26 July 2002
The Indonesian government says it may send thousands of extra troops to the northern province of Aceh, in a new effort to end 20 years of separatist fighting. But the idea has come under fire, both in and outside government circles, amid worry the plan may only worsen the conflict.
The tide of violence in Indonesia's northern province of Aceh almost never seems to recede. Local media report nearly daily on the deaths of civilians, allegedly at the hands of the Indonesian military, and hit-and-run ambushes, allegedly carried out by separatist rebels on Indonesian police and soldiers. That is one of the reasons Indonesia's senior political and security affairs minister has proposed 8,000 more troops be deployed to the province to join the 25,000 there now. To end the conflict with Aceh's separatist guerrillas, minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono says, the government should also consider imposing a state of civil emergency in Aceh. The proposal to increase troop strength in Aceh comes days before Indonesia's highest legislative body convenes for its annual session. The People's Consultative Assembly has the power to remove a president from office and one purpose of its annual meeting is to judge how well the administration has performed. Ken Conboy is a Jakarta-based analyst with Control Risks Group, an international risk consultancy business. He says the security situation in Aceh has vastly improved in the past six months, and he is, therefore, not sure why the government has proposed deploying more troops now. Mr. Conboy believes that the government may be using the Aceh issue as part of its own political agenda, as the assembly session draws near. "There is definitely a story behind the story, and it definitely isn't going to be found in Aceh. It's going to be found here [in Jakarta,]" he said.
Analysts also point out that the government in Jakarta has approved three separate plans to broaden the scope of military action in Aceh since 2001, and, so far, none has been able to crush the guerrilla Free Aceh Movement. The rebel group was first formed in 1976, when it declared Aceh independent of Indonesia. It has been fighting for recognition of that declaration ever since. Human rights groups say at least 3,000 people, many of them civilians, have died in the conflict. Some Indonesian legislators, along with international and domestic human rights groups, say the proposal to increase troop strength in Aceh would only worsen the violence. Pornpen Khongkachonkiet is from Forum Asia, a regional human rights group based in the Thai capital Bangkok.
"By sending more troops, it creates more violence. And, Acehnese people and Acehnese society have no room and space, and they're in the trap of the conflict and the war," he said. Instead, human rights groups want the government to continue peace talks with the rebels. Highly secretive negotiations between the two sides have been held in Geneva, Switzerland, for the past two years. In addition to the military campaign, the Indonesian government has tried to appease demands for independence by passing special autonomy legislation. The law would give Aceh's provincial legislature increased powers over local affairs. The law also allows the province to keep 70 percent of the revenue derived from Aceh's natural gas reserves, which could amount to almost $200-million a year. But many Acehnese object to the government in Jakarta deciding what may or may not be good for them. They want the right to self-determination. Muhammed Nazar is with the Aceh Referendum Central Information office, a group campaigning for a ballot to be held, so that Aceh can vote on its own political future. If given the chance to vote, Mr. Nazar said, many Acehnese might drop their aspirations for independence, and vote in favor of the government's autonomy plan. "Jakarta government (should) not to force the Aceh free movement to accept the special autonomy," he said. "But, if we to the special autonomy, maybe it should be conducted on the dialogue, based on the aspirations of the Acehnese people not forced by the military." In recent weeks, members of the Indonesian government have branded the Free Aceh Movement a "terrorist" group. Some analysts think that may be an effort by the government to increase the military's budget, and to gain international financial support. Indonesia's parliament is expected to vote soon on whether to declare a state of civil emergency and deploy additional troops to Aceh.