Tue, 14 Nov 2000

Security forces at fault in Aceh

Dozens have been killed in various spots in the troubled province of Aceh during two days of pro-independence rallies in the capital Banda Aceh. The assembly ended peacefully last Saturday. Lesley McCulloch, a researcher at the Bonn International Center for Conversion and at the Australian National University in Canberra, was with the Acehnese who risked their lives to attend the gathering.

BANDA ACEH (JP): The people of the troubled northern Indonesian province of Aceh were on the move.

Thousands of them faced an uncertain fate at the hands of the Indonesian security authorities as they made their way to Banda Aceh, the capital of the embattled province where a peaceful rally in support of a UN monitored referendum on the subject of independence was due to take place on Saturday, November 11.

I was at the Syiah Kuala University campus in Banda Aceh on Thursday as hundreds arrived from the Pidie regency, joining the thousands who'd already gathered from around the province.

They arrived bringing rice and other food stuffs, tarpaulins to sleep under, cooking pots and stoves. These people have uprooted themselves from their homes to show support for a referendum to vote for independence from Indonesia.

Having been turned back on the main roads by the police's elite Mobile Brigade (Brimob) unit and the Indonesian Military (TNI), they had traveled in trucks, buses and cars on the little known back roads of this beautiful rainforested province.

One man said: "It took us seven hours to travel the 80km from Saree. We tried to get through on the main road but Brimob turned us away and even shot the tires of some of the vehicles."

The vehicles they had just disembarked from were turning around to go back to pick up more villagers.

A woman, two young children clinging to her, told me: "The military shot my husband in a rice field. Our convoy refused to go back and they (Brimob) started to shoot in the air. We all ran.

"Then they began to shoot at us. Several were injured and my husband died. We have no weapons, we are only farmers. They have the guns. I came with the convoy because my husband is already dead, what could I do? He would have wished me to come."

Reports have also come in claiming that two bridges, at Saree and Seulawak, have been blown up.

On Wednesday some 1,000 people, having been terrorized by the police and military on the road, had taken to the sea and arrived in local fishing boats from Sigli, the capital of Pidie.

These men, women, and children were fired upon by the authorities as they approached the small fish market port. The official word is that the authorities shot into the water and over the heads of the people.

This was obviously not the case, as two civilians -- one an elderly bystander -- were injured. Indeed, the death toll over the past five days has reached almost 200 according to reports from the villages, with many more injured. The number of deaths is difficult to verify due to the remoteness of many areas.

Independent witnesses tell of Brimob taking away bodies to unknown destinations.

I myself witnessed people being shot at as they ran through rice paddies for cover, being made to sit in the blistering sun and ordered at gunpoint alternately to sing and pray, and tires of vehicles being shot out. This is the reality of democracy Indonesian style.

Mohammed Nazar, leader of the Center for Information on a Referendum for Aceh (SIRA), the organizers of the rally, said: "We feel so bad. We organized a peaceful rally and it is resulting in the slaughter of innocent civilians.

"We have sent word to the villages. Please do not try to come to Banda Aceh. We know you want to be here with us and we know you support the referendum but please do not risk the lives of yourselves and your children. We cannot guarantee you safety as you travel here."

A senior Free Aceh Movement (GAM) representative in the humanitarian pause monitoring team said: "The 'pause' is not working. We are here to monitor its failure. We can see from the actions of the police and the military over the past few days that the Indonesian government is not committed to the internationally brokered pause."

In the past, the issues of independence for Aceh and support for GAM were often separate. Due to the actions of the Indonesian security forces over the past months, these two issues have been gradually merging into one.

Generally distrustful of the government in Jakarta, the Acehnese want independence and many more of them believe that the only way to obtain this is by supporting GAM.

It is difficult to see what progress could be made at the peace talks due to be held in Geneva on Nov. 16 and 17. The Coordinating Minister for Political, Social and Security Affairs Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has said that Indonesia will never grant independence to Aceh.

The government is offering accelerated development for the province or special autonomy.

Nasrullah Dahlawy from the United Peoples of Aceh Movement and chief GAM representative on the humanitarian pause monitoring committee said in an interview earlier this week: "We do not trust the Indonesian government. We will never agree to anything less than full independence.

"The people of Aceh are willing to make a very generous offer to the Indonesian people of sharing for a limited period the benefits of the wonderful natural resources that belong to the free people of Aceh."

In the meantime, although the government has not banned the referendum rally from taking place, a local police spokesman Colonel Kusbini Imbar told this author in a telephone interview on Thursday that "we will do all we can to prevent people reaching Banda Aceh. This includes the use of force if necessary."

I have been witness to this use of force.

In an apparent turnaround, President Abdurrahman Wahid said on Friday that the people of Aceh should be allowed to attend the rally.

Typical of Indonesian politics, while the President was making conciliatory noises, Susilo, who was in Central Java, has been quoted as saying that "firm actions" would be taken to prevent the mass rally from turning into a popular call for a referendum.

The information I received from local organizers on the Saturday morning certainly confirms that the crackdown has continued overnight.

Rahdi, one of the leaders of SIRA said: "The situation has been really terrible overnight. Despite the President's statement that the people should be allowed to attend the rally, there has been another six confirmed deaths and many more as yet unconfirmed. The numbers of those wounded is around 40.

"Please help us. Let the international community know what is happening to the people of Aceh."