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Civilians, Rights Activists Targeted In Terror War

Aceh: Civilians, Rights Activists Targeted In Terror War

By James Balowski
Green Left Weekly.

JAKARTA — Amid mounting reports of civilian casualties and human rights violations by Indonesia's armed forces (TNI), the government is moving to suppress opposition to the so-called “restoration of security” operation in Aceh, Indonesia's northern-most province.

The “integrated operation” — supposedly aimed at winning the hearts and minds of the Acehnese people and an all-out military offensive to crush the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) — was launched after Jakarta sabotaged last-minute peace negotiations with GAM on May 18. The following day President Megawati Sukarnoputri signed a decree declaring martial law in Aceh for six months.

More than 23,000 people have so far fled their homes. The UN Children's Fund estimates that 300,000 people could be displaced in the next three months. In many parts of Aceh, there are food shortages, health services have collapsed, inter-city transport is paralysed, telecommunication and electricity services have been disrupted, public buildings destroyed and some 300 schools burned to the ground. The UN is warning that a massive humanitarian disaster is in the making.

On May 28, Jakarta claimed that the operation has been “nothing but a success” and is “moving faster than expected”. Officials say that 84 GAM members have been killed and 22 arrested — including several GAM leaders who have surrendered — with only seven TNI soldiers and three police officers killed.

GAM says that more than 50 civilians have been killed. The main hospital in the provincial capital, Banda Aceh, has received more than 80 bodies, most having suffered “traumatic deaths” and many showing signs of beatings and torture.

Following a May 28 ministerial meeting to evaluate the operation, armed forces chief General Endriartono Sutarto told the press: “Our original plan was that within two months we would identify [GAM's] locations and reclaim them, however we made it in only two weeks.”

While there is no doubt that the TNI has secured a temporary military victory against GAM, it is well aware that to maintain public support for the war in Indonesia it must minimise civilian casualties — or at least the reporting of them.

Soon after war's launch, reporters from Indonesia's largest television network, Metro TV, were firmly warned by the TNI after footage from Aceh showed a group of people wearing GAM symbols helping residents extinguish a fire at a school in Bireuen, North Aceh. Metro TV was told that its reporters would be expelled from Aceh if it continued to air such footage.

`Separating' GAM from the people

The TNI claims that GAM destroyed the schools to force the TNI to redeploy troops away from other operations. Journalists on the ground report that witnesses are too scared to identify the perpetrators. But according to the People's Forum, an Acehnese non-government organisation, the schools were torched by the same TNI-backed militias who had attacked international peace monitors overseeing the now defunct cessation of hostilities agreement between GAM and Jakarta in April and March.

This is consistent with government complaints that GAM is “mixing with the people” and the TNI's publicly stated aim of “separating” GAM from the people and forcing the rebels to retreat into mountain strongholds. Schools are frequently used as a place of sanctuary by people fleeing fighting or military sweeps. GAM fighters also hide in the schools, blending in with the people to evade capture.

On May 27, the British Independent reported: “Journalists are being routinely prevented from entering villages where alleged military atrocities have taken place. A crew car from Metro TV ... was fired on when it tried to reach one settlement by a back road. The Independent was questioned for two hours at a military checkpoint and threatened with detention after visiting a village where five men had been shot dead.”

The TNI says it will sue the Koran Tempo daily newspaper for allegedly publishing “incorrect reports” over the killing of 10 civilians — including several young boys — in a village near Bireuen on May 21. It may also sue the Agence France-Presse news agency, which Tempo quoted in its story. The AFP report has been independently verified by journalists from the BBC and the Melbourne Age who interviewed local people at the site.

Frustrated by the fact that journalists who want to get GAM's side of the story can just phone them, police are even attempting to control the sale of mobile phone recharge cards. On May 29, the Jakarta daily Kompas reported that in Bireuen, recharge cards have to be purchased from the district police station. Police say they intend to extend the plan to collect data from all shops selling phone cards in North Aceh.

