Thu, 08 May 2003

The show must go on, says Susilo

The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

While offering a last minute chance for Aceh rebels to avert a full scale war, the government's chief security minister said on Wednesday that a military campaign would likely go ahead after Monday's deadline.

"The show must go on," Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Coordinating Minister for Political and Security Affairs, told a meeting with the nation's top editors.

President Megawati Soekarnoputri ordered the Indonesian Military (TNI) on Tuesday to launch a military campaign in Aceh, part of what the government calls a combined operation along with campaigns for humanitarian assistance, justice, and the restoration of local government services.

The government has set a May 12 deadline for the Aceh Free Movement (GAM), which has been fighting for a separate state since 1976, to return to the negotiating table.

Jakarta has also attached GAM's acceptance of Aceh's special autonomy status under the republic, and GAM's surrendering of its weapons, as preconditions for the peace talks.

The combined forces of TNI and the National Police in Aceh would be bolstered to around 50,000 from 40,000 for the launching of the security campaign next week, Susilo disclosed.

The huge number was needed not only to confront GAM forces, estimated by the TNI at 5,000, but also to protect the Aceh people in areas once they come under TNI control, to secure strategic sites. and a host of other things, he said.

On the humanitarian assistance campaign, he said the government would make sure that no Acehnese would go hungry while the operation took place, that they would not be deprived of access to health care, that they would be able to continue to visit houses of worship, and that children would be able to go to school.

The minister, himself a retired Army general, said President Megawati would decide on the legal umbrella under which the combined operations would be launched, citing four possibilities: maintenance of law and order, a state of civil emergency, martial law, or war.

A decision would be made before Monday, he said, adding that the government has also scheduled a meeting with the House of Representatives on Wednesday to discuss its policy in Aceh.

Susilo also reiterated that there was still a "window of opportunity" for negotiations before the Monday deadline.

"I admit, it's a small window, and it would probably need divine intervention for this to happen," he said.

GAM had rejected Jakarta's ultimatum but said that it was prepared to meet with the Indonesian government once again only after May 12.

Talks between the government and GAM had been brokered by the Geneva-based Henry Dunant Centre (HDC) since 2000. The talks led to the historic signing of the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (COHA) on Dec. 9, 2002.

After a lull of about two months, the two sides resumed fighting, and the escalation of tension has reached the point where the December agreement is as good as dead. Both GAM and the government have traded blame for undermining the agreement.

Last ditch efforts to salvage the agreement failed when GAM pulled out of a meeting in Geneva on April 25 at the last minute, even as Indonesian representatives had arrived there.

Susilo refused to give a time frame on how long the next military campaign in Aceh would last.

The last TNI campaign in Aceh lasted 10 years. It was abandoned in 1998 after it became clear that not only had the military failed miserably, but it was also responsible for atrocities that went unreported, sending more Aceh people to the GAM fold.

This time, TNI had promised that it would allow national and international reporters and observers to monitor the war and ensure that the operation would not be marred by human rights violations.

Susilo insisted that the government had exhausted all peaceful means to solve the Aceh problem, and that GAM had taken advantage of the cessation of hostilities agreement to consolidate and even recruit and rearm in violation of the COHA terms and spirit.

"If we could avert the use of force, we would," he said, adding however that the situation in Aceh had reached the point where it was threatening the people of Aceh, as well as the territorial integrity of the republic.

Negotiations, he added, could even resume while the military operation was underway. "Our doors remain open," he said.

War and diplomacy could take place simultaneously, he said, recalling Indonesia's struggle for independence in the late 1950s, and the military campaign to win Papua in the early 1960s as examples of the successful two-pronged approach.