Mon, 26 May 2003

TNI should learn East Timor lesson: Don't abuse human rights

Lela E. Madjiah, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Has the Indonesian Military (TNI) learned the lesson from East Timor? Will it avoid making the same mistakes in Aceh?

These are questions people ask as a joint military crackdown on separatist rebels is being launched in Aceh. Many fear the military has not learned the humiliating lesson in Indonesia's former province of East Timor and risks losing Aceh.

East Timor's vote for independence in 1999 was partly blamed on human rights abuses by the Indonesian security forces. Despite the military's pledge for reform, including in the area of human rights, TNI has yet to prove to the nation and the international community that it has kept its pledge and will hold members accountable for any wrongdoing.

The war against separatist rebels in Aceh is a crucial test ground for the military, for many reasons. First of all, the government's decision to impose martial law in Aceh has drawn criticism, if not outright opposition, both from home and abroad.

This lack of full support has put the government at a delicate, if not dangerous, position: If something goes wrong, everybody will scramble to blame the government and jeopardize all efforts to keep Aceh within the fold of the Unitary Republic of Indonesia.

The ongoing trial of Indonesia's police and military officers, as well as civilians, over alleged human rights abuses in East Timor, and the court's decision to acquit most of the defendants, have caused skepticism over TNI's pledge for reform.

The military is aware of public skepticism and distrust of its conduct.

"The joint operation to restore security and order in Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam is a challenge for TNI to perform as professional soldiers. Any wrong step and failure to follow the procedure will boomerang," Central Java/Diponegoro Military chief Maj. Gen. Amirul Isnaini said on Saturday.

In a written statement read by Diponegoro Chief of Staff Brig. Gen. Salim Mengga before members of Infantry Battalion 405/Surya Kusuma leaving for Aceh, Amirul ordered his troops to act professionally.

"TNI is in Aceh to pacify armed Free Aceh Movement (GAM) rebels, but TNI soldiers must distinguish between those who are the target of the operation and those who need protection. This is important because the people and the international community are watching closely TNI's conduct in Aceh," said Amirul.

Earlier on Friday TNI spokesman Maj. Gen. Sjafrie Sjamsoeddin said the TNI was closely monitoring the operation to prevent troops from violating the law.

"Soldiers who commit violations will be punished accordingly," he said at media conference at the TNI headquarters at Cilangkap, East Jakarta.

As part of efforts to ensure that troops follow the procedures and respect the law, TNI has sent additional military police to Aceh to process immediately any violations.

As if to make good on his words, TNI said on Saturday it was investigating reports its soldiers had killed civilians during a raid in Bireuen. The probe was sparked by media reports of killings on Wednesday in a cluster of villages near Bireuen town.

Still, Sjafrie's promise and the presence of additional military police are no guarantee that everything will go smoothly, especially since TNI, a conventional force, is dealing with rebels who, as a nonconventional force, are conducting a guerrilla war.

History has shown that civilian casualties are unavoidable in any war, but are especially high in a war between conventional and nonconventional forces. The war in Iraq is a latest example, where the U.S. and its allies were unable to avoid civilian casualties and are facing charges of human rights violations.

While no one seriously believes the U.S. or its allies will be brought to a human rights court for the alleged abuses, Indonesia does not enjoy such impunity.

It is therefore a challenge for TNI troops to meet people's expectations that they perform as professional soldiers who respect human rights, and for TNI leadership to make sure that violators are punished.

If not, it would make a mockery of the military uniform.