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South-East Asia

Independence promised for Timorese, while genocide perpetrated against Acehnese

Hamid Papang

Even as the Indonesian regime was about to make the startling announcement that East Timor would be given a choice between greater autonomy within Indonesia or becoming independent, the Indonesian military perpetrated another massacre in Aceh, Sumatra. At least 50 people were shot dead on February 3; hundreds of others were wounded and scores are missing, presumed dead.

The massacre occurred outside the local military command in the village of Idi Cut, East Aceh in the early hours of February 3. People were returning home after attending a rally at the village of Matang Ulimat organised by the Free Aceh Movement (Aceh Merdeka) when they were pelted with stones by some ‘youths’ near Koramil, the military command in Idi Cut, in response to which some people described by witnesses as ‘troublemakers,’ mingling with the crowd started throwing stones. Almost immediately, three army trucks appeared and without warning, opened fired from their raised vantage point, killing and wounding a large number of people.

Troops had attempted to disrupt the rally, attended by 5,000 people, before it commenced. They destroyed the stage, beating and injuring many people, including a three-year old boy. They demanded that the rally be cancelled because no permit had been granted. Since thousands of people from surrounding villages were on their way already, the rally went ahead as planned. It was after the rally that the army went on a rampage.

According to witnesses, gunfire was heard for several hours, while blood flowed everywhere. Some of the survivors were driven off to a nearby police station in Langsa. Later that morning, as others who had taken refuge in ditches emerged, they too were arrested.

Soon after the massacre, the area where many people lay dead, dying or wounded, was sealed off by the army. Local residents said they saw army trucks being loaded with bodies. Later, the army forbade residents from searching for bodies in the long grass or clearing the bush surrounding a nearby village.

The day after the massacre, people learnt that some of the bodies had been taken to a bridge across the Arakundo river 30 kilometres away and dumped there. Within hours huge crowds converged on the spot to search for loved ones who had not returned home. Altogether seven bodies were pulled from the river. All had their hands and feet bound with wire and had sunk to the bottom because they were weighed down with stones in sacks tied to the bodies.

It is clear from the way the bodies were disposed that the army had gone to great lengths to conceal the scale and nature of the atrocity, to lie about the number of casualties and to shift the blame for the deaths. The local military command first said that only one person had died, which it later increased to three. It alleged that people in the crowd had started firing first, a claim vigorously denied by many survivors and witnesses.

A week later, the army claimed that Russian-made AK-47 bullets which are not part of their arsenal had been used, trying to shift the blame onto members of Aceh Merdeka. However, local residents picked up standard army-duty bullet cartridges bearing the markings of the Indonesian ammunitions company, Pindad, in the vicinity of the Idi Cut military command the day after the massacre. More Pindad bullets were recovered from wounded survivors and from the bodies found in the river. In defiance of everything already known about the atrocity, the army also alleged that the shooting took place at the site of the rally as the crowd was dispersing.

‘The scale of deaths from army atrocities in Aceh now exceeds the killings anywhere in the archipelago,’ said Carmel Budiardjo of Tapol, the London-based Indonesian human rights campaign organisation. She described the February 3 massacre as the worst since the Santa Cruz cemetery massacre in East Timor in November 1991 in which several hundred Timorese were killed leading to an international outcry. In a Tapol press release on Febraury 15, Budiardjo demanded: ‘Only immediate action by the international community can halt further loss of life which has turned the northern tip of Sumatra into a killing field.’

She also called for the UN Special Rapporteur on Extra-judicial Executions to visit Aceh as soon as possible to investigate the latest massacre as well as the thousands of killings in the region from 1989 until 1998 when Aceh was treated as a ‘military operational zone’ (DOM). Under it, a decade-long reign of terror was let loose in Aceh.

Since the beginning of 1999, the Indonesian army has been responsible for a new round of atrocities, under the special military operation, Operasi Wibawa ‘99, launched in Aceh. This followed the murder in late December of seven army officers and the kidnapping of two others, which were blamed on Aceh Merdeka. While claiming to be tracking down an alleged Acehnese leader, at least 21 civilians were killed in two separate incidents on January 3 and 9.

More than 100 soldiers raided a detention centre on January 9 where 40 men were being held. They beat four of the detainees to death and seriously wounded dozens more. A fifth man later died in hospital. Although a major and several officers were later charged, they were not tried for murder, only for assault, leading activists and lawyers to dismiss the trial as a farce.

The atrocities have led to calls for a referendum on whether the province should remain part of Indonesia. When the provincial governor, Professor Syamsuddin Mahmud, recently suggested that the best way forward was for Aceh and other Indonesian provinces to become part of a federated State, it elicited a sharp rebuke from Indonesia’s minister of justice, Muladi. He asserted that Indonesia is a unitary State, only to change this stance in the case of East Timor a few weeks later.

After Suharto’s downfall last May, many Acehnese men and women came forward to testify about the thousands of extra-judicial executions, disappearances, torture and rape. At least 12 mass graves were investigated and torture centres well known to local residents were identified.

Faced with irrefutable evidence of atrocities on a vast scale, the armed forces commander-in-chief general Wiranto made a public apology last August and announced the lifting of DOM. But much to the dismay of the Acehnese, this has not led to a single officer being prosecuted, many of whom have been identified by survivors or relatives of the victims. Many victims have named the men who raped them, in some cases in front of their husbands and children.

Far from reducing the number of troops in the region as promised by Wiranto, more troops have been brought in. The army high command in Jakarta has announced that it is considering placing Aceh under a separate military command or Kodam, instead of leaving it under the jurisdiction of the present North Sumatra military command. This would enable the army to design a special operational strategy for Aceh which is regarded as one of Indonesia’s main ‘trouble-spots.’

The human rights situation will continue to deteriorate unless the army halts its special operations and withdraws its troops from Aceh, not only the combat troops but also the territorial troops which make up the main force in the province. Tapol meanwhile has called for an international investigation into the massacres as well as a visit to Aceh by the Jakarta-based European Union diplomats to conduct an independent investigation and report back to the EU Council of Ministers.

Will the UN Human Rights Commission, which is due to commence its 1999 session in Geneva on March 22, send its Special Rappoteur to Aceh? The Acehnese are not holding their breath although the leader of the Aceh-Sumatra National Liberation Front, Dr Tengku Hasan di Tiro, sent a personal letter to the UN secretary general Kofi Annan on January 25 month. In it, he reminded the UN chief that Aceh-Sumatra had been a free State since time immemorial. It had never been a part of Indonesia whose troops are involved in a genocide spanning many decades.

Muslimedia: March 1-15, 1999

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 28, No. 1

Dhu al-Qa'dah 13, 14191999-03-01

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