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Backlash threatens civil order

The Age - January 19, 1999

Louise Williams, Jakarta – Indonesia's armed forces were scrambling to contain a backlash over the torture and beating deaths of five men in military custody last week, as details emerged today of the lynching by civilians of another soldier in the troubled northern province of Aceh.

Local press reports said Sergeant Burhanuddin was lured into an isolated area where a mob was waiting for him. He was beaten to death early yesterday morning and his body dumped at a local mosque. He was the eighth soldier to be killed in revenge attacks in Aceh in recent weeks.

Continuing riots were reported on the island of Sulawesi, where almost 400 houses have been burnt down and six people killed over the past week, and more refugees were arriving in the East Timorese capital of Dili, seeking refuge from intimidation by civilian gangs armed by the military.

The state rail company today reported that at least five trains were being attacked every day in Java by rock-throwing mobs, causing millions of rupiah in damages. One passenger sustained serious head injuries last week.

Civilians have begun turning their frustrations on symbols of the Government and the armed forces, since the resignation of President Soeharto last May, kindling fears of a cycle of revenge over human-rights abuses during the Soeharto regime.

Student groups, calling for the trial of Mr Soeharto and the end of the military's role in politics, have announced they will resume mass demonstrations. after the fast-breaking celebrations and political analysts say big protest could turn violent. As Indonesia's majority Muslims prepared to celebrate the end of the fasting month of Ramadan tomorrow, commentators lamented the violence that marked the holy month, despite strict religious obligations to avoid conflict and abstain from eating, smoking and sex during daylight hours.

"It is hard to find another such reference in history in which Muslims have desecrated their own holy month by trying to kill each other," the Jakarta Post newspaper lamented in an editorial.

The latest attacks came as a military prosecutor demanded the sacking and jailing of the commander of a local battalion in Aceh whose men forced their way into a detention centre where they tortured and beat 40 local suspects last weekend, killing four and seriously injuring 26 others. A fifth man died in hospital this morning.

The 40 were suspected sympathisers of the "Aceh Merdeka" (Free Aceh) movement, which is seeking independence from Jakarta, but locals said they were not separatists but supported Aceh Merdeka to show their anger over almost a decade of human rights abuses by the armed forces.

In South Sulawesi clashes were continuing between two villages, in what appeared to be a religious conflict between Muslim settlers from Java and local Christians over land ownership. Truckloads of refugees were pouring into the district capital of Palopo where camps were being set up, and new arrivals said the military had been outnumbered and could not control the violence.

In East Timor, almost 400 refugees were camping in the capital Dili, saying they were fleeing intimidation by armed gangs and reporting attacks on local health-care centres and pillaging of medical equipment.