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What are the Roots of Conflict in Indonesia's Aceh Province? - 2002-10-01

In Indonesia, a separatist rebellion continues to simmer in the western-most province of Aceh, despite nearly two years of negotiations aimed at ending 26 years of bloodshed. Southeast Asia correspondent Scott Bobb visited Aceh recently and has this report from the capital, Banda Aceh, on the roots of the conflict.

Life seems normal in the streets of this small provincial city on the western tip of Sumatra Island. Loudspeakers from sidewalk music stores compete for customers as people pass by, heading to market. Most, but not all, of the women wear the head scarf called Jilbab, that covers all but their faces.

Families and jobless youths lounge on the grass surrounding the city's main mosque, a stately compound of whitewashed minarets and spiraling black domes that dates back to the time of the sultans.

Underneath the placid town life, however, lurks fear. Most of these inhabitants know someone who is a victim of the violence that has plagued the region for a quarter-century.

Historically, the Acehnese were among the first people of Indonesia to come into contact with Islam, in the seventh century, and most are still devoted to their religion. They also cherish their language and culture. As a result, the struggle for Acehnese independence is often blamed on religious and ethnic reasons.

Aceh was promised political autonomy by Indonesia's first president, Sukarno, but this was abandoned under his successor, former president Suharto, leading rebels of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) to declare independence in 1976. In response to rebel attacks, the Suharto government placed Aceh under military administration in 1989 and launched a decade of brutal repression.

Since the fall of former president Suharto four years ago, the Indonesian government has tried to appease the Acehnese by introducing Islamic law, or Sharia. But religious leaders here, like Imam Suja of the Muhammadiyah Muslim organization, say Sharia is an imposition aimed at undermining Acehnese aspirations and is "not one of the solutions to the conflict in Aceh."

The head of graduate studies at the Islamic university in Banda Aceh, Yusni Saby, agrees. "I don't believe there's religious or ethnic conflict. This is sheer political and economic conflict," he said.

Local leaders say a major source of the conflict is economic exploitation. They note because of its mineral resources, Aceh is one of the wealthiest provinces in Indonesia, but in terms of per capita income, it is one of the poorest.

Many, like civic leader Muhammad Nazar, say some officials are profiting personally from the conflict. "The military and the police always exploit[ed] the corporations and the local elite's here, and also sometimes they are involved in the marijuana sales overseas and at the national level," Mr. Nazar said.

They say some rebels also may also be involved in the illegal drug trade and are known to extort money, in the name of a tax, from wealthier citizens and businesses.

An analyst with Jakarta's Center for Strategic Studies, Rizal Sukna, says a main root of the conflict is the history of abuse in Aceh. "A [final] source of trouble is the culture of impunity, when Suharto fell and then all these atrocities committed by the state became open to the public," Mr. Rizal said.

He said the authorities continue to ignore human rights. Hundreds of people, mostly civilians, are killed each year and thousands are tortured or driven from their homes. The perpetrators are rarely identified or brought to justice.

The Indonesian government has proposed a law that would grant political autonomy to Aceh and return to the province 70 percent of petroleum revenues. The rebels this year said they would consider autonomy but they have reservations about the law and have not abandoned independence.

Mr. Rizal, who was born in Aceh, says the central government does not fully understand Aceh's grievances. "The special autonomy law only addressed the two first roots of the problem, the excessive centralization and the exploitation. But they didn't touch on the politics of oppression and the culture of impunity," he said.

Rebel and government negotiators are to meet this October in Geneva to discuss a ceasefire. But many say implementation will be hard because the senior commanders on both sides do not fully control all their troops.

Chief government negotiator Wiryono Sastrohandoyo acknowledged the problem in a recent panel discussion. "The GAM is a ragtag organization, a ragtag army. They don't have the discipline. Even the regular army doesn't have this discipline, sometimes. So this is a very tricky situation," he said.

Observers say an independent group will be necessary to monitor any ceasefire. But the Indonesian government is still angry over international efforts that brought independence to East Timor and rejects an international peacekeeping force. As a result, observers fear the monitoring group that emerges may be too weak to stop the violence and abuses that are the major obstacle to peace.