Wed, 16 Apr 2003

Govt prepares for war in Aceh

Fabiola Desy Unidjaja, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Despite the Free Aceh Movement's commitment to participating in a proposed Joint Council meeting, the government has begun to make preparations for a military operation in Aceh, an unpopular move that has elicited strong opposition from various sides.

President Megawati Soekarnoputri held a closed-door meeting with Vice President Hamzah Haz and her top security aides to discuss the situation in Aceh at the State Palace on Tuesday evening.

Top officials attending the meeting were the three coordinating ministers, home affairs minister Hari Sabarno, foreign minister Hassan Wirayudha, defense minister Matori Abdul Djalil, Indonesian Military (TNI) commander Gen. Endriartono Sutarto, Navy chief Admiral Bernard Kent Sondakh, Air Force chief Marshal Chappy Hakim and National Police chief Gen. Da'i Bachtiar.

Army chief Gen. Ryamizard Ryacudu, who has hard-line views on the separatist movement, was absent from the meeting as he was undergoing a surgery in Manchester, Britain.

Journalists who cover the State Palace were prohibited from approaching the palace during the meeting, but a presidential official confirmed that a meeting was held to discus the preparations (for a military operation) in Aceh.

Endriartono has earlier said that he would brief the President about the planned military operation as soon as possible.

It looks unlikely that the President, who is also the supreme commander of the Indonesian Military, will order the military operation this month as she is scheduled to set off on a 12-day visit to Eastern Europe on Thursday.

In a limited Cabinet meeting last week to give a response to what the military has called GAM's violations of the cessation of hostilities agreement, the President ordered the military to prepare for an operation to crush the separatist movement.

In a meeting between Coordinating Minister for Political and Security Affairs Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and a senior official of the Henry Dunant Center, which has been facilitating the peace process, both sides agreed to hold the Joint Council meeting on April 24 at a venue to be decided upon later.

GAM, which initially rejected the proposed meeting, has said it would consider attending a Joint Council meeting in Geneva. The government has proposed Malaysia, Singapore or Thailand as alternatives if GAM refused to attend a meeting in Jakarta.

Meanwhile, many sides, including political analysts and religious leaders both in and outside Aceh, have opposed any military operation as it has been proven in the past and in other regions that such an approach would not solve the problem.

They have instead called on the government to leave the Aceh issue to the civilians to allow them to seek a comprehensive and peaceful solution through dialog.

Besides the failure of a military operation to crush GAM between 1989 and 1999, other military operations had met with similar fates in Papua and East Timor. And despite years of security operations in troubled Maluku and Poso, the sectarian conflicts in the two regions are still far from settled.

In line with the House of Representatives' confusion over the peace negotiations between the government and GAM under the auspices of the HDC, a military operation would likely win the political support of the legislative body.

Major political parties, especially the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI Perjuangan), Golkar Party, United Development Party (PPP) and the National Mandate Party (PAN) have signaled their support for a military operation.

PDI Perjuangan and PPP will likely support the military as their chairpersons Megawati and Hamzah have even made necessary preparations for the military operation.

"The military operation will not claim lives among the civilian population and will be implemented to make sure the Acehnese can live in peace ...," Hamzah said before the meeting.

He insisted that the use of force would be the last resort.

People's Consultative Assembly (MPR) Chairman Amien Rais also expressed agreement with the military operation, but said it should be postponed until the end of July, the deadline for GAM to day down its arms.

Amien, who is also the chairman of PAN, said during a visit to Makassar, South Sulawesi, that the military operation would be the last resort to quell GAM if the latter refused to solve the Aceh question peacefully.

Despite the politicians' claims about acting in the interests of the Acehnese, there appears to be little if any support for a military operation in the country's westernmost province.