Tue, 15 Jul 2003

Martial law fails to stop extortion in Aceh

Dewi Kurniawati, Contributor, Banda Aceh, Aceh

Almost two months into the bloody military operation aimed at crushing separatist rebels in Aceh province, some things have not changed much.

Extortion, generally taking the form of demands of illegal fees, remains one of the unresolved problems in Aceh, despite the imposition of martial law on May 19.

Although less blatant now, military and police personnel continue to ask truck drivers for money along Aceh's main road, linking the provincial capital Banda Aceh to the North Sumatra capital of Medan.

Truck drivers also face the risk of arson attacks by suspected members of the rebel Free Aceh Movement (GAM). A military or police escort may ensure the drivers' safety but are no guarantee of immunity from extortion.

In Sigli regency, around 50 trucks carrying staple foodstuffs were parked near a military post, waiting to be escorted to Medan by troops.

One of the truck drivers, who declined to reveal his name, said that three convoys per week were scheduled. Each driver paid what he called "coffee money" of between Rp 5,000 (about 60 U.S. cents) and Rp 10,000.

"That amount is not a big deal for us as we also realize that the soldiers are also tired guarding us," he said.

"What we don't like is when we're not in a convoy, driving alone; the coffee money can rise to up to Rp 50,000 per post. So from Medan to Banda Aceh, we might have to fork out up to Rp 400,000 in total," the driver added.

He described the border separating Aceh and North Sumatra as the worst spot, where security personnel sometimes asked for Rp 100,000 per post.

However, the driver said the incidence of extortion had declined since Aceh had been placed under martial law.

"Before, if our trucks were loaded, on the way from Medan to Banda Aceh we might have to spend up to Rp 1 million to get to our destination," he said.

Along the main road passing through Lampanah village in Bireuen regency, Aceh, police personnel were seen asking for chickens from the driver of a truck loaded with fowl. Some others were demanding cash.

This is a common sight across the province. Rampant extortion has led to higher prices for commodities, as truck operators charge higher fees for cargo deliveries.

Human rights activities have said the illegal practices undermine Jakarta's efforts to win back the trust of the Acehnese, a key ingredient in crushing the separatist movement in the resource-rich province.

The unchecked extortion by both sides was one of the factors that led to an erosion in confidence regarding the possible success of the five-month-old peace agreement between the government and GAM.

While security personnel extort civilians along roads, the rebels are blamed for extorting villagers for money to help finance their fight for independence.

GAM leaders have confirmed the collection of what they term "taxes" from the Acehnese people, justifying this by saying that the Indonesian government did the same in the troubled province.

Aceh military operation spokesperson Lt. Col. Ahmad Yani Basuki said he was concerned about extortion by security personnel.

"I hope that when this happens, people would identify the exact location, and we will then take action against those involved," he said.

However, Ahmad asked the police to stamp out the extortion, arguing that this was the police's job. "This should come under their jurisdiction. We (the military) are here to fight the rebels," he said.