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South-East Asia

Indonesian army revises deadline to deal with Aceh, as Muslim leaders indulge in sovereignty talk

Abdar Rahman Koya

Indonesian authorities in charge of the recently declared martial law in Aceh have announced that martial law has achieved "100 per cent" control of the territory. However, army chief general Endriartono Sutarto was quick to add that "of course we cannot say security is 100 percent guaranteed", according to the Jakarta Post (July 2).

How Jakarta defines ‘territorial control’ if it cannot guarantee security is a mystery. Such wishful thinking by the Indonesian army is typical of its policies in Aceh, especially since it launched an all-out war that has the ingredients of a typical US venture in the Middle East.

The announcement came only six weeks after the Indonesian army (TNI) deployed troops, fighter aircraft and tanks in Aceh to crush the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), which has been fighting for more than two decades for independence. Military officials then boasted that TNI would crush GAM within six months. Yet four days later the same general was saying: "It is too early to predict if we will be able to complete martial law operations within six months. But one thing is certain, the TNI will be unable to complete the military operations within six months," said Sutarto on June 6.

The generals had better deliver the goods for the politicians in Jakarta, for whom the presidential elections are just around the corner. Otherwise, they risk being the objects of condemnation when political parties and presidential hopefuls redefine their patriotism and seek ‘peace’ in Aceh.

The war in Aceh began in May because both the politicians and the army generals – one side seeking popularity, the other seeking a way back into parliament – hoped to derive some advantage from victory. The silence with which the West has reacted to the war shows that it too hoped for a swift Indonesian victory, in order to secure oil-deals worth billions of dollars. Banking on Javanese nationalism to secure backing for the war against the ‘secessionists’, Jakarta’s politicians may soon find out that they were too naive when they believed the generals’ promise to safeguard the country’s ‘territorial integrity’. Their panic is already showing: even unarmed Acehnese activists are being tried, while dissidents abroad – specifically those in Sweden, where the GAM leadership resides – are being pursued by various ‘diplomatic’ measures.

The truth is that Jakarta has achieved nothing since the attack on Aceh was launched; its only achievement is having killed civilians at a rate comparable to Suharto’s era. This time round, president Megawati’s government has displaced tens of thousands of civilians, who have fled from their villages because those have become targets of TNI’s ethnic cleansing. The government has also largely destroyed the Aceh’s infrastructure and civil life by its favourite method: the use of vigilante forces without military uniforms, as also happened in East Timor. More than 300 schools have been razed, an action which TNI blamed on GAM.

TNI, of course, denies any wrongdoing, yet usually the truth cannot be just swept under the carpet. So that it will not have to deal with the embarrassment of an open trial, it is embarking on some cosmetic "tribunals". On July 8 it court-martialled three junior soldiers for raping four Acehnese women during the current campaign, and the martial law chief ‘apologised’. Last month a paramilitary trooper was detained for raping a 15-year-old girl. Apologies, admissions of guilt and the recent military trials are little more than a PR campaign, designed to convince the international community that its operation in Aceh is like the one in East Timor.

For many Acehnese, TNI itself is synonymous with rape, torture and executions. Many of the accusations against it have been proven true in the past, as is now happening again. On June 13, Indonesia’s official National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) reported that even children were not spared. It described the killing of seven people: "Among them were children guarding the paddy and also other civilians. Without being further investigated they were told to walk and then shot one by one," it said.

Realising that reports by independent journalists are being confirmed, Jakarta has decided to ban them (or at least those not ‘embedded’ with the army) from covering the war-torn region, a move which has angered the media. When it comes to issuing threats, the Indonesian army has never minced words, and even told the media to display "patriotism". Jakarta only allows "embedded journalists" to cover events, and has restricted non-governmental organisations and foreign journalists "for their own safety." Whether this is an excuse, or an admission by Jakarta that its soldiers will not draw any line between civilians and fighters, is anybody’s guess. It could be either, or both.

When troops shot dead a German tourist and wounded his wife last month, it did not attempt a whitewash, instead calling the victims "stupid". The couple were travelling around the world by bicycle and were reportedly reading by torchlight when they were shot from a distance. If TNI cannot bother for foreigners (and westerners at that), one can expect even less for locals.

In Jakarta’s current ethnic-cleansing campaign, some truths may never be known. During the early days of the war, news began to emerge of TNI atrocities against villagers. These are far from surprising. Over the years many reports from foreign correspondents about executions of villagers by the army and rape of women have later turned out to be true, although TNI tried to implicate GAM in its crimes.

So far more than 50,000 people have become homeless, according to the Indonesian regime’s own figures; the real figure is bound to be higher if one also takes into account the tens of thousands trying to cross borders into Malaysia or other regions. Neighbouring countries, including Malaysia, which shares a common culture with the Acehnese, have now turned their backs on them. Yet Malaysia basked in the publicity of playing host to a few Bosnian refugees in the early nineties.

It is unfortunate that the world is mostly blind to the atrocities being committed by Jakarta in Aceh. Their most common argument is that Aceh should remain part of Indonesia, and the latter’s ‘territorial integrity’ should not be questioned. Even ‘Islamist’ organisations that have had close ties with GAM in the past seem to have ‘dumped’ the Acehnese, making this ‘sovereignty’ jibe, and decorating it with some pseudo-Islamic excuse such as "unity of a Muslim nation". The truth is that Indonesia is not one nation, let alone Muslim, even if a group of ulama have access to the president’s office.

The stance of Malaysia’s Islamic Party (PAS) also leaves much to be desired. Many leaders have been repeating the mantra of Indonesian ‘sovereignty’, as if ignorant of the archipelago’s history and the desire of the people of Aceh to break away from the hotch-potch pancasila system of governance. At the moment voices of sanity only appear among NGOs and some concerned Javanese politicians who realise what TNI is capable of. Even these NGOs – some of which are funded by interests in Australia and the West – are now realising the double standards of their masters, shown by their ‘neutral’ stance in Aceh, in contrast to their zeal for independence for the people of East Timor.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 32, No. 10

Jumada' al-Ula' 16, 14242003-07-16

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