Sat, 29 Mar 2003

Refugees lash out at governor's ultimatum

Apriadi Gunawan, The Jakarta Post, Medan, North Sumatra

Thousands of people who claim to be Acehnese refugees ignored North Sumatra governor T. Rizal Nurdin's ultimatum to leave the provincial legislative council building, saying they would continue occupying the compound until they obtained resettlement funds.

Nano, a protest coordinator, called on the governor to account for the distribution of a total of Rp 106 billion disbursed by the central government for the resettlement of the refugees.

"We know that some of the funds has been distributed to the majority of the refugees, but the remainder is still being kept by the provincial administration, and is being embezzled by unauthorized officers. The provincial legislature should ask the governor to account for this embezzlement of funds," he said.

A group of the protesters visited public broadcaster TVRI demanding that it arrange a teleconference between them and Minister of Social Affairs Bachtiar Chamsyah. The TV station rejected the protesters' demands due to the financial difficulties it was facing.

On Thursday, the refugees held the governor and a number of councillors hostage for eight hours in the legislative building as they saw no sign that the governor was willing to distribute the funds.

The governor threatened to deploy security personnel to evict them by force from the compound but the protesters still refused to return to their refuge camps scattered across several areas of the city, Binjai and Langkat.

Bachtiar has accused a number of non-governmental organizations and students' associations of trying to exploit the refugee issue to make money. He believed that some of the people occupying the legislative building were not refugees as they were not registered with the local social affairs office.

Governor Rizal also suspected that several NGOs were provoking poor people in the city to join in the protest.

"It would be better for the protesters to return to their refugee camps so that the provincial administration can re- register them and ascertain the exact number of refugees who have yet to obtain the resettlement funds," he said.

Last December, the government decided to provide financial assistance to refugees in an attempt to resolve the refugee problem nationwide. It was decided that refugees in the province would receive Rp 8,750,000 per family to build modest homes in their resettlement areas.

Of a total of 12,000 families forced to flee due to the Aceh conflict, 7,000 have already been resettled while the remaining 5,000 are still languishing in refugee camps.

Ikhwaluddin Simatupang, a member of a team of lawyers providing support to the refugees, denied that a number of NGOs and students associations were exploiting the refugee issue to make money.

"We are here to help the refugees obtain their rights," he said.

So far, the police have detained 20 officers of the provincial administration for embezzling a total of Rp 2.5 billion from the resettlement funds.

Syamsul Bachri, chief of the social affairs office in Binjai, was sentenced to three years imprisonment after he was found guilty of embezzling a part of the resettlement funds earmarked for refugees in the regency.