Asia Times (atimes.com), November 29, 2001
Indonesia must confront the terror within
By Lesley McCulloch
In the current discussion and somewhat impoverished debate on "terrorism" that
preoccupies newscasters and editors everywhere, there has been only limited talk by
a few "enlightened" commentators of the state-sanctioned terrorism that is part of the
everyday lives of many of the world's population. The Republic of Indonesia, often
hailed as the world's "newest democracy", is without question a state involved in such
US President George W Bush, using language reminiscent of the Cold War, has
actively courted Indonesia's support in the war on terrorism. But recently the world's
largest Islamic state has been the focus of attention of the United Nations Committee
Against Torture. The committee - which convened November 16-23 in Geneva -
reported that Indonesia is awash with allegations of maltreatment of civilians by the
police, the army, and paramilitary groups allegedly linked to the authorities.
Furthermore, it said there continues to exist a climate of impunity for such acts.
No one would deny that governing this large archipelago is a daunting task. The
country is still reeling from the effects of the 1997 economic crisis, the political
instability that followed the downfall of Suharto continues, and the country is racked
by ethnic and religious tensions. President Megawati Sukarnoputri is engaged in a
delicate balancing act. On the one hand she is engaging in "reformist" rhetoric, on the
other she continues to sanction a security approach to the troubles around the
archipelago, driven in part, by a desire to carry through her father's wishes for a united
Indonesia. It is no secret that Megawati is close to hard-line military commanders who
favor crushing separatist movements in Aceh and Irian Jaya.
In Aceh, on the northern tip of Sumatra, almost 2,000 people have died as a result of
the violence this year alone. The killings, tortures and disappearances have not
abated since Megawati came to power. The situation has, in fact, become much
worse. "The events of September 11 have made no difference to the situation in
Aceh," Free Aceh Movement Central Bureau for Information spokesperson Ibu
Isnander said. "The Acehnese have been suffering increasing repression since
Megawati came to power. Her determination to maintain the unity of the state is being
played out in Aceh. Each day there are more killings, disappearances, tortures and
As in Irian Jaya, the Acehnese believe that the staunchly nationalistic Megawati is
bad news. Isnander said that Megawati is a threat "not only for the people of Aceh,
but for the republic". "This archipelago will never be at peace," Isnander said. "Not
while the artificially constructed state that is Indonesia is held together by violence
There is no doubt that the government in Jakarta regards Aceh (and Irian Jaya to a
degree) as the front-line in its effort to defend Indonesia's territorial integrity in the
wake of East Timor's independence. With the latter in mind, however, Megawati, in
her state-of-the-nation address on August 16, apologized for human rights abuses
perpetrated by the military and police. She said that firm action will be taken against
those found guilty of such abuses. But to date, very few have been brought to trial and
senior officers remain, in all cases, above the law - or so it would appear. Megawati
has, furthermore, sanctioned a military solution to the violent conflict in Aceh.
Indonesia ratified the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or
Degrading Treatment or Punishment in 1998. All parties to the convention are
obligated to submit a periodic report for consideration by the UN committee. But the
first report submitted by the Indonesian government to the committee did not include
specific reference to the human rights situation in the various areas of conflict. Yet it
is in these areas where the majority of alleged abuses take place.
The committee found several areas of continuing concern. Prominent among these
concerns is that allegations of torture and ill-treatment committed by the police, the
police special forces Brimob, the army and paramilitary groups, often with links to the
state security apparatus, continue unabated. This was found to be especially the
case in areas of conflict such as Aceh, Maluku and Irian Jaya.
The committee found the report to be unsatisfactory in general, not least because it
neglected to address the convention's mandate in the areas of conflict - Aceh being
but one. But in addition, there were allegations of excessive use of force against
demonstrators, of attacks against human rights defenders, of abuses committed by
military personnel employed by businesses, and of the use of rape and sexual
violence as forms of torture and ill treatment.
It seems somewhat strange that Aceh should be neglected in the report, since this is
an area where local people have been accusing the armed forces of such behavior for
over 20 years. The reason is quite simple. The undesirable side-effect of Aceh's
wealth is violence and the appropriation of land and other resources. Aceh is often
viewed as a "cash cow" by military and police personnel. There is a saying among
troops in the TNI (the Indonesian military): "If one is sent to Aceh, one will return
home either dead or very rich."
The "business" opportunities in Aceh are many. For example, ExxonMobil (the
American oil giant) pay the military and police to "protect" its operations. In addition,
the armed forces are involved in the local drugs economy, arms trafficking, illegal
logging and several other illegal activities. The UN Committee against Torture made
mention of such "economic activities" in its findings on Indonesia.
The committee of 10 independent human-rights experts also noted that there has
been little progress in bringing to trial members of the military, the police or other
state officials, particularly those holding senior positions.
The committee also found that Indonesia's military and police are getting away with
torture because victims are afraid to complain or fail to get a fair hearing. Not so in the
case of Muhubiddin. When I last spoke to Muhubiddin in November 2000 he told me:
"My life is worth nothing. Not only has the Brimob destroyed my own life, they have
destroyed the lives of my family. I should be an asset to my parents, instead I am a
burden. I can never work, I will never marry, I can never provide anything for my
parents when they are old."
Muhubiddin is the victim of state-sponsored terrorism. In August 1999 he was
detained by the military and accused of being a member of the GAM, who have been
fighting for independence for Aceh since 1976. During a three-week period Muhubiddin
was severely beaten and tortured, including burns to his legs.
The three-week ordeal did not end there. Muhubiddin was taken to a hospital where he
alleges a kidney was taken for a senior military officer. Muhubiddin cannot say for
sure whether the officer paid the doctors and his captors, but his strong suspicion is
that money did in fact change hands. In addition, his body was cut open from his
naval to the top of his chest - a common method of torture - and his captors
threatened to leave him to die if he did not confess. The result is a scar the length of
his torso. Muhubiddin is not the only Acehnese I have seen with such a scar.
While in hospital he was beaten around the head so badly that he is now almost
totally deaf and his speech is severely impaired. But When one talks to this young
man, his physical scars pale into insignificance as his mental scar becomes
apparent. The province is replete with people whose lives have been touched by
tragedy at the hands of the military and police. They are angry and they say they will
settle for nothing less than independence from the republic. While Megawati has set
her sights on unity, the coming months will be a testing time for both the Acehnese
and Indonesian government.
President Megawati's two top priorities are to hold onto power, and to maintain the
unity of the state. She must, first and foremost, work to prevent the break-up of the
republic. The continued unity of the state was the condition, set by the political and
military elite, that she agreed to in becoming president, and it is a position she now
appears to wholeheartedly endorse. To this end, in Aceh she has all but given a free
rein to the pursuit of a military rather than political settlement. It is also increasingly
evident that she has given the military a freer hand in crushing separatist movements
in Irian Jaya.
The announcement earlier this week by Coordinating Minister for Security and
Political Affairs Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono that more than 30,000 additional police
and military personnel will be deployed to the various areas of unrest, including Aceh,
is worrying indeed. Susilo is quoted as saying that the additional troops will be used
to bring a peaceful resolution to areas of violent conflict in order to ease the people's
suffering. But, in Aceh there has been a direct correlation to the number of troops
deployed and cases of death, torture and disappearances.
As the international war on terrorism rages, the Acehnese fight their own war - against
a regime that is as brutal as that of Suhatro's.
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