ACEH: TNI signals permanent war against rebels

Issue 

BY JAMES BALOWSKI

JAKARTA — Delivering her progress report at the annual session of the People's Consultative Assembly on August 1, Indonesia's President Megawati Sukarnoputri said that, despite "occasional mishaps", her government had "put the country back on track". She claimed that after five years of "reform", her administration had achieved economic recovery, "subdued conflicts" across the country and "reduced the threat of separatism".

"Subduing conflicts" and "reducing the threat of separatism" refer to claims by the Indonesian military (TNI) that it is winning the war against the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) in Indonesia's northern-most province of Aceh.

Megawati added that martial law in Aceh would not last long and claimed the war to crush GAM was right, despite reports of many civilian casualties and widespread human rights abuses by the TNI. She did not say when the military operation would end.

For several weeks now, the TNI leadership has been hinting that the so-called integrated operation in Aceh will probably be extended beyond the initial six months of martial law, which was declared on May 19 (the decree allows for an extension).

In one of the clearest statements, Aceh military commander Major-General Endang Suwarya was quoted by the state news agency Antara on July 27 as saying, "What is clear, [is that] the operation to crush Aceh separatist rebels is not limited to six months. As long as those rebels [GAM] still exist, they will have to be rooted out."

In her August 1 report, Megawati praised the TNI and those Acehnese who have "worked hand-in-hand" to fight GAM. "Despite their shortages, soldiers and police have done their best to carry out the military and the law enforcement operations", she said. The government was ready to stop the military crackdown and reopen negotiations if GAM laid down its arms, Megawati claimed.

Acehnese legislator Ghazali Abbas, who has been staunchly critical of martial law, slammed the speech, saying it was aimed at maintaining Megawati's popularity ahead of the 2004 presidential election. "This [her speech] was delivered for her political interests on the eve of the presidential election, but it is contradictory to what is actually happening in the field. Let the Acehnese people assess the president's speech", he said. Abbas added that the offensive had claimed many civilian victims.

Unfortunately for Abbas, the legislators were given no opportunity to respond to the president's speech. Chatibul Umam Wiranu and Effendi Choirie, both from the National Awakening Party, said they had tried to interrupt the session to express their views, but failed. "I tried to interrupt, but the microphone is off", Chatibul told the August 2 Jakarta Post.

TNI gains ground

Although it is hard to make an objective assessment of the war in Aceh — since virtually all foreign journalists and observers have been banned from the province and the only source of information is via local journalists "embedded" with TNI troops or the military's media centre — over the last month the TNI appears to have gained ground against GAM.

The TNI claims that it has killed at least 600 rebels and seized 255 weapons since the operation began on May 19, while more than 1300 rebels have been captured or surrendered. It estimates that GAM has only 1300 armed fighters still active. Before the offensive, GAM was said to have 5000 fighters.

However, it is doubtful that the picture being painted by the government and military is as rosy as is being claimed. With the exception of one or two cases in which TNI-trained militias have "captured" alleged GAM members or their families, far from working "hand-in-hand" with the TNI and police, the Acehnese people are daily being subjected to forced evacuations, harassment, violence, ID checks and looting by troops.

According to a July 23 report by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG), "virtually everything [the government] is doing now are tactics used before, to disastrous effect. They do not help end separatism; they generate more support for it".

The report was referring to 1989-1998, when Aceh was designated a "special military operations" area. In that period, thousands of people, mostly civilians, died. As a result, popular support for GAM rose dramatically.

"The message coming through clearly is that far from winning the hearts and minds, the government is managing to alienate Acehnese even further", said the ICG report. "The government appears to have no clear objective in this war, no criteria for success, other than control of the territory and body counts, and no exit strategy", it said.

The ICG warned that the TNI's recent efforts to win over the Acehnese seem doomed for failure. "Ultimately, the Indonesian government needs to design a strategy for Aceh that builds on the three pillars cited by [coordinating minister for political affairs] Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono: respect, justice and prosperity", concluded the report.

'Negative impacts'

Central to the TNI's current strategy is to "separate GAM from the people". What this means is that troops enter an area suspected of being a GAM stronghold and forcibly relocate people to dirty, overcrowded and disease-ridden refugee camps, then sweep the area (often preceded by aerial or artillery bombardments) for remaining GAM members.

Not only does this result in massive disruption to people's lives, as they are forced to leave livestock and fields untended for long periods, but many residents return from the camps to find their homes destroyed and their possessions looted by soldiers.

On July 25, TNI chief Endriartono Sutarto apologised to the Acehnese people for the "negative impacts" of the war. Placing Acehnese in makeshift refugee camps "has only prevented [the Acehnese] from continuing their normal life", he admitted to the July 26 Jakarta Post. "Even if the refugees stayed in the camps for three or four days only, they found their homes looted when they moved back to their homes", said Endriartono. Endriartono vowed to prosecute soldiers involved in the looting spree.

According to a report in Singapore's Straits Times on August 2, a team dispatched by Indonesia's national parliament to review the progress of martial law operations returned with reports of human rights violations by soldiers and government officials. According to team members, there are indications that funds meant for housing and feeding refugees may have been used improperly.

The team also said the TNI needs to do more to avoid civilian casualties and fully explain the situations in which non-combatants have been killed.

Ahmad Farhan Hamid, a key member of the team, told the Straits Times: "Some of the people's reports are disturbing. Some legislators believe the government has to change how it operates there if this campaign is to succeed. Without proper treatment of the Aceh people, Indonesia will never truly win this battle against separatism."

He explained that Acehnese people, in the refugee camps and in the villages, accuse TNI soldiers and police (especially members of the notorious Brimob police units) of intimidation and extortion. People who use major roads said they were frequently harassed and asked for money at posts staffed by soldiers or police.

Another major complaint is that refugees are not receiving all the supplies destined for them. Aid packages, containing food, medicine and other necessities, that do reach refugee camps are said to be in an unusable state. Some of the medicines are past their expiry dates.

Willian Nessen convicted

In a move designed to remind the international media that Jakarta will not tolerate any reporting of the war in Aceh other than through the TNI-sanctioned channels, the Banda Aceh District Court on August 2 sentenced US freelance journalist William Nessen to one-month-and-10-days' jail. Nessen had already been detained for 40 days. He was released on August 3 and allowed to return to the US. He has been barred from returning to Indonesia for one year.

The charges against Nessen were absurd. Nessen, who had been travelling with GAM rebels in northern Aceh for some six weeks, was charged with violating his journalists' visa by writing for more than one newspaper, failing to obtain a press card, visiting Aceh without permission and not producing appropriate documentation when he surrendered to the authorities on June 24. Nessen's visa did not require him to write for a specific newspaper and the restrictions on journalists visiting Aceh came into force long after he arrived there.

Contrary to Megawati's stated desire to reopen negotiations, GAM negotiators who were involved in previous peace talks brokered by the Henry Dunant Centre and supported by the US, European Union and Japan are also facing ludicrous charges.

In May, five GAM representatives were arrested as they were about to depart for Japan to attend the talks, which were later sabotaged by Jakarta as a pretext to relaunch the war in Aceh. The five are facing charges of terrorism and treason — charges which carry a maximum penalty of death.

From Green Left Weekly, August 13, 2003.

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