Aceh’s forgotten war

When Tarmizy Harva took his World Press Award winning photograph he did not expect many newspapers to publish it.

Heavy Indonesian troop presence in Aceh
Heavy Indonesian troop presence in Aceh

But then he did not expect an almost total Indonesian blackout of a photo which shows a dead young Islamic teacher who had been tied to a tree and almost decapitated, being attended to by his family.
But this was one body Harva believes the military did not want the Indonesian public to know about.

Local military had told Harva and other journalists to turn right off the highway near Biruen where they would find a bomb left by separatists.

Instead, they followed villager’s advice turning left, and stumbling across the body of Muzakir Abd Allah.

“I think he had been tortured until midnight, the night before, and his neck had been almost sliced through with a knife. There was lots of blood on the ground,” says Harva.

But a blackout of such images has become routine in Aceh, where the military launched its largest military operation since the invasion of East Timor in 1975, one year ago.

Independence movement

Approximately 40,000 troops have been sent to the province to wipe out an estimated 5000 separatists from the Aceh Free Movement (GAM) who have been fighting for independence since 1976. 

The operation was launched last May after internationally sponsored peace talks between the two sides collapsed.

Free Aceh movement rebels (GAM) want independence

Free Aceh movement rebels
(GAM) want independence

On 19 May, the government formally downgraded the province’s status from martial law to civil emergency, claiming that the military operation had been successful in stamping out rebels. 

“The threat of armed force has diminished, economic activity has been restored, and government activity at the provincial, regency, municipal and village level is proceeding smoothly,” said President Megawati Sukarnoputri.

At least 2000 rebels have been killed, several hundred jailed and around 1300 have surrendered, according to the military.

But human rights groups, Acehnese and political analysts dispute the military’s figures.

Western diplomats point out that the Indonesian military has failed to capture any of GAM’s senior military commanders.

High civilian toll

Although the military is in control of the cities and towns in Aceh, their highest-ranking captives are GAM’s spokesman, Teungku AGAM, and various mid-level political commanders. 

“People are terrorised by the numerous killings and the ever present threat of arrest, torture and ill-treatment, at the same time economic and social life has been severely disrupted by the intense military operations”

Amnesty International,
May 2004 report

Amnesty International and Human rights Watch Asia say many of the rebel troops captured or killed by the military were in fact unarmed civilians and that the toll on the civilian population has been incredibly high.

“People are terrorised by the numerous killings and the ever present threat of arrest, torture and ill-treatment, at the same time economic and social life has been severely disrupted by the intense military operations,” said Amnesty International in a report released last week.

And the rebels’ ability to continue to abduct journalists suggests that the operation has been far less effective than claimed by the military, wrote the Jakarta Post in an editorial this week.

Indonesian press monitors point out there has been little debate in the media about the validity of the operation, whether the costs to the civilian population have been too high and if the operation might in fact be turning more Acehnese into supporters of the rebel movement.

Bloody past

Acehnese sociologist Otto Syamsuddin points out that Jakarta’s previous harsh operation against the rebel force, a nine-year long operation in the 1990s, which killed at least 5000 people, only fuelled the widespread support for independence amongst the Acehnese today.

Acehnese have had to burymany of their loved ones

Acehnese have had to bury
many of their loved ones

But this is a perspective rarely heard in the Indonesian press, says the Institute for the Free Flow of Information (ISAI), a media monitoring organisation.

It reports that the press coverage of Aceh has been extremely biased, rarely venturing to question whether the aims of martial law have been successful.

“There is no excuse for the media to not keep questioning the implementation of martial law,” said Agus Sudibyo, Director of ISAI.

Sudibyo, who carried out a six-month study of ten national papers and five television stations, said the Indonesian press rarely interviewed ordinary people and relied almost exclusively for the reports on government and military officials.

This is in part because of tough restrictions placed on both local and foreign press reporting from Aceh under martial law.

Tough restrictions

Soon after Harva’s photograph of Muzakir Abd Allah was put on the Reuters’ wire, the military required all journalists to obtain special passes to report from Aceh.

“The discourse about Aceh has finished because the Acehnese want independence”

Lambang Trijono,
Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, Gadja Mada University, Yogyakarta

It also banned journalists from quoting rebel spokesmen and required foreign and local journalists employed by international media to apply for special passes, which could take weeks to process.

Local journalists had to report to local military headquarters each time they ventured outside the main cities. 
Indonesian paper Waspada which published Harva’s image had their Aceh correspondent called into military headquarters in Lhokseumawe, North Aceh to explain why the photo had been published.

Little debate

But another reason there is so little debate in the Indonesian media about the value of the military operation and concern about human rights violations is that the military operation is overwhelmingly supported by the Indonesian public.

“The discourse about Aceh has finished because the Acehnese want independence,” says Lambang Trijono, from the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at Gadja Mada University in Yogyakarta.

Few will protest against Aceh situation outside of the region

Few will protest against Aceh
situation outside of the region

Fearing that Aceh will follow in the footsteps of East Timor and break away from Indonesia through either international diplomacy or violent uprising, many Indonesians have not rushed to condemn the operation.

And although 95% of Aceh’s inhabitants are Muslim, the operation has barely raised any protest from Muslim student groups and political parties who in the past rallied in defence of their brethren in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, Iraq or Afghanistan.

Nationalist appeals

The government’s refusal to negotiate with the rebels has appealed to nationalist sentiments, say analysts.

Trijono says in a study he conducted among students and members of civil rights groups, when he showed them pictures of 12-year-old girls who had been killed by the military, almost none were shocked or motivated to take action.

The government’s tough stance against the Acehnese rebels is one reason why Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the former Security and Political Affairs Minister, who handled the peace talks and then the launching of the operation, is now a popular presidential candidate, says Trijono.

And as political candidates start lobbying for the two rounds of presidential elections in July and September, promising to fight the separatist movement in Aceh is likely to win over voters.

Source: Al Jazeera

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