Brutal mistakes in Indonesia

Posted in Human Rights , Other , Asia | 05-Jan-04 | Source: The New York Times

The guerrilla war in the Indonesian province of Aceh has raged on and off for more than 25 years, but it has now gone underground. In May, the government broke off peace talks, declared martial law and sent in 40,000 troops. Since then, Aceh has been virtually sealed off. Foreign journalists, human rights groups and diplomats cannot enter. For months, the government even barred groups like Unicef and the World Food Program, which provide relief to besieged civilians. Indonesian journalists can travel in Aceh, but intimidation from the military and political pressures have kept them from reporting more than official pronouncements. Local human rights groups, harassed by soldiers, have gone into hiding.

Indonesian officials claim that they bar foreigners from Aceh for their own security. And it is true that in the past some have been kidnapped by the guerrillas, the Free Aceh Movement. But the dangers of Aceh come overwhelmingly from the army and the paramilitary police.

Even when plenty of nongovernment watchdogs were present, Aceh was a killing field, with a murder or kidnapping reported every day, and probably an equal number of such crimes going unreported. Eighty to 90 percent of those crimes were committed by government forces. Lesser crimes were also rampant, as soldiers supplemented their low pay through looting and extortion.

Today government troops in Aceh enjoy even greater powers and virtually no scrutiny. In some cases, they have records of brutality in the 1999 war in East Timor.

One major general was sentenced to prison for war crimes but, mysteriously, still serves in Aceh.

Before the news blackout, humanitarian agencies reported that hundreds of schools had been burned down. No one knows by whom, and there has been no investigation. In October and November, Human Rights Watch interviewed 85 recent refugees from Aceh who had landed in Malaysia. The refugees are not a representative sample of Aceh's population, but all of them claimed to have been victims or witnesses of abuses by troops.

Some Indonesian officials deny the abuses. But one former defense minister, now an ambassador, argued instead that troops could simply not be controlled in such a war.

The government in Jakarta clearly thinks that it has little reason to try to control them. The war is enormously popular with ordinary Indonesians, who consider the loss of East Timor a national humiliation. Aceh has oil and gas, which the Indonesian government needs.

In Washington, the U.S. State Department has publicly criticized Indonesia's conduct in Aceh and said that the war cannot be won militarily and must end through negotiations. But the Bush administration is hesitant to press the point. It does not want to offend a nation that is working as a partner against terrorism, so it has been reluctant to apply pressures that would really matter, like protesting the use of American weapons in Aceh and making respect for human rights a condition for the security aid it gives, including weapons for the police and training for the military.

The abusive conduct damages Indonesia's cause. Acehnese separatism began as a struggle for political and economic autonomy.

But now the war is about the war - the Acehnese join or support the guerrillas because of the army's brutality. Measures to control the behavior of troops, protect civilians and allow observers to enter Aceh have no powerful constituency in Jakarta or elsewhere. But they are crucial to persuading the Acehnese to abandon separatism and the guerrilla war, and to negotiate an agreement that will keep them part of Indonesia.