The Hidden Agony Of Aceh



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The Nation [Bangkok], October 14, 1999



The Hidden Agony Of Aceh

By: Pravit Ronjaphruk


SUHARTO may be gone but respect for human rights and freedom of speech is still a long way off in the country he ruled with an iron fist for 32 years. A shameful chapter in history near its end as East Timor inches toward independence. But Indonesia's military and police still continue to commit, or turn a blind eye to, murder, rape, torture and arson in other parts of this vast archipelago.


However, since Suharto's fall in May last year more and more people are daring to speak out about the atrocities being perpetrated by the state.


Ahmad Human Hamid is a sociology lecturer at Syiah University in Banda Aceh, the capital of the ''special territory'' of Aceh. With a total area of 55,392 square kilometres, and a population (in 1980) of just over 2.6 million, Aceh lies in the far north of the island of Sumatra.


''We weren't brave enough to speak out before now,'' says Ahmad.


For the past year Ahmad in his role as vice coordinator of Care Human Rights Forum has been confronting the aftermath of more than three decades of brutal repression in his home province. Ahmad recalls how while attempting to document cases of torture he approached a village elder in Aceh. The old man looked at him quizzically and asked, ''What kind of torture do you want to collect?'' Ahmad was stunned. In Aceh, torture has apparently become a highly specialised ''discipline''.


In 1989 martial law was imposed in Aceh and the province declare a ''military operational zone'' (Daerah Operasi Militer). According to statistics compiled by Forum Peduli Hak Asasi Manusia, at least 1,321 people have been killed in the province since then. During the same period 1,958 people went missing, 597 houses burnt down; there were 128 reported cases of rape and 3,430 of torture.


Ahmad suspects that these figures grossly underestimate the real picture. Victims and their relatives are often too afraid of reprisals to come forward, he said. And since Aceh is a largely mountainous region, the difficulty of the terrain also hampers the collection of accurate data.


Debra Yatim is a leading feminist and founder of women's group Selendanglila. Half Acehnese herself, she is well aware that East Timor is not the only place in her country where people's rights are regularly abused.


''You name any human rights violations, Aceh has it. If anybody wants to research human rights violation, Aceh would be a perfect place to go.''


Aceh has a long history of resisting outsiders. It was here, in the late 13th century that Islam gained its first foothold in the archipelago when the ruling elite of Achin (as it was then known) embraced the faith. Achin was an important port in the lucrative spice trade and grew into a powerful trading state. It reached the height of its power during the reign of Sultan Iskandar Muda (1607-36) whose influence extended throughout Sumatra and across the straits to the Malay Peninsula.


Achin was the only part of the archipelago excluded from the Dutch sphere of influence after the signing of the Anglo-Dutch treaty of 1824. The Dutch sent an expeditionary force to conquer Aceh in 1873 and although they claimed victory in 1904, the colonial war continued right up to 1945 when the Dutch East Indies gained independence and became known as Indonesia. In that 72-year period it is estimated that 70,000 Acehnese and 37,500 Dutch soldiers were killed.


Although granted ''special territory'' status in 1953, the people of Aceh felt betrayed by the Sukarno government which had promised them autonomy if they agreed to join the new republic. When the local ruler was refused permission to introduce Islamic law, there was an uprising, train tracks were ripped up and Jakarta sent the military in. Some 4,000 Acehnese lost their lives in this rebellion which continued until 1962. Thousands more were killed by mobs during the anti-communist pogrom which followed the suppression by a rightist general named Suharto in 1965.


A separatist movement took up arms against Jakarta in 1976 and sporadic violence continued until 1984. Renewed fighting broke out in 1989 and Suharto sent in the troops again and imposed martial law.


According to Debra, Aceh played such an instrumental role in the struggle for independence back in the 1940s that Jakarta considers the province too important to the national ''pysche'' to allow it to secede from the republic. Nor does she believe that Jakarta will willingly give up control of the vast deposits of oil and liquified gas discovered in Aceh in the '70s and early '80s.


Aceh at a crossroads


Today, people like Ahmad and Debra are still trying to explain to themselves how the world and otherwise decent Indonesian citizens could have ignored the situation in Aceh for so long.


