Mon, 12 May 2003

Indonesian Cabinet risks commiting war crimes

Endy M. Bayuni, Deputy chief editor, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

At first glance, the government appears to have laid out a carefully and well thought-out plan for its combined operations in Aceh, which it will likely launch this week.

At least, that is the impression that government officials are giving as they make preparations for the campaign that combines humanitarian assistance, law enforcement, restoration of government services, and security operations.

The government hopes that through these simultaneous operations Aceh will soon return to the path of peace and order, and prosperity, minus the separatist rebels with whom it has been fighting these past 26 years.

This four-in-one operation is the government's answer to resolving the Aceh problem, now that it has virtually abandoned all negotiations with the Aceh Free Movement (GAM).

It is probably safe to assume that the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (COHA), brokered by the Geneva-based Henry Dunant Centre (HDC) and signed by the government and GAM in Geneva in December, is as good as dead.

The security campaign will be the cornerstone of this combined operation, which will be launched once the government's ultimatum for GAM to return to the negotiating table ends today (Monday).

The government's position regarding the campaign was made clear by chief political and security minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's favorite phrase last week: "The show must go on."

With up to 50,000 troops and police officers planned for what the government terms a "security operation", the other three campaigns would be peripheral, although they are not necessarily less important.

But let's not kid ourselves. This is a war.

This will be Indonesia's biggest military deployment since independence 58 years ago. The Indonesian Military (TNI) has spared nothing for the campaign, deploying all the best units in its possession.

The Army is sending its Strategic Reserves Command (Kostrad) and the Special Forces (Kopassus); The Navy is deploying its Marines on the ground, as well as more than 10 of its warships to patrol the waters around Aceh; the Air Force is sending its crack Special Forces (Paskhas), and stationed a handful of its airworthy jet fighters in Medan in neighboring North Sumatra. The police are deploying its own elite forces, the Mobile Brigade.

The government is going all out in this military campaign.

The confidence Jakarta displays in launching the combined operations reminds us of George W. Bush and his war in Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein in March.

Jakarta's confidence is buoyed by little public opposition. The peaceniks who took to the streets in their thousands to oppose Bush's war in Iraq have been muted. Their deafening silence is taken, certainly by the government, as approval of the war plan.

The majority of the mainstream media in Jakarta seemed to have bought the government's argument that war was inevitable, and they are now busy preparing their journalists to become embedded with the TNI to cover the war from the front line.

Opposition came from a handful of Aceh public figures who have been in Jakarta this past week to lobby the government to change its mind. But Jakarta's mindset is already so geared up for war that President Megawati Soekarnoputri even refused to meet the Aceh delegates who were crying out for peace and for Jakarta to spare Aceh from another humanitarian calamity.

Nothing, it seems, will stop the government from going ahead with its war plan, and judging by officials' smug attitudes, nothing can go wrong with the plan.

The TNI certainly has a huge numerical superiority at almost 10 to 1, if we believe the claim that it is deploying 50,000 fully trained and armed troops to fight the 5,000 largely untrained armed rebels. And its weaponry, not great even by Asian standards, is still far superior to GAM's.

The government can also claim to have the support of the people (though, no one had bothered to ask the Acehnese about this war), and the political legitimacy.

Could anything really go wrong with this war game plan?


This war is being launched by a government operating on a shoestring budget. Any war is financially costly, and there is a big question mark over how the government intends to finance this campaign if it drags on.

Those drawing an analogy with the U.S. military campaign in Iraq forget that the TNI is facing a guerrilla war, not a conventional war. The TNI's record in counter-insurgency operations has been appalling, and raises the question as to why this one should be successful.

With its poor track record, history is definitely not on the TNI's side.

Earlier military campaigns in East Timor, Papua and Aceh, particularly the one conducted between 1988 and 1998, ended up driving more people to the opposing camp. The military ended up being part of the problem, not the solution. In all these previous campaigns the TNI's reputation was marred by the atrocities its members committed against civilians.

For the Acehnese, the scars and trauma of the 10-year military operations that ended in 1998 are still haunting them. Beginning this week they will have to endure another military campaign, the scale and extent of which no one can predict. This is hardly a recipe to win their hearts and minds.

Not even the military is prepared to state what would be considered as an acceptable figure for collateral damage in this campaign, or how long this campaign will go on. Minister of Social Services Bachtiar Chamsyah says the government is preparing to deal with up to 200,000 additional refugees.

TNI's assurances that this war would be monitored by the media to ensure that its soldiers did not commit atrocities against the people as in the past was not all that convincing.

The media taking part are tightly selected, and they would only be joining the logistic support units, and not put on the front line to see the combat firsthand. From the experience of the embedded American journalists in Iraq, we know that reporters lose their impartiality and become patriotic when they get too close to (or practically in bed with) the troops.

But even if by chance reporters or other monitors discovered atrocities and reported them, what then? Can we count on being able to hold the TNI accountable?

Accountability is one area for which the TNI has a notorious reputation. When it already has a huge pile of unresolved cases of TNI's lack of accountability (again largely in East Timor, Papua and Aceh), then we can expect that any new report of atrocities committed in Aceh would also be ignored.

But it matters not.

If this war is launched under the cover of a presidential decree, as it is expected, then it is President Megawati and her lieutenants in her Cabinet who will be made accountable for anything that might go wrong with this military campaign. They are the ones who will have to face the charges of war crimes if things go horribly wrong in Aceh.