ACEH: Yudhoyono betrays the Acehnese people

December 1, 2004

James Balowski, Jakarta

The new government of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has barely been in office one month but has already broken a key election promises — to seek a peaceful solution to the prolonged conflict in Indonesia's northern-most province of Aceh.

On November 19, the government announced it would extend the state of civil emergency in Aceh until May, the only change being it will be reviewed monthly and if there are significant but as yet undefined improvements, the order may be reviewed and adjusted accordingly.

Aceh was placed under martial law on May 19, 2003, after Jakarta sabotaged peace talks with the armed separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM). This was reduced to a state civil emergency on November 19, which has been in place since then.

It also launched its so-called "integrated operation" to win the hearts and minds of the Acehnese and destroy GAM, which it then estimated at some 5000 armed fighters. Eighteen months later it says 2500 remain — hardly a decisive military victory.

Human rights organisations say that most of the 2300 or more who have been killed, disappeared or imprisoned are civilians. Reports of torture, abductions and rape are widespread and the province is now the most corrupt in the country.

In making the announcement, Yudhoyono said that while "seeking a new approach", the operation will be carried out in a way which is "of a better quality, more concrete, with clear aims, implemented transparently and free of distortions and corruption". The status will be maintained to "safeguard the 'momentum' and continuity of the recovery in Aceh", Yudhoyono told Tempo Interactive on November 18.

Army chief of staff General Ryamizard Ryacudu meanwhile was quoted by the November 17 Jakarta Post as saying "We are only trying to bring about peace in Aceh and the decision to impose the emergency was taken to ensure the security of the people". He added that GAM still posed a threat so military operations would continue until they were eliminated.

The government has also ruled out any foreign role while also offering amnesty to rebels who give up their struggle. GAM spokesperson Abdullah Zaini has dismissed the offer and called on the government to return to the negotiating table.

Writing in the November 19 Jakarta Post, Damien Kingsbury, a senior lecturer from Deakin University said, "What the Indonesian government also seems not to realize is that opposition to Jakarta's authority in Aceh is not just from a handful of [exiled Acehnese] men in Stockholm and misguided idealists in Aceh. It is keenly felt by an overwhelming majority of Acehnese.

"This explains why, although GAM has suffered some losses over the past 18 months, it has been able to draw on a large reservoir of volunteers waiting to step up and fight. Martial law might have been intended to crush GAM, but as many predicted, it has not significantly diminished GAM's military capacity, and has only hardened the resolve of Aceh's population against the TNI [armed forces] and the government it represents."

Kingsbury points out that now, trapped by TNI-backed demands that GAM surrender and accept special autonomy as a precursor to peace, the government has imposed preconditions that make peace talks impossible. GAM on the other hand, has dropped most of its preconditions recognising that its claims will have to be negotiated — the very thing talks are about.

Critics have condemned the policy saying it is no different from the approach taken by the 32-year Suharto dictatorship which left some 13,000 dead when Aceh was designated a "special military operations" area between 1989 to 1998.

A November 20 editorial in the Jakarta Daily lamented, "It's appalling to see a golden opportunity slip through the fingers of former general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and prove to the nation that he is true to his word. People are asking, why did Susilo make a decision that, in effect, froze investigations into corruption cases in Aceh province, and cut into efforts to organise direct elections for local government? Isn't this counter to his own image as a reformer?"

"...It now looks as if Susilo's administration does not differ much from its predecessor, and Susilo seems to have forgotten the campaign promise he made a couple of months ago when he said he would bring change to Aceh once he became president."

On November 24, the defence commission of the House of Representatives told the Jakarta Post that the house did not support the extension and those parliamentary leaders who supported it did so in an "individual capacity".

Acehnese legislators too responded coldly complaining that they were not involved in the decision and called for a peaceful settlement. "As far as I know, the Aceh council never recommended that the president extend the state of civil emergency. Rather, we urged the government to pursue a dialog to deal with the problems in Aceh", said legislator Waisul Qarany Aly.

Aceh councillor Nasir Djamil called the decision a setback asking, "If the interests of the Acehnese people was one of the reasons behind the decision, what mistakes did we commit that we have to live under a state of emergency?"

Non-government and human rights groups have been unanimous in their condemnation.

At a press conference in Jakarta on November 18 (by which time the decision was known), the Aceh Working Group (AWG), the Centre for Electoral Reform (Cetro) and Indonesian Human Rights Watch (Imparsial) said the decision was "disappointing" and indicated that Yudhoyono's position is inconsistant with his campaign promises.

"We condemn the extension of civil emergency in Aceh. Although the decision has been issued and it is too late to be reversed and has made us ashamed, disappointed and angry, we demand that the government open up access to information in order to monitor efforts to uphold human rights and the law as well as access for humanitarian aid", AWG coordinator Rusdi Marpaung was quoted as saying by the Kompas daily on November 20.

On the same day the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras) — established by renowned human rights activist Munir, who was murdered on September 7 — issued a similar statement. "SBY [Yudhoyono] promised to resolve [the conflict in] Aceh peacefully and through dialogue with GAM. But not one of these promises has been fulfilled by SBY and this will definitely increase the Acehnese people's disappointment with the government", Kontras member Edwin Partogi told on November 18. "So Kontras is urging the government to review the decision ... and that the government and GAM return to the negotiating table", said Partogi.

On November 24 — in the first public demonstration since the Ramadhan fasting month ended — a coalition of activists from SEGERA, the Solidarity Movement with the People of Aceh, held a demonstration at the State Palace demanding the state of emergency be revoked, all non-organic troops be withdrawn, the perpetrators of human rights violations be tried and for both parties to return to the negotiating table.

People's Democratic Party general secretary Zelly Ariane told the crowd "What is so difficult to resolve the Aceh problem peacefully? Only because according to the government the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia is final. Final, why? Who decided this? Not the ordinary Indonesian people." Reihana Diani from the Women's Organisation for Aceh Democracy said the extension is evidence that the Yudhoyono government is pursuing the same militaristic policies as his predecessor Megawati.

Following the demonstration, action coordinator Lukman Hakim told Green Left Weekly that the extension will not resolve the problem and that on the contrary, it is an a-historical policy. "The extension of the civil emergency indicates Yudhoyono has no new approach to resolving the conflict peacefully. This is in total contrast with what he said during his election campaign, the very reason the Acehnese people voted for him."

From Green Left Weekly, December 1, 2004.
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