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UTIT MERANTI - On a Friday just before noon prayers in the simple wooden mosque, soldiers stormed into this village, herded the people together and, according to two residents, marched them toward a neighboring hamlet, setting fire to houses as they went. After six weeks, the village elder, Bin Ali, 52, and his neighbor, Agus Salim, 35, summoned the courage to return to the ashes of their life's possessions. In the debris of Mr. Bin's home, only a white porcelain serving dish, a present to his wife, survived intact. Next door, Mr. Agus, choking with emotion, fingered the charred wreckage of his motorcycle. It had been his sole means of livelihood. Empty military ration cans were strewn on the red earth, silvery reminders of who had been here last.
"I feel hurt, very sad," said Mr. Bin, as he recalled the events of April 26, when he said soldiers accused the people of harboring rebels. The villagers denied the charges, but to no avail. "The military knows who is a rebel and who is not," Mr. Bin said. "Why do we have to be involved?"This is the dirty war in Aceh, the northernmost province of Indonesia, rich in natural gas, where an insurgency, spearheaded by separatist guerrillas of the Free Aceh Movement, or GAM, has ebbed and flowed since 1976.In its current phase, the guerrillas are on the defensive, pushed back from urban centers now thick with soldiers and police patrols. The military, recently reinforced and deployed in far greater numbers than anywhere else, is under orders from the central government to wrap up the war once and for all.
But civilian killings have also increased in recent months, Western officials say, and rights groups report deaths, torture, disappearances and arbitrary arrests almost daily. As part of its campaign against terror, the United States is renewing a relationship with Indonesia's military and police forces. Ties were severed in 1999, primarily because of rights abuses in East Timor. At the Bush administration's request, Congress has approved a plan for the United States to help Indonesia create an elite counterterrorism police unit. Later in the year, the administration is expected to ask for funds to help the Indonesian military create a peacekeeping unit for use in the internal conflicts that rage in several parts of Indonesia.
But some lawmakers, like Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, say that the military, historically one of the most abusive in Asia, must first be held accountable for its past human rights transgressions, and show improvement in places like Aceh. "The Indonesian military is perceived as not having a very sensible attitude about how to deal with the war," said an administration official. "They are not in full observance of the rules of war or of human rights." Advocates of the new links with Indonesia's army and police, including Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, argue that Indonesia can only become a model of a moderate Muslim country if it is fortified by an United States-influenced military that is able to hold the archipelago country together against the forces of extremism.
Aceh, dense with lush palm oil and cocoa trees and towering stands of coconut and rubber, is a province on the northernmost tip of Sumatra. Arab traders arrived in the 15th century, and it remains the most devoutly Muslim region of the world's most populous Muslim nation. People here describe themselves as fervent adherents of Islam, but they are not fundamentalists. Religion, in any case, the people say, has little to do with the conflict and nearly everything to do with not wanting to share their rich energy, mineral and food resources with what they call a corrupt central government in Jakarta.
The government of President Megawati Sukarnoputri has offered special autonomy for Aceh that would allow the province to keep a greater percentage of the revenues from its natural resources. In a nod to the feelings about Islam, the government has also allowed provincial authorities to introduce Shariah, or Islamic law. Those gestures have proved insufficient, and the war bleeds on. Successive American administrations have opposed independence for Aceh. No other major government supports independence, either, a stance that means the province is unlikely to ever separate from Indonesia as East Timor recently did. Intermittent meetings between the two sides, sponsored by the Henry Dunant Center in Switzerland, a human rights group, have provided little movement toward a solution.
In instructing the military to prosecute the war in Aceh more vigorously, President Megawati installed Brig. Gen. Yusuf Djali, 52, in February as the new military commander of Aceh. The general has received some positive notices from Western military officials for trying a new tactic: winning the hearts and minds of the ordinary people. During an interview at his headquarters, General Djali said, "I keep telling my soldiers that the indicator of your success in the field is that when you leave, the villagers will cry for you."
But the army's burning of villages like Butit Meranti continues with only slightly less intensity than before the general's arrival, the Western military officials said. Often, villagers suspected of having helped the rebels are shot. Here in Butit Meranti, a deaf plantation worker, Abdul Wahab, 35, was gunned down by soldiers as he emerged from the forest, because, unlike some other villagers, he was confused and unable to run away quickly enough, Mr. Bin said. Almost every day in Lhokseumawe, the city closest to the natural gas fields, workers of the Indonesian Red Cross said they pick up bodies shot at close range and dumped on the street. The cause of death is usually listed as "O.T.K." for "orang tak kenal" or "persons unknown."
The day before Mr. Bin went back to Butit Meranti, one such body lay in the Lhokseumawe hospital morgue, the neck and ankles wrapped with wire, a bullet hole in the back of the skull and streaks of dried blood down the torso. A Red Cross worker, Faisal, said he had received a phone call at dawn requesting that he come to pick up the body near the Customs Office. "It was an `O.T.K.,' " he said. "It happens frequently." While the GAM guerrillas are under pressure, they are still operating in the interior.
In January, the army killed the rebels' long-time military leader, the Libyan-trained Tengku Abdullah Syafei. Another Libyan-trained fighter, Muzakkir Abdul Manaf, who claims to have been a bodyguard for Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, quickly replaced him. The rebels generally garner more sympathy than the military, but their popularity has ebbed as they have turned increasingly to crime and extortion. To emphasize the Bush administration's opposition to independence for Aceh, Matt Daley, deputy assistant secretary of state, recently visited Hasan di Tiro, the titular head of GAM who lives in exile in Sweden, and told him that Washington wanted him to accept the Indonesian government's offer of special autonomy.
In April, the administration also sent Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, a special adviser to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, to the talks at the Henry Dunant Center. General Zinni told the Indonesian government that it could no longer keep the conflict hidden from outside observers and that the government had to accept international monitors. The former commander of United Nation peacekeeping troops in Bosnia, Gen. Sir Rupert Smith, is scheduled to visit Aceh soon to explain to the Indonesian military that accepting international monitors would enhance their tattered reputation. Whether the Indonesian government will agree to such openness is far from certain. Diplomats said Ms. Megawati's government appears to feel little pressure from Washington on the issue of international monitors, and it taking substantial comfort from Washington's opposition to an independent Aceh. "The United States support for Indonesia's integrity that is big support for us," General Djali said.
The burning of Butit Meranti is one example where outside monitors could cause problems for the military. In the days after the April 26 raid on Butit Meranti, General Djali acknowledged in a local newspaper that his soldiers had burned houses he put the number at seven and apologized to the villagers. But later, when a reporter who had visited Butit Meranti called the general to say that in fact 36 houses were burned, and 29 were left standing, he changed his story. After the newspaper report appeared, General Djali said, he had sent his investigators to the village. "This team found that GAM had burned the villagers' houses, not our soldiers," he said.

Posted in Aceh conflict @ 17 June 2002 by Jeroen · 'Blog' RSS feed · permalink

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