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Indonesia to Lift Martial Law in Aceh Province - 2004-05-13

The Indonesian government is downgrading the status of its restive northern province of Aceh from martial law to civil emergency.

Indonesia's acting security minister Hari Sarbono announced the much-anticipated move after a regular cabinet meeting. The government imposed martial law in Aceh just under a year ago in an effort to wipe out guerrillas who have been fighting for a separate state for more than a quarter of a century.

The government has claimed several significant advances, with thousands of members of the Free Aceh Movement killed, captured or surrendered. Critics of the military operation countered that most of those killed were civilians and say the heart of the separatist movement (GAM) is still relatively untouched.

The security minister, Hari Sarbono, said that the change in status was the result of improved security in the oil-rich province. Regional expert Kirsten Schulze, who recently visited Aceh, says while security has improved, other factors contributed to the decision.

?I do not think he actually made the decision for security reasons, though,? he said. ?I think it is one of the issues, but I think he has made it for political reasons - that it will play better with respect to the next elections, the presidential elections, having Aceh not under martial law.?

Indonesia holds its first direct presidential elections on July 5. Incumbent President Megawati Sukarnoputri is facing a strong challenge from contenders who say they will take a different approach in Aceh.

There will be little change in the day-to-day life of the Acehnese. Running of the province will be turned over to a civilian administrator, but the security forces will remain and many of the civil liberties that were suspended under martial law will still be banned.

The insurgency in Aceh started as a struggle for a more equitable distribution of the province's mineral wealth, but the violence of the central government's attempt to suppress the rebellion drove many Acehnese to believe that independence was their only hope for justice. Nearly 12,000 people died in the conflict before martial law was declared last year.