Fri, 28 Mar 2003

Favoring Iraq, not Aceh

Kornelius Purba, Staff Writer, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta,

While tens of thousands of Indonesians in major cities chant peace messages for Iraq in the street, and others even vow readiness to sacrifice their own blood for the sake of Iraqis, most ignore the grief of devout Acehnese Muslims in their own country.

Away from the spotlight, Army chief Gen. Ryamizard Ryacudu presides over an Army leadership meeting in Lhokseumawe, Aceh's business center. It seems it is only the Army that is still concerned to enforce peace in the rebellious province, although the choice of the city as meeting venue has been interpreted by many Acehnese as a "show of force" before the rebels in one of their known strongholds.

Aceh's provincial legislative council is possibly the most active Indonesian state agency currently reacting to the war in the Gulf, making an even harsher commentary than President Megawati Soekarnoputri herself.

Claiming they were speaking on behalf of Aceh's 4.2 million people in the province, which has experienced conflict for 27 years, the 55 legislators urged the UN on Monday to take all necessary measures to stop the war, "the crazy military adventure" of U.S. President George W. Bush, British Prime Minister (PM) Tony Blair and Australian PM John Howard.

"By invading Iraq in contempt of the UN and international law, those three leaders could be categorized as war criminals," council chairman Muhammad Yunus said while reading a statement, as quoted by Antara.

Last Thursday the President had only said, "the government and people of Indonesia strongly deplore the unilateral action taken by the government of the U.S. and its allies." Megawati has been widely praised for her strong stance toward the U.S., which she reportedly reiterated in her recent telephone conversation with Bush.

Yunus said, "the Islamic community in Aceh and Indonesia are expected not to remain idle, but do something to help the Iraqi people cope with their suffering."

Apart from this expression of Muslim solidarity, millions of others, including Pope John Paul II, have also voiced strong opposition to the war.

In the case of the U.S. attack on Afghanistan, and, before that, the atrocities against Bosnians, scores here also expressed solidarity. Indonesia and its people are obliged by the Constitution to help the liberation of any oppressed peoples.

But why do we often ignore the distress of our own people? While there are campaigns to collect funds to help Iraqis, why don't we do the same for the Acehnese?

When few Indonesians showed empathy toward victims of atrocity in East Timor during our occupation there, some wondered if it was because most of the victims were Catholic. However, the mostly Muslim Acehnese may feel they are experiencing similar indifference from fellow citizens.

A friend pointed out that many Indonesians also wish to help the Acehnese, but cannot forget the risks, entailed in supporting any oppressed people, that existed during Soeharto's regime. They could be stigmatized as traitors of the republic for supporting Acehnese who are demanding independence.

But this is a lame excuse for ignorance.

Ryamizard has repeatedly vowed to maintain the integrity of Indonesia's unitary state, saying the Indonesian Military (TNI) would not tolerate rebellion. While we support the general's vow, we may not have really come to appreciate the root causes of the rebellion. Apart from civilians, victims have also included members of the Free Aceh Movement and Indonesian soldiers.

Thousands of soldiers, mostly privates, died during the conflict in Aceh. Their widows and children struggle on with small pensions from the state.

The peace agreement signed between the Indonesian government and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) in December is now on the verge of becoming a waste of paper, given that the parties are stepping up their hostility campaigns.

From the government's inaction one might think the President had even forgotten the existence of the agreement. Coordinating Minister for Political and Security Affairs Gen. (ret) Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has also seemed to have lost the appetite for peace in the province, while the disputing parties on the ground, TNI and GAM, seem to be hardening their stance against each other.

Given such inertia, it will fall to the people to remind the authorities to heed the demands of the Acehnese for peace and dignity. When Aceh leaders, and many other Indonesians, demand the trial of President George W. Bush for his alleged war crimes in Iraq, why don't we also voice the same demand in support of our brothers and sisters in Aceh?

If the current apathy continues, one day we may see thousands of people from other nations taking to the streets, this time to defend the rights of Acehnese to live in freedom from fear, from being killed and from human rights abuse.

One expected reaction is: "Foreign nations just don't like to see a strong Indonesia."