Civilian deaths

Contradicting government claims that there have been few civilian deaths, a May 25 Amnesty International statement said that grave human rights abuses, including the extrajudicial killing of children and other civilians, are widespread.

In response, military spokesperson Lieutenant-Colonel Yani Basuki told reporters on May 25 that two soldiers and two journalists from the respected Tempo magazine had begun investigating the May 21 killings. Tempo's editor, however, asked why independent observers such the National Human Rights Commission (Komnas HAM) were not called in. The TNI said it “does not have the authority to do this” and “it's up to the government”.

Komnas HAM plans to dispatch a team to monitor military operations but it remains unclear whether it will receive the go-ahead which it says it needs from the military.

In nearly all the recent cases of extrajudicial execution, the victims have been young men aged between 12 and 20. The People's Forum says this is not new and that this age group is always the first to be targeted in TNI sweeps since they represent the next generation of GAM fighters.

Jakarta is now saying it cannot guarantee the safety of international NGOs. Coordinating minister for people's welfare, Jusuf Kalla, told Kompas on May 28: “[You] remember [what happened in] Atambua don't you? When there were UNHCR members who were shot, then it became an international issue and Indonesia was blacklisted by the UN.”

Kalla was referring to the murder of three UNHCR workers in West Timor after a rampage by pro-Jakarta militia in September 2000. Responding to letter sent by Kalla, the head of UN's Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Michael Elmquist said: “It didn't directly say a ban, but we have been firmly advised that it would be better for us to cease our functions in Aceh for security purposes.”

Aid workers say they are suspicious of Jakarta's motives and are concerned that worse human rights abuses may take place if foreign aid workers are barred from the province. Munir, head of the highly respected Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras) agreed, telling Reuters on May 27: “This is not about the safety of NGO workers. Without the international NGOs the military will have more space to attack the people.”

Munir added that the TNI must not stereotype NGOs as GAM sympathisers, as many of them work in the area of human rights, and had no political motives.

Human rights workers

The authorities are using the cloak of martial law to crack down on students and human rights workers, who they regard as GAM sympathisers.

Kompas reported that, as of May 29, 66 people have been arrested for being “directly linked” to GAM — some in sweeps conducted as far away as Jakarta. This includes five GAM negotiators who took part in the aborted peace talks. They are to be charged with treason under new anti-terrorism laws and could face the death penalty.

On the weekend of May 24-25, police raided a university in Banda Aceh and arrested a number of students who they claim were “probably political members or from clandestine movements [linked to GAM]”. According to the May 26 British Guardian, students who witnessed the raid — which was a two-hour-long violent attack on the students' union — said 15 people were arrested and that none were connected to Aceh separatists. “The students' version is given credibility by the fact that when they visited the students' union most of the eight rooms in it had clearly just been vandalised”, reported the Guardian.

On May 27, some 100 members from a nationalist youth organisation attacked the Kontras office in Jakarta and assaulted five staff members, in retaliation for its critical stand over the war. The mob identified themselves as the Pemuda Panca Marga, a staunchly nationalistic group whose members are children of veteran soldiers. The group used to be affiliated with the state party Golkar during the rule of former President Suharto.

Despite repeated calls for assistance, the attack continued for more than an hour before police arrived and the attackers dispersed. Central Jakarta police chief Sukrawardi Dahlan told the May 28 Jakarta Post that police had failed to appear because they “were all in a meeting”. He also admitted that he foresaw difficulties in arresting the suspects because the group was protected by the military.

Kontras has been listed by the military as one of the NGOs that would be monitored for alleged separatist activities. New York-based Human Rights Watch condemned the mob attack on Kontras: “The failure of the police to respond to these attacks on a leading human rights organisation sets a bad precedent for all groups working on Aceh. The Indonesian government must ensure that domestic human rights organisations are free to work and report on Aceh in safety, especially now that the province is closed to international monitors.”

******** ENDS *********

- From Green Left Weekly, June 4, 2003.
Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.

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