Sat, 27 Mar 1999

Habibie says sorry to Acehnese

By Kornelius Purba

BANDA ACEH, Aceh (JP): A demonstration involving thousands of people, flavored by tear gas and warning shots fired by security personnel, greeted President B.J. Habibie on his one-day trip here, where he offered apologies for the pain inflicted during the 10-year military operation in the province.

Only a few hundred protesters managed to approach the tightly guarded Baiturrahman mosque, the venue for the President's visit.

Warning shots and tear gas were fired when demonstrators continued to push through the barricade at a bridge near the mosque, and some jumped in the Peuniti river, attempting to reach the far bank, a local correspondent said.

Dozens of demonstrators were injured and some were beaten by security personnel. Several people were taken to hospital.

At the mosque, Habibie conducted the Friday prayers before giving a speech and answering questions from some of the thousands of attendees.

"On behalf of the government and the military, I apologize for all excesses which have occurred," the President told the forum.

"I have instructed security personnel to immediately stop all violence and bloodshed." He also pledged to punish any Armed Forces members involved in human rights violations.

The military operations from 1989 to 1998 has led to thousands killed, widowed and orphaned. Fact-finding teams also said many had become invalids, and that many homes had been destroyed.

Minister of Defense and Security/ Armed Forces (ABRI) Commander Gen. Wiranto earlier apologized to the Acehnese when he lifted the operations status last year. Since then residents have accused the government of lacking seriousness in redressing their losses, a charge repeated on Friday.

"We do not want empty promises. We will take more aggressive measures if your promises are not realized," Muhammad Saleh, one of several outspoken attendees, told the President. "And do not ever try to intimidate or frighten people," Saleh, a student of Iskandar Muda University, said.

He reiterated demands for a referendum, saying it was the only way to end bloodshed in the province. The same demand was repeated by demonstrators outside the mosque.

Sporadic violence has erupted between civilians and the military, leading to more victims, following alleged abductions of military members blamed on separatists of the Free Aceh movement. Earlier this week the Armed Forces said bodies of two military personnel were found.

Habibie promised to convey the proposal of a referendum to the People's Consultative Assembly and the House of Representatives, saying it was not within his authority to decide.

He added that if Acehnese wanted their voices heard they should vote in the June elections to ensure their representation in the above bodies.

His entourage included First Lady Hasri Ainun Habibie, Wiranto, Minister/State Secretary Akbar Tandjung and other ministers.

Habibie added the government realized that "former policies were unsuited to the Aceh people ... which might have been caused by centralization."

If accepted, he and his wife would become "foster parents of talented children", he said.

He told the people that his visit aimed to build ties with the people of Aceh and hear their problems directly, particularly the effects of the military operations.

Habibie promised to rebuild the railway in the province and to widen the airport's runway. He also pledged to develop the northernmost Sabang town as a modern port and industrial center.

"Where will he get all the money from?" a curious 60-year-old man, Zulfikar, said on hearing all the promises.

Another attendee said that instead of punishing military officers responsible for harming Aceh, ABRI instead promoted them.

Students referred to Minister of Home Affairs Lt. Gen. Syarwan Hamid, who was ABRI commander in the early years of the military operation. Such officers remain "untouchable", said Fuadri, senate chairman of the state-run Syiah Kuala University.

Fuadri reiterated students' opposition to calls for a military command to be reopened to restore security in the province. "The reopening will only add to disasters faced by the people," Fuadri said.

In his address Governor Syamsuddin Mahmud said the government's praises to Aceh people should be followed up with policies to redress "wounds and disappointment" brought on by military actions.

Ahead of Habibie's visit the government attempted "reconciliatory" measures, releasing 40 Acehnese political prisoners, most of them linked to the Free Aceh movement.

The military operation attempted to crush the movement, but resentment against the Indonesian government remained. This was on top of what was seen as the state filling its coffers with wealth from the resource-rich province while the people benefited little.

Demands for a referendum have been raised since Governor Syamsuddin suggested a federation may be the best way to retain the integrity of the nation. Students said it would be better to have a referendum to determine whether Acehnese wanted independence from Indonesia.