Vol. 5, No. 1
|Indonesia Hints Independence||Aceh Conference Held in New York
by John M. Miller, ETAN Outreach/Media Coordinator
Aceh, located in the westernmost end of Indonesia in north Sumatra, was the final region incorporated into the Dutch East Indies, the colony which won independence as Indonesia in 1949. Acehnese have sought their own independence for more than 120 years, from both Dutch and Indonesian regimes. Although Muslim like the vast majority of Indonesians Acehnese see themselves as culturally distinct, practicing a more devout although not necessarily fundamentalist - - form of Islam.
While ETAN has not taken an official position on independence movements in Aceh or West Papua/Irian Jaya, we support struggles for human rights and democracy throughout Indonesia. (Unlike West Papua or Aceh, the UN has never accepted East Timors annexation as a legal act. )
Because of our solidarity with all victims of New Order repression, and because ETAN believes there is much to be learned from comparing ABRI terror in East Timor to its operations in other regions, we supported the first international conference on Aceh. This event, sponsored by the Aceh Forum of New York in conjunction with the Asian/Pacific/American Studies Institute of New York University, was held on December 12 in New York City.
The conference provided an opportunity for activists and academics to compare perspectives on Aceh and to formulate strategies to bring those responsible for human rights abuses in Aceh to justice. Several participants came from Aceh, to be joined by activists and human rights researchers from Europe and across the United States.
As human rights activist Sayed Mudhahar Ahmad emphasized, the Indonesian regime has long exploited the areas natural resources but most Acehnese still live in poverty. The regimes transmigration policy of moving large numbers from Java to outlying areas has added to Acehs economic woes as migrants take the best land and jobs.
Aceh Merdeka (Free Aceh), an armed resistance movement pressing for independence, was founded in 1976. Mass arrests led to a suspension of its activities until 1989. In response to an Aceh Merdeka resurgence in that year, the regime declared the area a special military zone and launched a Kopassus (special forces troops famous for sowing terror in East Timor) counter-insurgency campaign which included mass arrests, extra-judicial killings, disappearances, rape and torture.
Since the fall of Suharto, many Acehnese have spoken out against ABRI brutality. Several mass graves have been uncovered recently, resulting in calls for the prosecution of those responsible. In August 1998, Indonesian military chief General Wiranto visited Aceh and issued an apology. He announced the end of Acehs status as a "military operations region," promising that combat troops would be withdrawn. But as with a similar pledge about East Timor, troop levels have not decreased. At the conference, journalist Yarmen Dinamika quoted Wiranto as saying that soldiers who committed atrocities in Aceh would not be prosecuted because "they were only carrying out their duties." Was it their duty, Yarmen asked, to rape women, hang babies and torture and murder?
Jana Mason of the U.S. Committee for Refugees reported on the several thousand Acehnese who have fled ABRI repression to Malaysia in recent years. Last year, the Malaysian government began deporting these refugees, some of whom were arrested on their return to Indonesia. In March, 49 Acehnese refugees broke into foreign embassies in Kuala Lumpur (including the U.S. Embassy) to request political asylum.
This litany of human suffering is all too familiar to anyone conversant with East Timors history. East Timorese activist Fernando de Araujo made the connections explicit: "the hands which committed crimes in East Timor are the same as those which have spread atrocities over Aceh." Araujo focused on the militarys mistreatment of women as a tool to undermine resistance in both territories.
On December 28, 1998, Business Week reported on allegations that Mobil Oil Indonesia, "Mobils wholly owned subsidiary, provided crucial logistic support to the army, including earth-moving equipment that was used to dig mass graves." The magazine reported that a notorious torture center was only a few hundred yards from a liquid natural gas plant jointly operated by Mobil.
The company responded "that it loaned the army excavators and supplied troops with food and fuel on occasion for three decades," but claims this support was only for peaceful purposes.
Tensions in Aceh increased in late December when soldiers and police stations were attacked by mobs angered at lack of progress in investigation of military abuses. In the ensuing violence, seven soldiers and at least 22 civilians were reported killed, including five tortured to death by soldiers. Human rights groups report at least 42 civilians injured and 170 detained. As this newsletter goes to press, the Indonesian military had begun trials of some of the soldiers arrested for beating to death and torturing alleged "rebels."
But this legal action did not prevent Indonesian police and soldiers from opening fire on a crowd of thousands of Achenese civilians, killing up to fifty people, on February 3.
Material from a report by Teresa Birks of TAPOL was used in this article.