Aceh: Militias in trouble, still a threat? JP/6/ABOE
Aceh: Militias in trouble, still a threat?
Aboeprijadi Santoso Langsa, Eastern Aceh
A new chapter has begun for the region along the southeastern coast of Aceh, a district with a tumultuous past, which has long been the bastion of pro-government militias. Similar conditions occurred in the ethnically more diverse highland of Central Aceh. But what made eastern Aceh unique is, unlike Central Aceh, it had been an important stronghold of GAM (Aceh Free Movement) rebels as well.
Now, with a considerable number of Indonesian Army and police units being withdrawn in accordance with the Helsinki peace accord, the militias -- much to the relief of local human rights workers -- are losing their protective umbrella. Still, it isn't clear whether they will no longer pose a threat to peace.
Real peace has finally arrived even if local worries remain. Serious incidents, as in Peudawa, have still occurred. Reports said, soldiers, including members of the joint military intelligence unit (SGI), now often sit together with former GAM rebels in cafes and marines no longer extort fishermen, indicating a new atmosphere in the town. SGI, a typical Army institution in conflict areas, has renamed its "office" in Langsa, where they used to train informants, "Pos Kodim" (military checkpoint). Faces of the SGI agents are known to all as are the black-clothed militias, but the latter are now conspicuous by their absence, "They used to exhibit a show of force in the town, now they are silent," say locals.
GAM too has changed. As its fighters return home, it has reportedly instructed its members to halt the collection of pajak nanggroe (state tax) on behalf of the GAM, an extortion that continued until late August. The second phase of the decommissioning of GAM weapons and the redeployment of the non- local army units last week means that this region, arguably one of Aceh's most strategic areas, has been demilitarized -- save the illegally armed militias.
Militias, of course, have become an embarrassment, a dirty word worldwide since they went on a killing spree in East Timor in 1999. But that's not the reason why the authorities adamantly deny their existence. The militias are viewed as a spontaneous initiative that would help defend the country and preserve national security in the best tradition of Indonesia's people's army during the independence struggle -- as if, sixty years on, we are still fighting against the Japanese and the Dutch. However, it serves to justify and support military campaign. Hence, like in the 1940s, they are called "front" and "laskar" (people's unit).
In reality, though, they are armed civilian units, which grew out of state-linked militant organizations such as the Pemuda Pancasila (Pancasila Youth). Like in East Timor, they are organized by area and basically function as proxies. Unlike in East Timor, they consist of close circuits, and are often organized along ethnic lines. They are very secretive, and fanatical in terms of their "patriotism".
A group of journalists, including this writer, who visited Takengon, Central Aceh in 2003, noted the militias' strong links, like in Eastern Aceh, with local civil and military authorities. Acting as the Army's front line in the search and persecution of rebels, they become part and parcel of counterinsurgency operations in areas around the urban centers -- like in the Philippines and Latin America in the 1980s.
In Aceh, however, they had been particularly active during every military campaign since the Red Net Operation began in 1989. Unlike a regular army, they cannot be expected to make distinctions between combatants and non-combatant civilians and are not subject to any formal convention. A considerable number of civilians have consequently been the victims of militia actions.
According to the International Crisis Group and Kontras, there are at present about 17 to 18 militia groups in Aceh, mostly founded in 2003, totaling, they claim, thousands of members.
What exactly the two biggest militia units in Eastern Aceh -- the Front of Red-White Defenders (FPMP) and Go Parang (Hold the Cleaver) -- are doing now is unclear. Typical of militias' secrecy, their organizations are hard to access. But one experienced local human rights activist, Jusuf Puteh, better known as Ne' Suh, is quite sure that they are now caught by fear.
"They no longer have any activity, no more loud actions. I'm sure they are afraid. After all, they did bad things in the past. They used to persecute people and bring them to the military. They were even worse than the Army. So, they are afraid of retribution, but also of the AMM (the European Union-Asean led Aceh Monitoring Mission) who are now in charge," explained Jusuf.
Yet, given their past atrocities, many remain worried about what the militias plan. Few dare to enter the militia controlled area of Rantau Peurelak and Paya Bili, where past massacres are said to have taken place as late as July, when the Helsinki deal was only waiting to be signed, they brutally killed one of their own fellows they suspected of treason.
The militias have thus failed to keep pace with peace. The kind of loyalty the Army insisted on has apparently not resulted in respect for the Helsinki pact the two parties on the ground have generally shown. Most likely, the militias would be left in limbo, if those who should share responsibility for what they did, either leave Aceh or simply ignore them.
Observers like Jusuf Puteh believe, once peace is institutionalized and ex-GAM members settled, there will be no more space for the militias. But there are fears that the local elections (Pilkada) next April might open new chances for the militias to disrupt the peace as they did in Langsa and Takengon in 2003.
If what happened to the forgotten former East Timorese militias, who were offered a lot of counterfeit money but subsequently neglected in West Timor, is any indication, a similar prospect might await the Acehnese militias. That could be a bad omen.
Since the Helsinki deal doesn't allow the existence of any civilian armed group, the AMM should prevent any militia action and solve the problem before they leave Aceh in March 2006. It's a litmus test for the local civilian and military authorities' commitment to the deal, to dissolve them.
The writer is journalist with Radio Netherlands.