Tue, 04 Feb 2003

Acehnese demand justice, govt gives cash

Tiarma Siboro, The Jakarta Post, Lhokseumawe, Aceh

Compensation money is often given in exchange for a loss of property or a relative, but it cannot bring back a loved one, or in many cases, compensate for the bitter feelings felt.

Hundreds of Acehnese received on Saturday a small sum of money from the central government in an apparent attempt to win back those people's hearts after years of conflict that has left them with painful memories.

"I'm poor, look at me. I have five children, one of them was killed by security officers during the conflict. But I'm not among those getting compensation," Azmi Teuku Imam Abdullah, 67, of the Meunasah village in Lhokseumawe in the north of Aceh.

"Many have been wounded...billions of rupiah wouldn't heal us. For me, justice is the most important thing," he said as he broke into tears.

Azmi was one of hundreds of villagers who braved a heavy rain over the weekend to gather for humanitarian assistance provided by the central government. The program followed the signing of the cessation of hostilities agreement between Indonesia and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) in Geneva on Dec. 9, 2002. The aid was meant to compensate the people's sufferings during years of conflict in the natural resource-rich province.

Coordinating Minister for People's Welfare Yusuf Kalla made a two-day visit to the province over the weekend, marking the start of the program, which is scheduled to last for the next five months. They handed out Rp 1.6 billion (US$177,700) of the total pledge of Rp 381 billion.

Accompanying Yusuf were Minister of Social Affairs Bachtiar Chamsyah, Minister of Women's Empowerment Sri Redjeki Soemaryoto and Minister of Health Achmad Suyudi.

The program includes rehabilitation of social infrastructure; bringing home refugees; rebuilding schools, mosques and other social facilities. Aid for widows, orphans, handicapped people and the poor affected by more than 26 years of conflict between the central government and GAM, who are said to be the beneficiaries of the program.

"I don't know how the local administrators are deciding it, but a lot of people who received the compensation money were not victims of the conflict. Do you see that man with the cane? He has had that handicap since he was born," Azmi said, while pointing to the villager who was standing before Kalla as he handed him Rp 2.5 million.

During their short visit, the ministers held a very tight schedule as they tried to meet villagers in five regencies -- Piddie, North Aceh, Aceh Besar, Lhokseumawe, Bireun, and Tamiang -- hoping to cultivate loyalty from the Acehnese, most of whom have been embittered by the conflict.

"It's going to take time to convince us whether the government is serious about addressing the problems here. One or two days visiting and giving us small change is nothing compared to the decades of prolonged suffering caused by the government's policy here," another villager named Usman of Krueng Geukeuh village in North Aceh, said.

Usman, 59, a veteran local journalist, further said that the absence of justice and the widespread poverty in Aceh had motivated local people to continue fighting against the government.

GAM has been fighting for independence since 1976. Over 10,000 people, mostly civilians, have reportedly been killed during the period of armed conflict, The continuing violence claimed more than 1,700 lives last year.

Usman was jailed by security officers in 1990, a year after the government declared Aceh a military operation area (DOM).

The government has only pursued the trial of military officers blamed for the massacre at one Islamic boarding school belonging to the Acehnese Muslim cleric Teungku Bantaqiah in Beutong Ateh in 1999, while other cases of rights violations remain unsolved and mostly uninvestigated.

"I've seen many cases of injustice in this country. If the government does not insist on punishing those responsible for various rights abuses, then don't even try to appease us with fake trials," Usman said, expressing his pessimism with a reference to the current East Timor human rights trials.