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Indonesia Defends Military Offensive to Counter Separatist Violence in Aceh - 2003-10-21

Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri declared a military emergency last May and authorized military operations in Aceh, where a fragile cease-fire had been in place since early December. The military operation to quell the Free Aceh Movement, or GAM, is the largest the Indonesian government has undertaken since its invasion of East Timor in 1975. More than one thousand people have been killed in the renewed fighting, and some 100,000 Acehenese have been forced from their homes.

Soeharjdono Sastromihardjo, counselor for press and information at the Indonesian Embassy in Washington, says GAM used the cease-fire to regroup, rearm and get ready to fight again.

“Since the beginning of the implementation period of the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement, or COHA, GAM - that is the Free Aceh Movement - continued to proclaim to the Acehenese that they would gain independence at the end of the period of the agreement,” he says.

Mr. Soeharjdono adds that before Indonesia can agree to renew negotiations, GAM must first abandon its goal of independence.

“It is for Indonesia,” he says, “a matter of basic principles and most imperative that the territorial integrity of Indonesia within the framework of a unitary state of the Republic of Indonesia not be compromised. It is sacred for the country. There is no room for GAM to interpret COHA as the road to independence.”

GAM, in turn, has accused the military of not holding up its end of the cease-fire. It has not withdrawn from Aceh and continues to persecute its people.

Mutual distrust and suspicion undermined the cease-fire says Charmain Mohamed, a researcher on Indonesia and East Timor at Human Rights Watch. She says that once the fighting broke out again, the Indonesian government prevented foreign aid workers from reaching Aceh and insisted that all such aid go through government channels.

“Not only do we have concerns that the government lacks the capacity to distribute the aid effectively,” she says, “but we also have concerns that they don’t have the experience to do any of the other humanitarian assistance that international NGO’s normally take care of; for example, water and sanitation facilities for internally displaced peoples, protection work for victims of trauma, tracing missing and separated children and families. So we have extreme concerns that even though the aid is still going through government channels, we’re not sure that it’s appropriate or effective enough.”

Charmain Mohamed says foreign and national journalists are also denied access to the region, which is worrisome. Both GAM and the Indonesian military have a history of human rights violations. In fact, a recent report by Human Rights Watch focuses on four current and two former Indonesian military officers reportedly involved in the current war in Aceh. She says grave abuses may be unreported.

“The implications for the foreign media are that they now cannot have free access to go into villages to get information directly from sources in the civilian population and have to increasingly rely on military statements,” she says. “So the consequences, even though it’s not a direct ban on foreigners, are that there are no foreign humanitarian aid workers up in Aceh and very few foreign journalists are being allowed to Aceh. And the implications are that there is very little independent or impartial information about what is going on in the province.”

Indonesia’s government says Aceh is not secure for foreigners right now. The Indonesian Embassy’s Mr. Soeharjdono points to cases where GAM rebels have taken foreign nationals hostage. In some cases foreigners, including tourists, have been caught in the crossfire and even killed by the Indonesian army. He says the Indonesian government is best suited to handle the situation.

“In any emergency situation,” he says, “all the more with this situation where a state of military emergency is implemented I believe that there should be a system of distribution arranged by the government. Take the case in Iraq, for example. I don’t think any country can send their humanitarian supplies directly to the recipients without going through an establishment or a system that is administered by the United States. So we have our own considerations and arrangement for that.”

Mr. Soeharjdono’s allusion to the U.S. war in Iraq is well calculated says reporter Patricia Nunan, who lived in Indonesia for five years and worked as a freelancer for various foreign media, including the Voice of America.

“Martial law came about after the United States invaded Iraq,” she says. “And there are a lot of very smart people who think the top brass of the Indonesian military sat down and watched their CNN and their BBC and saw what you can accomplish with an overwhelming use of force in a contained region and said why don’t we try that?”

At stake is the unity of the vast Indonesian archipelago. Aceh, along with West Papua, is home to a decades-long insurgency. But Patricia Nunan says Jakarta’s decision to resume its battle against GAM may be fueling the separatist movement in Aceh that it seeks to quash.

“It’s certainly not doing anything to appease the Acehenese who might have been on the fence in terms of independence versus autonomy,” she says. “A lot of people will tell you they’ll be willing to give autonomy a chance, but the fact of the matter is that if soldiers come to your village and burn things down or abduct every young man on the suspicion that he might be a rebel, then the independence option very quickly gets equated with let’s get rid of the Indonesian military. And so it’s self-defeating in some ways if Indonesia’s hope is territorial integrity and bringing the Acehenese into the fold and winning hearts and minds that way.”

Patricia Nunan says it’s important to remember that GAM doesn’t represent all Acehenese. And even those who want independence are rather hazy on the details.

“Aceh has got oil and natural gas and forestry,” she says. “So yes, it does have the natural resources to make it on its own. But most Acehenese I’ve spoken to are actually pretty na?ve about what it takes to make a country. And I would ask questions and say things like “You’ve got to have a foreign ministry. You’ve got to have an army. You’ve got to have your own currency. You’ve got to have this that and the other. You’ve got to run your own schools.” And people really didn’t have a response for all those little things I could rattle off. Aceh without the assistance of the international community, with even less resources, the idea of Aceh becoming an independent nation, I’m not sure that many Acehenese understand what that really means.”

Although Indonesia maintains the problem in Aceh is a military one with a military solution, international observers aren’t so sure. They say the problem is more complex and a sustainable solution will only be found at the negotiating table. However, the past round of talks and failed cease-fire show there’s only so much neutral partners can do to bring peace when neither side is really interested.