Indonesia boils over

Fellows Fall 2000

By Jacqueline Koch

June 07, 2009

Security seeks to put lid on huge separatist rally in Aceh province

Security seeks to put lid on huge separatist rally in Aceh province

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia November 11, 2000 -- A new round of the violence that has beset Indonesia's outer regions appeared on the verge of exploding today in the tense far northwest province of Aceh, where hundreds of thousands of people are converging for a weekend pro-independence demonstration.

Aceh, an oil-and gas-rich region on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra, has been beset by strife for more than a year, as have the Malukus archipelago, the provinces of Irian Jaya, Central Sulawesi, West Kalimantan and the now independent territory of East Timor. The unrest has boiled over in the wake of Indonesia's uneasy transition to a democracy after the 1998 ouster of longtime dictator Suharto.

Clashes with the military have erupted over the past few days as masses of Acehnese attempt to reach the provincial capital of Banda Aceh, about 1,100 miles northwest of Jakarta, to mark the first anniversary of the demand for a referendum on independence for this region of 4.1 million people.

Human rights groups say at least 21 people were killed Thursday and yesterday, and hundreds more were wounded. Unconfirmed reports have put the number of deaths at more than 100.

An angry President Abdurrahman Wahid said yesterday that he would summon military chief Adm. Widodo Adisutjipto, Army Commander Gen. Endriarto Sutarto and national police Chief Gen. Bimantoro to explain the use of violence.

"Acehnese people are my religious brothers,'' Wahid was quoted saying by the Tempo news service. "I want to ask (the security officials), 'Since when are guns used in negotiations?' If you are using guns, then please retire.''

But Wahid's ability to rein in the police and military has proved limited during his year in office, and a severe test is expected this weekend, when villagers, students and activists alike descend upon Banda Aceh's magnificent Raya Baiturrahman mosque. Last year's pro-independence demonstration drew as many as 1 million people.

A referendum on independence is a scenario the central government is trying to avoid at all costs. Indonesia can ill afford to lose Aceh's mineral wealth, and letting another province secede would only encourage separatists in other areas.

Since the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) was established nearly 25 years ago, the province has been wracked with violence. From 1988 to 1998, Aceh suffered brutal military operations aimed at crushing the GAM, but innocent civilians suffered the brunt of the casualties. At least 5,500 people have been killed over the past decade.

After the fall of Suharto and the subsequent independence of East Timor, the Acehnese renewed their hopes for a sovereign state of their own. Initially, Wahid nurtured those hopes, then reversed his position, warning that "repressive measures'' would be used to protect Indonesia's territorial integrity.

Through the first six months of this year, Aceh was in the grip of yet another wave of conflict. In July, the GAM and the government agreed to a "humanitarian pause.'' But as both sides attempt to find a solution, the bloodshed has continued and more than 200 people have died.

The situation in Banda Aceh has been chaotic all week, as the military and police have adopted repressive measures to prevent a large pro- independence turnout. Blockades and searches are standard procedure, and motorists have been intimidated, detained, beaten and, in a number of cases, fired upon.

On Tuesday afternoon, gunfire replaced the lively atmosphere of Banda Aceh's fishing harbor when police opened fire on a convoy of ships from Sigli, the capital of Pidie district. More than 1,000 passengers on 120 fishing boats, intent on attending the weekend protest, had circumvented attempts at a sea blockade. One elderly bystander died from a bullet wound to the neck.

Banda Aceh is still reeling from the incident, and the city's sense of safety, usually taken for granted at least during daylight, has evaporated.

"Usually troops in Banda Aceh are more civilized, but today they showed us they are not,'' said Yahya Hara, a local college instructor.

The oppressive tactics seem only to have sharpened the determination of the Acehnese demonstrators. An estimated 100,000 people are waiting by their vehicles to be let in to Banda Aceh.

In the city of Jeunib, more than 600 buses, trucks and cars line each side of the road behind a police blockade. Up to 5,000 people from Sigli and nearby areas have landed by boat in the areas surrounding Banda Aceh. More have sneaked in through back roads or by foot.

Those not staying with family or friends have dispersed throughout the outlying city areas, camped out in mosques, sports stadiums and university buildings. Food supplies are short and space is cramped, but spirits are unwavering.

"We won't go back to our villages because we have come here to ask for justice and for Aceh to be free,'' declared Zainal Abidin of Lawung, Pidie district. He is camping with more than 1,000 others near the harbor town of Krueng Raya, 24 miles from Banda Aceh.

The organizer of the weekend rally, the Center for Information on a Referendum for Aceh (SIRA), has been trying to keep a lid on tensions, issuing rules and guidelines for demonstrators to follow. One of SIRA's two leaders, Radhi Darmansyah, said, "We advise people not to bring Free Aceh flags, and if you come, you must be peaceful.''

But the security forces consider SIRA to be a front for the GAM, and an arrest warrant was issued yesterday for Mohammed Nazar, SIRA's co-leader, on charges of inciting public disorder. Both Nazar and Darmansyah have received death threats and two other SIRA members were recently detained by the police and beaten. Nazar is moving around the city and so far has managed to evade arrest.

While preparing for the demonstration, SIRA angered the authorities by launching an informal poll asking Acehnese to choose between independence and continued integration with Indonesia. Nazar said the poll is intended "to bolster our petition for our independence and sovereignty. We want the military out of Aceh.''

As the military and police continue their efforts to root out the rebels, thousands of refugees throughout the province have fled their homes and are sheltering in mosques and school buildings, the only safe havens. Arbitrary detention, torture, kidnapping, extrajudicial killings and disappearances are common, especially in rural areas.

In one particularly gruesome incident on Oct. 24, the army descended on the village of Cot Baruh, killing 10 suspected GAM rebels, including a 12-year-old boy. The victims were found with their eyes gouged out, genitals cut and bodies burned. The terrifying attack prompted villagers to flee the area.

A Congress for Human Rights Abuse Victims was held in Banda Aceh last weekend, drawing 400 victims of previous military sweeps. Some arrived in wheelchairs, while others had to be carried by family members.

Muhibuddin, 23, of North Aceh, was shot by the army and received a further beating that left him deaf upon his arrival at the hospital in Lhokseumawe. Lifting his shirt, he displayed a gnarled scar stretching from his breastbone to his groin.

Several women came forward to tell stories of abduction and detention in an infamous Pidie military torture house known as Rumah Geudong.

Two years ago, said Rasyidah, 23, army troops broke into her family home, beat everyone inside and killed her mother. She and her older sister were taken to the Rumah Geudong, where they were repeatedly raped, beaten and tortured with electrical prods. She spent five months there, a sex slave to officers who came and went.

When she was finally released, she returned to find her home burned. Even today, she remains easily disoriented due to beatings to her head.

Given such abuses, the sentiments recently expressed by Tengku Salahudin, a GAM commander in North Aceh, come as little surprise.

When asked what he is fighting for, he replied: "To take back our country from the Javanese. It's independence or death.'' Chronicle Foreign Service