Aceh: Setbacks for Indonesia's war


JAKARTA — Just hours after claiming significant progress in its operation to crush the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and its supporters, the Indonesian military (TNI) on June 9 lost seven soldiers in an ambush in the Bireuen regency in northern Aceh.

It was the highest number of casualties the TNI has suffered in a single incident since martial law was declared on May 19. Six other soldiers and a mobile brigade officer were injured. The military said five rebels were killed.

The TNI claims that 169 GAM fighters have been killed so far, with around 300 captured. It says 23 TNI soldiers, four police officers and 18 civilians have been killed. More than 25,000 people have fled their homes.

On June 9, the TNI announced plans to build a prison on Nasi Island, about 15 kilometres from the capital Banda Aceh, to hold more than 1000 suspected GAM members and supporters. Military spokesperson Firdaus Komera said the prison may be modelled on Buru Island, near Ambon, where thousands of political prisoners were held for decades during the rule of former president Suharto. The military says that it expects the centre to be operational within two months.

A more significant setback for the Indonesian government's operation was the mass resignation of 76 village heads in the Bireuen regency on June 8, after complaining about the pressure they had to face in dealing with both the TNI and GAM. “Keucik [village chiefs] cannot run the administration under such pressure”, said spokesperson Rajali. “They cannot stand the conflict between TNI and GAM anymore.”

According to the June 9 Jakarta daily Kompas, the village chiefs are far more afraid of the TNI than GAM: “Although they did not mention any names, apparently they meant the case of Hamdani Yahya, a village head who was beaten by a soldier because he didn't want to tell them where GAM members had fled to.”

Jakarta Post reporter Tiarma Siboro, who is “embedded” with troops in Aceh, told Radio Australia on June 10 that a TNI spokesperson had told him that the TNI was monitoring village heads. Siboro believes the TNI suspects that most village chiefs side with GAM. “Most people sympathise with GAM rather than with the military”, he said.

Siboro told Radio Australia that he had seen no evidence of serious human rights abuses by GAM.

Initially, the Indonesian government's minister of home affairs Hari Sabarno dismissed the significance of the resignations. However, other officials have admitted they could have serious implications for the government's “integrated operation” in Aceh, one of its aims being to restore the civil administration. It will be difficult to find people prepared to replace the chiefs as Keucik in Bireuen only receive an “honorarium” of around 125,000 rupiah (US$15) a month, little incentive under the circumstances.

It has been reported that reported that 22 village heads were abducted in the Bireuen and Nagan Raya districts on June 3 and 8. Police claim they were abducted by GAM for ransom and to force them to resign as village heads.

If true, it would be a significant departure from previous incidents. While GAM has abducted people in the past (government officials, military informers, young women who fraternise with TNI troops), in most cases GAM announces the actions publicly, along with the reasons for the abductions. Abductees are released within a short period of time.

A far more likely explanation is that the chiefs have gone into hiding rather than resign publicly and risk being tarred with the “GAM sympathiser” brush.

On June 9, Aceh governor Abdullah Puteh said that the 67,000 civil servants working in Aceh would have to undergo special screening and examinations (litsus) because he was convinced that a number support the separatist movement. “If there are civil servants whose loyalties are divided or are flirting with GAM they will be dealt with harshly”, he said.

In March 2000, Indonesian's then-president Abdurrahman Wahid revoked litsus, which was used to eliminate “communist influence”. Anyone alleged to be a communist, or a descendant or close relative of a communist, was banned from participating in elections or working as a government official.

Frighteningly reminiscent of the Suharto period's censorship and thought control, Puteh was quoted by the June 11 as saying that “certainly these civil servants are not involved directly, such as those who carry arms and fight the official government, but it is rather a frame of thinking which supports GAM”.

From Green Left Weekly, June 18, 2003.