Fri, 23 May 2003

Victims of war

Surely it is too early to predict the outcome of the ongoing "integrated operations" in Aceh, only a few days into the state of military emergency? The facts, however, already indicate large flaws in the supposedly well-prepared, military-dominated operations.

The other day, more than 240 schools in different cities were torched, allegedly by Free Aceh Movement (GAM) rebels, seemingly with great ease. Assuming that each school had six classrooms and each classroom accommodated around 35 students, the first victims of this Aceh war are probably more than 50,000 young students, who will have bitter memories for years to come.

Furthermore, contrary to early promises of freedom for journalists to cover the war, Aceh military ruler Maj. Gen. Endang Suwarya began to censor the press on day two of operations, blatantly instructing the media not to print statements from GAM.

Aceh-based daily newspaper Serambi Indonesia was the first to be taken to task for its coverage. Then, reporters from Metro TV were given a firm tongue-lashing from the military because of their footage that showed a group of people wearing GAM attributes helping local residents extinguish a fire at a school in Bireuen. They were even threatened with expulsion from Aceh.

In support of the government's pledge to quash GAM, the police have started to arrest human rights activists and other individuals allegedly connected with the separatist group. One of them, Cut Nur Asikin, who leads the Srikandi Aceh women's rights organization, has been declared a suspect in subversion and terror cases in the province. Another suspect is a staff member of the Henry Dunant Centre, which facilitated the peace agreement between Jakarta and GAM.

Endang went even further by accusing several non-governmental organizations of being GAM sympathizers. He threatened to arrest their members if they continued with their activities. The fact is that many of them work in the area of human rights. Later, he issued a shoot-on-sight order against anyone involved in criminal acts such as looting and arson, disregarding the due process of law.

One question that immediately pops up after hearing the news about the burning down of so many schools within several hours, concerns the competence of the intelligence wing of these "integrated operations" to anticipate this kind of terror attack, if, indeed, the large-scale arson was perpetrated by GAM. After the first few school arson incidents, how come that more than 200 other schools were destroyed, apparently with such ease?

These facts are certainly at variance with the belief of many in military circles last week that the outcome of the military operation in Aceh would end in an anticlimax -- referring to the recent U.S. invasion of Iraq -- with GAM rebels either surrendering quickly or simply disappearing.

However, what is more disturbing than the seeming helplessness of this largest Indonesian military operation thus far -- involving up to 50,000 troops -- against these arson attacks, is the likelihood of millions of Acehnese in the province living in terror again. For 10 consecutive years during the Military Operation Zone (DOM) imposed on Aceh by the authoritarian regime of former president Soeharto from 1989 through 1998, the Acehnese have suffered under this kind of fear.

More than 10,000 people were killed in that period, most of whom were innocent civilians. Several thousand others simply disappeared. Those were years that the majority of Acehnese find hard to forget. Those were the years when they were intimidated, harassed, terrorized, threatened, illegally arrested, many arbitrarily killed and their resource-rich province plundered, while the perpetrators got away with impunity.

Judging by the events that have taken place in the first few days of martial law in Aceh -- and the clumsy reactions to them -- it is hard to exclude the possibility of more surprises in the weeks to come. It will be even more difficult to brush off the highly probable recurrence of human rights abuses, again committed with impunity. The term "integrated operations" is beginning to look more like something of a misnomer now.