Mon, 23 Sep 2002

Security concerns cloud Megawati's brief trip to Aceh

Fabiola Desy Unidjaja and Nani Farida, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta/Lhokseumawe

President Megawati Soekarnoputri is planning to visit Aceh on Wednesday amid concerns over the deteriorating security situation in the troubled province.

The visit, her second since assuming the national leadership, will be very short -- only one hour -- and be confined to Banda Aceh's Sultan Iskandar Muda airport.

Sources close to Megawati told The Jakarta Post on Sunday that the President would inaugurate the maiden flight of the provincial airline Seulawah and the new Ulee Lhue port. She would also open the Aceh Customs and Cultural (LAKA) congress.

All these events would be held at the Sultan Iskandar Muda international airport. She will not hold any meetings or discussions with local people as previous presidents usually did when making working visits to the province.

No official explanation has been given as to why Megawati will only stay for one hour in Aceh or why she will not set foot outside of the airport, but security in the troubled province has been deteriorating recently.

Despite the stated desire of the government and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) to resolve the Aceh conflict through peace talks, armed clashes between government troops and GAM fighters occur virtually every day, claiming the lives of innocent civilians, security personnel and rebels.

Security personnel arrested two persons in Lhokseumawe, North Aceh, on Sunday after they helped organize an Istighotsah, or mass prayer meeting, calling for a cease-fire between government troops and GAM, a secessionist group that has been fighting for independence since 1976.

The two were identified as Kautsar bin Muhammad Yus, chairman of the Acehnese People's Democratic Struggle Front (FPDRA), and Muhammad Nasir Azis, chairman of the Istighotsah's organizing committee. Over 1,000 attended the public prayer gathering.

Kautsar, who is the son of the Aceh legislature's speaker, said in his speech that a cease-fire would give room to the people to choose between independence and autonomy.

"If (the people) choose independence, they should not be afraid of the TNI, and if they opt for autonomy, they should not be afraid of GAM," he said.

Both Kautsar and Muhammad Nazir are now being detained in a North Aceh police station.

Megawati's Wednesday visit will be her second since she was catapulted into the presidential hot seat in July 2001.

In her visit in September 2001, Megawati publicly asked for forgiveness from all Acehnese for the government's past mistakes and promised to resolve the decades-long problems through peaceful means.

"I know that the central government made mistakes in the past. Personally and on behalf of the government, I would like to ask for your forgiveness," Megawati said.

She also appealed to the Acehnese to accept the Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam autonomy law that grants the Acehnese 70 percent of the province's oil and gas revenues, and gives them more freedom to manage their own affairs.

The President promised that the government would rebuild all damaged infrastructure in the province, but in return she asked the Acehnese to maintain the infrastructure and end all clashes.

The government, however, has yet to accede to the Acehnese people's demand for the prosecution of military personnel responsible for human rights violations in Aceh.

Meanwhile, students from nine universities in Aceh asked Megawati to fulfill her promise to end the bloodshed in the province.

They also said that Megawati should bring new hope for the people with her should she want to visit the province, and not just bring more empty promises.

The students also asked the government to include all components of society, especially Muslim leaders, in the peace talks with GAM, while at the same time ensuring law enforcement in the province.

Another round of peace talks with GAM is expected to take place later this month or in early October.