Mon, 26 May 2003

Stop bloodshed in Aceh!

T. Sima Gunawan, Staff Writer, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta,

The Acehnese dream of a peaceful life has turned into a nightmare. War is back with the government's decision to launch a military offensive in the province following the failure of recent peace talks with the Free Aceh Movement (GAM).

The government said a humanitarian aid program was also being launched along with the sending of 50,000 troops and police in Aceh through what they call integrated operations.

But no matter how much money is to be channeled to the restive area, how many tons of rice sent to overcome food shortages, the misery and trauma of the war will remain.

Indeed, the scars of war during the period of the military operation zone (DOM) between 1989 and 1998, which claimed some 10,000 lives, a still remain.

The first few days of the war clearly show that it is the innocent who suffer the most. Thousands of children have lost their right to education with the torching of 287 schools. No one has claimed responsibility, and instead the Indonesian Military (TNI) and GAM are trading accusation.

On Friday, newspapers reported that 10 civilians, including a 12-year-old boy, were killed in cold blood by the military. TNI acknowledged the deaths but said the incident could have happened because GAM members were hiding among civilians.

The government and the military have repeatedly stated that the military offensive is aimed at crushing GAM, and they have vowed to strive to minimize the number of civilian casualties.

Many fear that the military will find it difficult to distinguish between GAM members and civilians, and worry that the military will abuse its power by killing anyone suspected of being a GAM member.

Abuse of power leading to human rights violations has unfortunately already taken place. Several activists and individuals have also been accused of being linked to GAM and subsequently arrested.

Many Acehnese live in fear. They might be afraid of GAM, which is often described as a savage and vicious militia that likes to harass people, but they might also be afraid of the military, notorious for acts of violence during the previous military operation.

The exodus has started -- again. Many have left their hometowns and have headed for North Sumatra, which borders Aceh.

Fear grips not only the Acehnese who live in the conflict areas, but also native Acehnese residing outside of the province, including in Jakarta.

In Jakarta, the governor, the police chief and the military commander have repeatedly warned the public of possible terror attacks by GAM members.

On Wednesday, the police announced they had started to hunt down suspects in their hiding places in the capital. Governor Sutiyoso also mentioned raids on rented houses throughout the city to capture any rebels. The governor also encouraged people to arrest anyone they suspected of being GAM members and turn them into the police.

Not only does the policy cause concern among the Acehnese who live in the city, it also draws criticism due to its lack of legal basis. Worse, it is prone to human rights violations.

The government is confident it will win the war, and that when the war is over, peace will come to Aceh.

Starting a war to restore peace is a contradiction in itself. But, as Indonesians say, the rice has already become porridge (nasi telah menjadi bubur). No one can turn porridge back into rice. But at least it should not rot nor turn rancid. Both parties could return to the negotiating table. But how can Indonesia's negotiators make words sharper than weapons, to win over GAM?

Talking is tiring, especially if it is mere rhetoric. But the Acehnese are sick and tired of war.

Before becoming president, Megawati Soekarnoputri promised she would not let one drop of blood spill on Acehnese soil. It is a little late for that now, but she should do her utmost to prevent further bloodshed.