APSN Banner

Separatism revives in Aceh

Washington Post - January 12, 1999

Atika Shubert, Lhokseumawe – Muhammad, a 20-year old villager near the town of Lhokseumawe, was shot in the leg last week during the Indonesian military's latest campaign to quell separatist ambitions here in the restive province of Aceh. His grandfather, M. Yayah Bin Ajis, 60, suffered three broken ribs and a rifle butt to the head when soldiers prevented him from taking Muhammad to the hospital.

Leaning against each other for support, they listened to the advice of a backer of the separatist Free Aceh movement. "We must always fight against this," he encouraged the bleary-eyed victims, who nodded slowly in agreement. "They come here like the Dutch colonialists to take our riches and destroy our lives. We can't let them do this anymore."

For Indonesia's military it is a nightmare: A resurgent separatist movement and violent attacks on military personnel just as the country is struggling to complete its first peaceful transition of power.

The end of former president Suharto's repressive 32-year rule in May opened a path to democracy but it also opened a Pandora's box of regional grievances, triggering political unrest across the diverse island nation.

Rebellious regions like Aceh are wearing dangerously thin the military's traditional role as the last defense against national disintegration.

Rich in natural resources and steeped in Muslim fundamentalism, Aceh was known for its fierce resistance to Dutch colonial rule and harbors one of Indonesia's most enduring separatist movements. The military installed a "military operations area" to quell the Free Aceh movement, which, until the early 1990s, conducted a guerrilla campaign to fight for the region's independence from the central government in Jakarta.

In August, human rights groups discovered several mass graves and other evidence supporting accusations that the Indonesian military used such tactics as mass executions, torture and rape to subdue separatist sympathizers.

In a bid to change the military's image, the armed forces chief, Gen. Wiranto, apologized for the military's "operational excesses" and ended military control of Aceh, at least on paper.

In its place, Wiranto sent Col. Johnny Wahab as the region's new military commander to establish law and order – with a smile. "I use a persuasive method," Wahab said, opening his doors to anyone who wants to stroll in and talk. "They may shout 'I want a Free Aceh!' but I shout 'I want a Free Aceh too!' and I ask them to be patient. It's not the right season. You can't have your coffee until the beans have been harvested."

Patience is running short. Last week, eight off-duty officers returning home for the holidays were attacked and killed by vengeful mobs. The military reacted swiftly, pinning the blame on a local separatist leader and raiding suspected hideouts in several villages.

The raids sparked anti-government rioting and in the course of a weekend, 17 civilians were killed, most of them shot or beaten to death while in detention. According to Wahab, however, the murders were not the work of frustrated villagers but a plot masterminded by Ahmad Kandang, an enigmatic community leader active in the Free Aceh movement.

In the military's version, Kandang terrorizes villagers into kidnapping military personnel and forces women and children to act as human shields against the military raids, leading to civilian deaths.

In response, the military has surrounded seven villages suspected of holding the elusive rebel leader only to find that villagers station themselves in front of the machine guns, daring soldiers to shoot innocent civilians.

On Saturday at dawn, Indonesian military raided nearby villages again, and four people were beaten to death while in custody. Today, 30 soldiers were arrested for the beating deaths of the four villagers, military officials announced.

The situation has become so tense that villagers, suspecting any foreign face in the village to be a military spy, held a knife to the throat of a local journalist and threatened to kill anyone they did not recognize.

Human rights workers in Aceh, say that the military is wasting its time and making a bad situation worse. While separatist activities are on the rise, the Free Aceh movement remains too weak and scattered to pose a serious threat to national unity, according to Yacob Hamzah head of the Legal Aid Institute in Lhokseumawe, the center of recent violence.

Hamzah said the military should address villagers' demands for compensation to gain the respect of the people of Aceh before charging after a community leader like Kandang. "People don't believe in the military because there is no law, only the military's law," Hamzah explained. "The people may want to stay in the Republic of Indonesia but they want to see justice first."

Nonetheless, Wahab said he feels that some of his "peaceful, persuasive methods" are having a good effect. After talking to a group of Aceh residents about Kandang and the Free Aceh movement, Wahab said he was overwhelmed by the positive response. "They were shouting, 'We won't take Kandang's terror anymore!' " he said. "They hugged me and kissed me. They were so excited, I thought to myself, 'I could replace Ahmad Kandang! Maybe they could even love us.' "

Slipping in to Kandang's stronghold just outside Lhokseumawe shows otherwise. Hasan Udin, 24, a Free Aceh member, screens journalists and tells them the people of Aceh will never love the military. Like Wahab, Hasan is also working hard to convert locals to his cause, having arrived only two months ago, fresh from a five-year exile in Malaysia, where he fled after his father was shot dead by Indonesian soldiers.

"Ahmad Kandang will fight for the people so they can be independent from Indonesia," Hasan declared. "He listens to the desires and needs of the people – something the military and government have never done."

Hasan is not the only new Free Aceh arrival to the town of Lhokseumawe. Several other young men, most with personal grievances of their own, have flocked to the Free Aceh movement, going so far as to fly the banned Free Aceh flag on the main highway through town. Indonesia's military quickly tore the flag down and pelted the surrounding neighborhood with rocks and abuse, demanding that all Free Aceh sympathizers come out and face them.

Caught in the middle, many people avoid both the Free Aceh and the military whenever they can, hoping only for an oasis of safety. Fifty yards from where the Free Aceh flag used to fly, a 47-year-old schoolteacher looked out through the remaining shards of his front window through which angry soldiers had hurled a volley of rocks.

"I won't look a soldier in the eye, and I never even looked once at that flag," he said. "Sometimes it's the military yelling for you to come out and surrender and sometimes it's Free Aceh. Either way, I won't come out. I'm staying inside my house to protect my children."