Sat, 28 Jun 2003

Sociologist warns of dirty war in Aceh

Tiarma Siboro, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Strict restrictions against the presence of the media and foreign individuals and institutions in Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam has raised speculation that the Indonesian Military (TNI) will employ "a dirty war" in crushing the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM), a sociologist said on Friday.

Otto Syamsuddin Ishak said that more than a month after imposing martial law in the war-torn province, the military had failed to predict the strength of GAM rebels, forcing the TNI to apply a new war strategy which may repeat the brutality of the 10-year military operation in Aceh from 1989 to 1999.

"The presence of the media and activists in Aceh promotes transparency over the ongoing (military and humanitarian) operation there.

"And a series of abuses conducted by government troops has also been exposed to the public and indeed it has not been beneficial for the TNI," Otto told The Jakarta Post.

He was referring to a series of violent incidents against civilians that were exposed by the press, including the incident in Lawang village in Bireun, North Aceh, which had forced the military to prosecute seven soldiers of the Lampung-based 144th Infantry Battalion accused of assaulting civilians there.

To support the new strategy, the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights is drafting tough regulations to limit the presence of non-governmental organizations (NGO) in Aceh, further closing the province to independent scrutiny.

President Megawati Soekarnoputri earlier issued a decree restricting foreigners from traveling to Aceh for the duration of martial law, while the Ministry of Foreign Affairs also issued a regulation restricting foreign journalists and local correspondents of foreign media to a maximum stay of one month.

Otto further criticized Jakarta's decision to screen civil servants in Aceh so as to strengthen the local administration, saying that "it is no different to the screening that the New Order regime exercised over those allegedly involved in the abortive coup blamed on the now defunct Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) on Sept. 30, 1965.

"With regards the humanitarian assistance, I don't think that the government is capable of handling that as many refugees are already suffering from life-threatening illnesses, including diarrhea and respiratory ailments," Otto said.

Echoing Otto was rights activist Johnson Pandjaitan of the Indonesian Legal Aid and Human Rights Association (PBHI), who said that the latest policies had been motivated by prejudice that both the press and activists had contributed to the country's disintegration.

According to Johnson, such policies neglected the real role of the media and activists in controlling the ongoing military offensive in Aceh because "all military critics will be branded as supporting the separatist group."

Johnson said the military had likely learned from the East Timor experience where it was considered unable to restrict the presence of the press and foreign activists before the August 1999 ballot, which resulted in the East Timorese opting for independence.

"The secessionist movement is not the only problem in Aceh. There are also issues of rights abuses, weapons and drug trafficking. The military is believed to have contributed to these problems and do you think they can handle the situation while the press and the activists are around?," Johnson said.