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Indonesia must confront the terror within

Asia Times (, 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 acts.

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 rapes."

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 and terror."

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.

2001 Asia Times Online Co., Ltd. All rights

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