Jakarta offensive in Aceh drags on

Southeast Asia
By Kafil Yamin

JAKARTA - Indonesia's armed forces might be winning the propaganda war in Aceh, thanks to "embedded" journalists, but activists warn that peace remains out of sight after more than a month of military operations.

Instead, they say, the offensive in Aceh province that began on May 19 has taken a severe toll on civilians and on the rule of law.

"Instead of bringing peace to Aceh, the military operation had claimed a significant number of civilian casualties, and undermined democracy and human rights," Ori Rachman, coordinator of the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras), told a discussion this week organized by the Indonesian Muslim Students Association.

A separatist rebellion by the Free Aceh Movement, known by its Indonesian acronym GAM, has been festering for 27 years. In December, the Geneva-based Henry Dunant Center mediated a ceasefire that called the rebels to disarm and for the troops to withdraw to barracks.

The accord brought the resource-rich province its first period of peace in decades, but the calm evaporated in May after the process collapsed and President Megawati Sukarnoputri declared a state of military emergency in Aceh.

Still, some analysts say, it appears that many among the Indonesian public continue to be open to - or believe - the military's version of events.

Many Indonesian journalists have been moving about with the troops, a trend that critics frown upon as undercutting independent reportage but which some analysts also keeps the military on their toes in Aceh.

"The nature of openness to media coverage, because of the presence of embedded journalists in the war arena, has made the TNI [Indonesian military] behave more professionally," military analyst M T Ariffin conceded in an interview. "Civilian casualties have been minimized and TNI is compensating war victims with humanitarian aid. Soldiers are also being disciplined."

An Indonesian military court recently sentenced eight soldiers for harassing and beating civilians in their hunt for GAM rebels, after reports on their behavior had been publicized by local journalists allowed to cover the troops' operations.

But Ariffin also said that the TNI been using the term "armed unidentified persons" to describe GAM to reporters, in order to justify why the rebels had to be crushed.

"The burning of about 500 schools, attacks on public transport and the killing of civilians have all been blamed on these 'armed unidentified persons'. The fact is that the public seems to be believing TNI," he said.

Sidney Jones, a director with the International Crisis Group, said the Indonesian broadcast media, with some very brave exceptions, had "rolled over and played dead".

"What you see on television news is video footage taken by embedded journalists of soldiers storming GAM strongholds, of tearful children standing around burned schools, of soldiers distributing rice to needy villagers, or of wounded soldiers being visited in hospitals by their proud commanders," she said.

Added Jones: "So, while international concern mounts, domestic support is high, and Indonesia is stepping up its campaign to have GAM declared a terrorist organization."

Ori said that so far, some 150 civilians have been killed and more than 60 persons have gone missing during the military operation. According to Kontras, the operation has also forced more than 30,000 civilians to flee their homes for security reasons, and relief agencies fear the number of internally displaced people might exceed 100,000.

Ori added that Kontras obtained its figures from the accounts of victims' family members and by cross-checking the bodies removed by the Indonesian Red Cross.

Government figures, however, differ from Kontras' statistics. Sudi Silalahi, secretary to the coordinating minister for political and security affairs, said last Friday that 62 people had gone missing and there had been only 57 civilian casualties since the start of the armed forces' operations.

This week, too, 90 local and international groups called on the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France and the Netherlands to end all military sales to Indonesia.

"The military offensive in Aceh, which is Indonesia's largest military operation since the invasion of East Timor in 1975, is now proceeding at a level that is causing widespread civilian loss of life and the destruction of Aceh's public infrastructure," said their statement.

It added: "Human-rights groups fear massive violations of human rights and are especially concerned about the safety of human-rights defenders and civil-society activists. Numerous reports of extrajudicial killings and torture are emerging from Aceh, including of students and boys as young as 12."

Ori said the military operation posed a threat to the democracy that Indonesia got back after the fall of Suharto in 1998. "Police sweeps and surveillance operations targeting Acehnese, who are suspected of being GAM members, are now normal throughout the country, disrupting the liberties of civilians," he said.

Writing in the English-language daily Jakarta Post, Tiarma Siboro, one of the first batch of 54 "embedded" journalists with the military, asked: "Embedded journalists, what are they really good for? Can they be expected to be objective when their life is dependent on the very same people they are reporting about?"

But the days of privileged information from the armed forces for these embedded journalists might soon be over.

In new regulations last week, authorities in Aceh banned the press from publishing the names of places where military troops were positioned, military maps or sketches, and the names of aircraft and ships used during offensive operations.

The military required field reporters to record all interviews with troops, and said "journalists can only publish or broadcast excerpts of the interviews after the missions in question have been carried out".

Aceh Military Operation spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel A Yani Basuki has stressed that military authorities had the right to expel journalists violating the regulations.

Ori countered: "The military and government have adopted policies that restrict the rights of journalists and activists from non-governmental organizations from entering and monitoring what is really happening in Aceh."

But Salim Said, another military analyst, remained adamant that the public was not hostile to the military operation. "If there's proof that many civilians have been killed unnecessarily, there will be a strong reaction. But so far efforts by Komnas HAM [the national human rights commission] to reveal human-rights abuses by the military have not convinced the public," he said.

(Inter Press Service)