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Indonesian attacks on rebels continue BANDA ACEH - Hundreds of paratroopers jumped into combat while warplanes swooped in to fire rockets at a suspected rebel base in the hills outside the provincial capital. Staged more for TV cameras than for tactical needs, the spectacular attack last Monday launched Indonesia's biggest military operation since it invaded East Timor in 1975. But a week into the campaign against separatist rebels in Aceh province, the fighting already looks a lot like the guerrilla war that people here have endured for 27 years, one marked by few strategic victories and allegations of widespread rights abuses.
``The military is everywhere,'' said Taufik, who like many Indonesians only uses one name. ``They say they are looking for the rebels, but it's the people that always end up becoming the targets,'' added the 26-year-old student in Banda Aceh, the provincial capital. At stake is the future of Indonesia, a sprawling archipelago that is predominantly Muslim. Many of the country's hundreds of ethnic groups harbor simmering grievances against the central government and dislikes for each other.
Government leaders in Jakarta fear that if Aceh became independent like East Timor, which broke away in 1999, then other distant provinces - most notably Papua at the eastern end of the nearly 3,000-mile string of islands - would follow suit. So far, the army claims to have killed more than 60 rebels and captured dozens since fighting resumed last Monday after peace talks broke off. Rebels allege most of the dead are civilians targeted deliberately, a charge the military denies.
``There are no orders'' to kill civilians, military spokesman Syafrie Samusuddin said Sunday. But he added that ``we cannot be expected to make zero mistakes.'' Casualty claims by both sides are impossible to verify since international monitors have left the country and troops routinely bar journalists from visiting the scene of fighting. Witnesses to several alleged killings by the military told The Associated Press that the dead were innocent villagers. Indonesian Red Cross volunteers said they have found dozens of bullet-riddled corpses.
The government desperately wants an end to a U.S. ban on military sales imposed in 1991 because of fighting in East Timor. But fresh reports of abuses could make that difficult and might even jeopardize a recent congressional decision to allow the resumption of U.S. military training for Indonesian officers. Indonesia began the offensive and imposed martial law in the oil- and gas-rich province after the collapse of talks aimed at salvaging an internationally mediated cease-fire.
The Dec. 9 truce initially stopped the fighting in what had been one of Asia's longest-running wars, but the pact faltered amid violations by both sides. The bloodshed is threatening the province with a humanitarian crisis, United Nations officials warn. Some 21,000 people have fled their homes, more than 350 schools have been burned and prices of basic foodstuffs have skyrocketed as rebels target delivery trucks.
The roots of the Aceh rebellion go back to 1954, when Indonesia declared independence from the Dutch. Aceh was promised autonomy, but never got it - the first of many promises broken by the national government in Jakarta, which is on the island of Java. Tensions worsened over the years, then exploded in 1976 with the emergence of the Free Aceh Movement.
Since then, the army has conducted a series of offensives in a failed effort to crush the rebels. At least 12,000 people, most of them civilians, have been killed. Experts believe the government won't win over the Acehnese unless it gives them a greater say in government, shows willingness to address abuses by the military and improves the lives of average citizens. ``The answer lies not in sending in the military, but in sending judges to handle the cases of the fathers and mothers that have been tortured, raped and killed,'' said Professor Salim Said, an expert on the Indonesian military at the University of Indonesia.
In a bid to weaken independence sentiment, the national government granted Aceh sweeping autonomy in 2001 and promised the province would get more than 70 percent of the revenue from its forests and oil and natural gas reserves. But corruption in the provincial government and continuing hostilities have meant that most Acehnese have not seen any benefits from the deal.
Foreign governments are urging both sides to resume negotiations. But most also support keeping Indonesia's intact, worrying that a breakup of the world's fourth most populous country could bring widespread instability in Southeast Asia. Unlike the rebels in East Timor, Aceh separatists have never enjoyed international support. The rebels have long been accused of rights abuses of their own, and they have financed much of their operations through extortion and kidnapping.
Despite this, they have strong support in parts of the province and most people doubt the army's new offensive will destroy the rebels or quell demands for independence. ``If the Acehnese are put under pressure, they will fight back,'' said Wali, a student volunteer who teaches children of refugee families that have fled to Banda Aceh. ``Have the government not learnt from history?''

Posted in Aceh conflict @ 26 May 2003 00:01 CET by Jeroen · 'Blog' RSS feed · permalink

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