Tue, 10 Jun 2003

A clean war in Aceh

If Lothar and Elisabeth Engel had been Acehnese, few people would have heard about them or their fate. If they had been Acehnese, Lothar Engel would have been just one of the 150 or so local people Indonesian soldiers have shot in the name of the security operation in Aceh. His wounded wife would have been among the hundreds of nameless Acehnese treated at some poorly equipped community health center in Aceh. Like all the other Acehnese casualties, we would have heard nothing about them.

The Engels have not become just another military statistic because they are the first foreign casualties in this senseless war between the Indonesian government and the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM), now in its fourth week. The couple had been traveling through Aceh, part of their globe-trotting adventure by bicycle. They were shot by Indonesian soldiers on Wednesday night while they were camping on a beach on Aceh's west coast.

Because they are German, their story drew international attention. And the Indonesian government duly apologized and ordered the Aceh martial law administrator to promptly launch an investigation into the incident. The German Embassy in Jakarta sent a team to make some inquiries about the shooting and the probe.

Although the Engels had no business in the strife-torn province, and they should have known better, the incident deserves a full investigation if only to learn about the circumstances of the shooting.

The military's preliminary investigation determined that the soldiers followed proper procedures before opening fire on the tent where the couple had been sleeping. Investigators determined that it was a misunderstanding, and Elisabeth Engel, in a written statement (assuming she wrote it voluntarily and not under duress), said she accepted that this was an accident and that the soldiers were not culpable.

Most Acehnese civilians who have been killed or wounded during the current security campaign are lucky even to have their names mentioned in the military statistics. As far as the government, the military and the Indonesian public are concerned, they have all been reduced to just numbers.

They are faceless and nameless statistics. There are no impartial investigations conducted on their behalf and no international scrutiny like that afforded the Engels.

Most likely, all of the killed Acehnese civilians have been lumped together into the GAM category, sparing the government the need to undertake any kind of investigation. After all, this is a war, and in war some collateral damage is inevitable.

The government's campaign in Aceh, combining military operations, humanitarian assistance, restoration of government services and law enforcement, entered its fourth week on Monday.

The Indonesian Military (TNI), which is leading the campaign, said that as of Sunday, 150 separatists had been killed and more than 180 rebels had either surrendered or been captured, and 50 weapons had been seized. TNI had lost 13 of its soldiers.

What is missing from these statistics is the number of unarmed civilians killed during the campaign, or what is now popularly referred to as collateral damage. This is largely because as far as the TNI is concerned, just about everyone fired upon by its soldiers is a GAM rebel or supporter.

Everyone, that is, except the Engels.

Are we really to believe that TNI's campaign has been so clean that it has not left a single civilian dead except for the Engels?

If this is the case, then TNI deserves all praise.

As much as we would like to believe that this is true, the few investigations about supposed wrongdoings and the deaths of unarmed civilians have all been carried out by the TNI, not by an independent body.

The TNI was forced to open an investigation when the media reported the unusual circumstances surrounding the deaths of 10 villagers, including a 13-year-old boy, in Bireuen.

The results of that probe essentially refuted media claims of summary executions, determining that while the villagers were not armed at the time of their deaths, they were all GAM members, including the young boy.

The military also held an impromptu trial last week for seven soldiers accused of assaulting civilians. But this was a tribunal in which the prosecutors and the judges were all men and women in uniform.

Everyone, including those of us who opposed the military option in the first place, are rooting for a quick and clean war in Aceh that will spare the populace any more suffering and misery. But in order for the military to gain any credibility about its record in Aceh to date, it must allow independent organizations to conduct their own investigations there, or at the very least, to verify those probes already conducted by the military.