehnese newspapers, Syafii said that this was "to protect the people given that the Indonesian Army is everywhere".
Colonel Yahya Sos, head of the local Indonesian army command, had already issued a statement ordering people not to join any celebrations and to continue their business as usual.
The main newspaper in Aceh, Serambi, quoted a signed instruction by Sos which stated "People do not need to commemorate GAM's anniversary because its presence only causes instability". His order also stated that "storing or flying the GAM flag is treason to the Acehnese nation" and "the Indonesian army and police [are] prepared to take strong action against certain elements that [are] obstructing the daily activities of the people".
Speaking to Green Left Weekly over the phone from Banda Aceh on December 5, Kautsar, the chairperson of the Acehnese Peoples Democratic Resistance Front (FPDRA), described the situation in Acehnese cities as one of intense military occupation.
"On days of great moment, like the GAM anniversary and even on Indonesian Independence Day, people feel they need to protect themselves against intensification of military repression. There are military on patrol everywhere: stationed at every government office, at all the bus terminals, at major intersections, everywhere. The people are under constant intimidation."
According to Kautsar, the most dangerous and threatening development was the increase in the number of military patrolling the towns in cars and dressed in civilian clothes.
Kautsar said that most Acehnese groups now accepted the assessment that there were 60,000 TNI troops in Aceh.
"There is more and more repression against any kind of political organising", he told GLW, "statements by military commanders now emphasise that organising by civilian organisations in the city are all machinations of GAM. To be accused of being GAM puts you directly in the firing line."
Kautsar himself has just been freed after five months detention for organising a peaceful protest against Exxon-Mobil's support for TNI activities.
"The military are especially keen to keep the urban and rural populations apart", he continued.
"Entrances to villages are kept under close surveillance. Urban people are quickly stopped and questioned and told to return to the towns. They want to keep urban people, especially if they are from political or civic organisations, from linking up with the discontented rural people. The statements about civilian political organisations really being the creations of GAM are a part of the attempt to isolate the civil democratic groups in the towns."
Kautsar explained that repression was also intense in the rural areas and that GAM was now almost only able to carry out armed actions. Open organising in the villages was now almost impossible.
There was also massive economic disruption in the rural areas. More than 20% of plantations, involving hundreds of thousands of hectares and thousands of workers, lay idle as workers leave areas where military clashes between TNI and GAM are most intense.
Other Indonesia-based human rights organisations confirm the intensifying militarisation. According to Kontras, one of the most respected of these, there have been more than 544 documented cases of extra-judicial killing since April 2001. Kontras says there are many other cases which appeared credible but which it had not been able to fully document.
The intensification began when the TNI established a powerful new body the Operational Command for the Restoration of Order, in January 2001.
"A ceasefire is crucial now", said Kautsar. "The Indonesian government and GAM have already agreed to a ceasefire but clearly Jakarta remains reluctant. We have helped form the Civic Democratic Coalition, comprising many of the civic democratic groups in Aceh, but not including GAM. We are also demanding that Jakarta and GAM start the ceasefire.
"Another part of the agreement between GAM and Jakarta reached at negotiations in Geneva was that all groups could campaign openly for their perspectives. This is not being allowed either."
Kautsar also stressed that any ceasefire must involve the United Nations or some other substantial international institutions.
"At the moment the only international monitoring is done by the Henry Dunant Centre, and it has neither the necessary authority nor resources," he said. The Henry Dunant Centre is a non-government humanitarian organisation established in Geneva on the initiative of the International Red Cross.
The Acehnese movement leader said he is confident that the members of the Civic Democratic Coalition will accept the risks and continue to organise despite them: "We know to that popular support for a referendum is still very widespread. The people are fanatics about a referendum and independence, but they are not wed to any particular organisation, not even GAM."
The Civic Democratic Coalition comprises human rights groups through to pro-referendum groups and also includes openly pro-independence groups, like FPDRA itself. Only GAM is excluded.
Explains Kautsar, "We are not opting for armed struggle. But we are still very hemmed in. We need to internationalise the Aceh issue but mainly prioritise work in Indonesia itself."
Kautsar explained there was now broad support among humanitarian, community and genuine democratic organisations in Indonesia for a non-military approach to the Acehnese questions.
"Many of these do not support independence for Aceh but autonomy, but they do oppose the Megawati government's military approach. So far it is mainly the Peoples Democratic Party that has a formal position of supporting a referendum on independence. Its leaders, like Dita Sari, raise the issue wherever they speak."
From Green Left Weekly, December 12, 2001.
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