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Promises but little progress in Aceh

South China Morning Post - October 15, 2001

Vaudine England, Jakarta – With about 20 people killed in fighting between separatist and government forces in Aceh in under a week, the Government's claims of pursuing dialogue are fast losing credibility. Parliament called on President Megawati Sukarnoputri to focus on the issue.

Police said fighting left 17 dead between Monday and Thursday, and subsequent reports spoke of at least another three deaths, a civilian among them.

Although Ms Megawati made no comment on the violence, she extended by four months a presidential decree supposed to serve as a road map for ending the violence, restarting peace talks and delivering government services to the province. She promised to "prioritise dialogue".

In practice, the decree has served as cover for intensification of the police and military campaign against the Acehnese. Death tolls have rocketed since May, when the decree was issued, and rights groups say at least 1,500 people have been killed so far this year.

"The Government says the Aceh problems must be resolved through negotiation, but they still use violence," said Abu Arafah, a commander of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), the rebels opposing the Government.

Rights activists believe GAM is also guilty of abuses, but on a smaller scale than those of the military and police. Regardless of whose abuses are worst, the body count is mounting.

Security forces shot and killed six rebels in two clashes last Wednesday, Indonesian Red Cross volunteers found three corpses with gunshot wounds in the provincial capital, Banda Aceh, on Thursday, and humanitarian teams recovered eight corpses on Tuesday and Wednesday in different parts of Aceh.

Troops killed two members of GAM in a gunfight on Friday and the body of a man with gunshot wounds to the head was found in western Aceh. GAM claimed to have killed two policemen in an ambush in southern Aceh and said soldiers killed two civilians and wounded a child in a search for separatists in eastern Aceh.

Ms Megawati's brief visit to the province last month – during which she wore local dress – impressed few Acehnese.

She approved a special autonomy package for Aceh, touted by Foreign Minister Hassan Wirayuda as "the most important law Megawati has signed". But critics say the Government has little chance of implementing it.

"We've asked the Government to set up a commission on Aceh," parliamentary Speaker Akbar Tandjung said on Friday after meeting Ms Megawati. A previous independent commission concluded the key to solving the separatist problem was trust and the best way to create it was to bring senior generals to justice for abuses in the province.

But Rosita Noer, secretary of that commission, said efforts to bring senior generals to trial were foiled by "political engineering". A military witness disappeared, no senior officer was put on trial, and only one of five key cases was completed.