''A military operational zone was in place,'' says Debra. ''For 32 years, the Indonesian military has being creating a country within a country and violating every aspect of human rights. To go there we [Indonesians] had to ask for permission. Diplomats couldn't get permission at all. Researchers were allowed in only for three days at a time and had to be escorted by local officials.''


Ahmad recalls the response that one courageous local journalist got when he asked a politician about reports of missing Acehnese.


''The answer was: 'Well, the Acehnese like to go to Malaysia. Or who knows, maybe they just drowned themselves in the river!' This was such an insult! But then Suharto strictly controlled the press. No journalist would have been able to dig up a story, let alone write about it. You didn't need to read a lot of newspapers in those days because they were all the same.


The most recent tragedy documented was the massacre of 39 civilians by military personnel on July 23 in Beutong Ateuh, West Aceh. In that incident religious leader Tengku Bantakiah, members of his family and some of his students were murdered and their bodies thrown down an old well.


''In the name of the state, a group of individuals has been freely violating people's rights,'' he says. ''It's very close to the idea of ethnic cleansing. And who are the real victims? The victims are the women and children. It's about the destruction of the very fabric of our society. Who has the heart to see an infant hung upside down and its mother not allowed to feed it for hours and hours until finally the child dies?''


Adds Debra: ''They rape any single women that they can find. Two or three villages are full of illegitimate children with Javanese features.'' Ahmad says that after decades of state-approved violence, the social network in Aceh has completely broken down.


''Individuals who provide assistance to a victim's family are immediately assumed to be supporters of the separatist movement. So a victim's family is completely abandoned and left to suffer. Victims' wives and children are labelled as traitors and this seal [stigma] will remain with them for the rest of their lives.''


Earlier this year Debra went to Aceh and asked to visit a refugee camp.


''They refused me point blank,'' she says, angrily.


To Debra's dismay, many Indonesians with whom she has tried to discuss Aceh just shrug dismissively and say, ''Oh, it's not my problem.''


She concedes, however, that the vast majority of her compatriots still do not know what is happening in Aceh. What's more, she says, the Acehnese have been portrayed by the Indonesian media as Islamic fundamentalists similar to those in Iran or Libya, or as rebels who have no respect for security and order.


''The discourse has been put in place and it's hard to get away from,'' she says. ''At the same time, the Javanese are portrayed as being more civilised than the rest of Indonesians; they are supposed to speaks more gently, with more refinement. And two presidents [Sukarno and Suharto] happened to be Javanese.''


Since independence there has been an all-out attempt to ''Javanise'' the whole of Indonesia, Debra says. And too often in her country, nationalism means conformity. She says the rallying call of ''one culture one language'' was useful in uniting people of diverse religions and cultures in a common struggle against Dutch colonial rule. But faith in that political slogan is fast waning, she says, and not just in Aceh, but in Irian Jaya, Ambon and elsewhere.


After the fall of Suharto, many ordinary Indonesians suddenly began to feel that they could voice their opinions again but with the the military still very influential and the cultural climate little changed, Debra says she honestly doesn't know where Indonesians are heading.


''People may eventually say: I want my identity back. I want to secede. I don't want to be part of this experiment anymore.''


Ahmad thinks it may still be possible for Aceh and other regions to remain part of Indonesia but for that to happen some sort of ''truth commission'' needs to be set up so that those responsible for the atrocities can be put on trial and their victims properly compensated for the anguish they have suffered.


Earlier this year, Ahmad got the opportunity to pay a visit on President Habibie. There he was politely told that the president would only accept responsibility for events which had occurred during his term of office.


''It's the same way that a child protects his parent,'' says Ahmad, referring to the fact that Habibie is perceived by many as Suharto's protege.


He says Habibie is urging people to forgive and forget.


''But how can we forgive?'' Ahmad asks. ''How can we forget when men have been dragged out of their houses and killed in front of their families and the killers are still walking around scot free.''


Ahmad warns that more and more violence can be expected in the years ahead if attitudes and government policies do not change.


But Debra seems to think that the outcome is a forgone conclusion.


''We think secession is the only alternative,'' she says, firmly. ''Getting away from Javanese-Indonesian imperialism is the only way.