Wed, 17 Dec 2003

Insecurity threatens next year's elections in Aceh, Todung says

Nani Farida and Teuku Agam Muzakkir, The Jakarta Post, Banda Aceh/Lhokseumawe

In a bid to ensure that the Acehnese can exercise their right to vote in the upcoming elections, rights campaigner Todung Mulya Lubis has called for a delay in the elections pending the lifting of martial law there.

Todung argued that the ongoing military offensive would not be conducive for the Acehnese to express their political aspirations, a situation that "will only trigger questions on whether or not the elections in Aceh are legitimate."

"I don't think the Acehnese people will be given freedom of expression if the government insists on maintaining martial law here.

"And once the public questions the legitimacy of the elections here, I'm afraid that such situation will only benefit the secessionist movement," Todung told The Jakarta Post.

Todung, along with several members of non-governmental organizations concerned with fair elections in the country, joined Coordinating Minister for Political and Security Affairs Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on his visit to Aceh on Tuesday to get first hand information about the situation in the province ahead of the 2004 general elections.

During the visit, they held closed-door meetings with several local officials, including Aceh Martial Law Administrator Maj. Gen. Endang Suwarya.

The government imposed martial law across the territory on May 19 to allow its troops to launch offensive operations to quash the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM).

President Megawati Soekarnoputri decided in November to extend martial law for another six months, arguing that GAM was still strong and could pose security threats before, during and after the elections.

KPU has scheduled the legislative election for April 5, 2004, and has planned to organize two-phase presidential elections in July and September. A total of 24 political parties have been declared eligible for the elections.

The Indonesian Military (TNI) had earlier predicted that the movement had about 5,000 fighters scattering in five regencies -- North, East and West Aceh, Bireuen and Pidie -- categorized as rebel strongholds.

With violence taking place every day in Aceh, TNI has claimed that nearly 1,000 GAM rebels have been killed, while about 2,000 others have been arrested or had surrendered to the Unitary Republic of Indonesia.

Rights activists and political observers have criticized the government's decision to extend the military offensive in Aceh, fearing that a massive deployment of government soldiers would affect the democratic climate across the territory.

A study carried out by the Center for Electoral Reform (Cetro) in Aceh showed that more than 50 percent of respondents said that martial law would not allow freedom of expression for the Acehnese people.

The study involving 48 respondents from 16 regions in the province.

Susilo concurred, saying that next year's elections in Aceh might face problems.

"Expecting that elections in Aceh will be the same as those held in other territories is impossible. The government is currently trying to seek a solution to the problems," Susilo said.

"We (the government) wish that the elections here could be held in a peaceful atmosphere and that the Acehnese feel free to vote. If necessary, the government will allow foreign monitoring teams to visit Aceh in the upcoming elections," Susilo said.