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Mass graves point to killings under Suharto

Financial Times - August 1, 1998

Sander Thoenes, Jakarta – Indonesian parliamentarians have found seven mass graves in the province of Aceh, according to a report on Friday in a prominent newspaper. The graves are the most dramatic discovery following recent revelations of human rights abuses allegedly committed by the government of former president Suharto.

Suara Karya, the mouthpiece of Golkar, the government party, quoted a parliamentary fact-finding team as saying it had seen "thousands" of skeletons in mass graves throughout Aceh, the northern part of Sumatra, and suspected that "more than 5,000" people were missing.

Diplomats said these findings appeared credible and would confirm earlier reports by Amnesty International and the US government. These estimated that more than 2,000 people, including women and children, were killed by the military in a crackdown on a separatist rebel movement between 1989 and 1993.

The new government of President B. J. Habibie, eager to gain popular support, has allowed a series of human rights investigations into allegations of abuses in Aceh, Irian Jaya, East Timor and the main island of Java itself. Mr Habibie recently set up a committee to investigate the perpetrators behind riots in Jakarta and other cities in May, the kidnappings of dozens of activists, and the rape of more than 100 women of ethnic Chinese descent.

The fact-finding teams were set up in response to media reports of abuse by military and intelligence agencies throughout Mr Suharto's 32-year rule. The reports have shocked Indonesians who had been kept in the dark because of tight controls on the media. The team in Aceh also found a detention camp in the town of Pidie. The newspaper quoted its commander as saying rebels had been tortured and executed there.

These and other investigations reflect badly upon the military. The army has been keen to show a more tolerant stance in recent months but since Mr Suharto stepped down it has fired at pro-independence protesters in Irian Jaya and instilled fear in parts of East Timor. Military spokesmen declined to comment, saying only that the military had yet to receive any reports on the Aceh investigation.

Many of the witness reports point the finger at Kopassus, the special forces commanded until earlier this year by the son-in-law of President Suharto, Prabowo Subianto. Gen Prabowo has denied organising the May riots and insisted he had merely been following the president's orders. Indonesian newspapers have started to question whether Mr Suharto instigated the mayhem to provide an excuse for a military crackdown on protesting students who were demanding his resignation.

Many Indonesians believe his quiet departure from office, and the removal of Gen Prabowo and several leading generals close to him, could be part of a deal with Mr Habibie and the chief military commander, General Wiranto, in exchange for protection against prosecution. This would explain why a military investigation into the riots has failed to clarify what was behind the May violence or find 13 activists who are still missing. One turned up safe in the Philippines yesterday but most are believed dead.

The findings in Aceh, where Mobil is leading Indonesia's largest natural gas production project, indicate that military excesses there have been at least as severe as in East Timor, which has received much more international attention.

Malaysia deported more than 500 illegal Acehnese migrants in March after riots in detention camps there, despite warnings from international human rights organisations that they could face torture at home.

[On August 6, Reuters reported that according to an official with the Legal Aid Foundation, Abdurrahman Yacob, people in Aceh fear military retaliation if they dig up the grave sites. "Exhuming the bodies is a very big risk. The military will be angry, so people who dig up the graves may become victims themselves", he said - James Balowski.]