Indonesian national police chief General Rusmanhadi announced the beginning of a new six-month offensive against Islamic rebels in Aceh Sumatra on August 5. He said that 11,000 security officers, including both police and regular troops, would be involved in the operation.
The Muslim people of Aceh, who have long been struggling for the right to establish their own Islamic state, had already been subject to a severe military crackdown since early May, resulting in some 300 deaths and some 80,000 people fleeing from their homes. Indonesian military admitted on August 6 that 12 people had been killed the previous day, as police attacked Acehnese demonstrators at the end of a two-day strike called to support independence.
Acehnese people had earlier, on July 30, dug up a mass grave in the remote village of Beuteng Ateuh, where Indonesian security forces had attacked and killed villagers a week earlier. More than fifty bodies were found in the grave.
The army said that the dead Acehnese had been guerrillas who had attacked a military post. Villagers reported that residents had been rounded up in a school field for an identity check and then shot down without warning. Both sides agreed that Tengku Bantaqaiah, a former political prisoner, was among those killed. The military said that he was a rebel leader. Local people described him an a religious scholar who ran a local school.
One eyewitness who escaped the killing told the BBC that “they forced them to stand in rows, and then executed them”.
The latest round of violence dates back to early May, when troops cracked down in response to an Acehnese demand for a referendum on independence, similar to that the Indonesian government has agreed to give the people of East Timor. The difference in the two cases is that the Timorese and Christian and are therefore supported by the west, while the Acehnese have no friends anywhere. Forty-one Acehnese were killed in that initial crackdown, and dozens of buildings, including schools, torched.
Megawati Sukarnoputri, whose party won the most seats in the recent parliamentary elections and is now a front-runner for the presidency when it comes up for election at the end of the year, gave her first public speech for two months on July 29. She attacked the Acehnese claim for independence but promised to increase autonomy and give the Acehnese greater control over the area’s rich mineral resources.
President Habibie has ruled out any change in Aceh Sumatra’s status, saying that it is a completely different case from East Timor. In her speech, Sukarnoputri also insisted that June’s elections, whose results were finally formally announced late in July, had given her Democratic Party of Struggle a mandate to form a new government. It won 33.7 percent of the vote.
Habibie’s ruling Golkar Party came second with 22.4 percent of the vote. Two ‘Islamist’ parties followed them: the National Awakening Party controlled by supporters of Abdurrahman Wahid, the Chairman of the Nadhiatul Ulama (who has no formal position in the party), won 12.6 percent of votes, and the National Mandate Party of Amien Rais won 7.1 percent.
The two Islamic leaders, however, are bitter rivals. Wahid is close to Sukarnoputri, even though he is expected to run for the presidency himself rather than supporting her. Amien Rais played a major role in the Association of Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals (ICMI), a Suharto-approved organization through which the president aimed to appease Muslims. ICMI was led by Habibie.
Rais later went on to oppose Suharto’s rule and play a major role in the demonstrations that toppled him. Despite their Islamic pretensions, neither Wahid nor Amien Rais have serious support as Muslim political figures, as their electoral performances showed.
Whatever happens during the next few months, as Indonesia’s complex politics focuses on the question of the presidency, little is likely to change for the Muslims of Aceh.
Muslimedia: August 16-31, 1999