Sat, 15 May 2004

Critics slam government's new plan for Aceh

Tiarma Siboro, Jakarta

Commentators gave the cold shoulder to the government's decision to revoke the martial law status of Aceh and declare a state of civil emergency, saying the policy would not be effective unless it was followed by a reshuffle in the current civilian administration.

Syah Kuala University sociologist Otto Syamsuddin Ishak proposed the government establish a transition administration in the province with the main task of imposing special autonomy, enabling the direct election of civilian authorities.

The transition government should also review the integrated military and police operation in the province and focus instead on the improvement of local welfare, with the military's role limited to intelligence operations, he said.

Otto criticized the government for having failed to set parameters determining whether the one-year-old martial law had achieved anything.

When President Megawati Soekarnoputri imposed the martial law in Aceh on May 19 last year, she issued a decree allowing a massive deployment of troops there to crush the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM).

Along with the military offensive, she also introduced other operations -- humanitarian missions, and law enforcement and economic recovery programs.

"Despite these measures, the condition of the Aceh people has remained the same or is even worse since martial law was imposed. The Acehnese are getting poorer and poorer, while the number of unemployed is increasing. A series of arbitrary arrests continue with many civilians accused of being members or sympathizers of the secessionist movement," Otto told The Jakarta Post on Friday.

Hasballah M. Saad, an Acehnese figure and former minister of human rights agreed.

Hasballah suggested that Megawati replace Aceh Governor Abdullah Puteh who has been linked to several corruption scandals.

To prevent the secessionist movement from becoming a new threat, the government is maintaining the presence of around 40,000 troops in the province.

The decision was taken amid public dissatisfaction with Puteh, following the martial law administration's preliminary investigations into graft cases in his administration, with the Attorney General's Office set to take over the cases.

The office has not been able to summon Puteh in connection with the alleged corruption cases due to the absence of Megawati's consent, and Otto said the Acehnese now doubted whether widespread corruption in the province could ever be eradicated.

"The rift between the military and civilian authorities in Aceh is now well-known. If the President fails to (dismiss Puteh), I believe the condition in Aceh will worsen because of this bad blood."

"How will Puteh wield effective control over the huge number of troops," Hasballah said.

Both Otto and Hasballah also criticized the lack of accountability of the government when setting its budget for the martial law administration.

The government earlier said it had allocated outside-budget funds amounting to about Rp 10 trillion (US$11.4 billion) for the operations, including Rp 1.9 trillion for the military offensive.

Budget -- Page 2