Mon, 16 Jun 2003

Alienating the Acehnese

The government's announcement that Acehnese working for the administration must undergo special screenings is the latest in a series of measures, introduced since the imposition of martial law, that will only further alienate the people of Aceh.

A joint operation -- combining security restoration, humanitarian assistance, empowering the local administration and law enforcement -- was launched in Aceh following the May 19 presidential declaration of martial law in the province. But if the objective is to improve the lives of the people of Aceh, the experience of the last four weeks has shown that the combined operation has had just the opposite effect.

Scores of civilians have been killed, some caught in the cross fire between the Indonesian Military (TNI) and the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM). There have also been unconfirmed reports of the targeted killing of unarmed civilians by both sides.

Tens of thousands of people have been displaced because of the armed conflict. Many children are unable to go to school because their schools have been burned down; many people have lost their livelihoods and are now dependent on government handouts for their day-to-day survival. Road blocks and ID checks hamper their movement.

Life has turned for the worse, not the better, for most Acehnese. The people of Aceh are living in constant fear and in great uncertainty.

And as if the government has not caused enough havoc, it has issued a number of other measures that are making life even more difficult.

There was the requirement that all Acehnese apply for new identity cards, which literally means lining up for hours if not days. Acehnese who live outside Aceh are under constant surveillance; in Jakarta, for example, residents have been told to keep a close eye on their Acehnese neighbors for any suspicious activities. All Acehnese now, wherever they live, are terror suspects as far as the government is concerned.

And last week, the government announced that thousands of Acehnese who work for the administration must undergo a "Litsus" (short for penelitian khusus), a screening process used during the Soeharto era to weed out communists. This time, the goal is to rid the bureaucracy of any GAM elements.

It is interesting to note that the government, or the TNI, simply took a page out of Soeharto's playbook in bringing back the widely discredited Litsus. The least they could have done was to have given it another name.

Historically, Litsus was synonymous with the suppression of people's basic rights. From the 1970s to the early 1990s, it was used to screen out communists in the bureaucracy, military, politics, education, journalism and other professions considered to be strategic. The offshoot of the Litsus was Bersih Lingkungan, another military phrase to denote a person as "pure" from any possible communist influence.

The Litsus was used not only to interrogate subjects for hours to detect their ideological leanings, but also to trace their family histories, checking for close or distant relatives who may have been tied with the communists. The extended family included the relatives of the subjects' spouses, married long after the "communists" were dead and gone. During the time that the Litsus was used, many people lost their careers and livelihoods through no fault of theirs, only because the military considered them to be "impure".

Now it seems that this old concept, which was clearly a violation of people's basic rights, is about to be reintroduced by the government in Aceh, specifically to weed out possible GAM ties -- however they are defined -- among government employees.

One thing that has to be said about the martial law administrators in Aceh is that they are consistent. Their policies, including the Litsus, are consistently alienating the people of Aceh.

This combined operation in Aceh was launched out of the government's concern for maintaining Indonesia's territorial integrity. It seems that the government, or the TNI, which is administering Aceh today, takes the word "territorial" literally.

They are only concerned about keeping Aceh's territory and its rich natural resources under the control of the republic. They are not concerned about the people of Aceh, even though their contribution to the nation since independence 58 years ago has been widely recognized.

Going by their policies and actions in Aceh, the authorities in Jakarta are not even trying to win the hearts and minds of the populace.