Habibie apologises to Aceh people

Touring the province, he expresses regret for the atrocities committed by the Indonesian armed forces.

INDONESIA’S President B. J. Habibie yesterday apologised to the troubled province of Aceh for years of human rights abuses as more than 1,000 demonstrators took to the streets to demand a referendum for self-rule.

Speaking to religious and community leaders at the main Baiturahman mosque in the capital of Banda Aceh during Friday prayers, he also called on the staunch Muslim province to work with the rest of Indonesia for a better future.

“We don’t want a future in a cage,” he said. “We want a better future. I deliver an apology for what has been done by the security forces, by accident or deliberately, to all the people of Aceh.”

Dr Habibie’s one-day visit to restive Aceh, a rare foray outside Jakarta for the President, follows his bombshell in January that he was prepared to grant independence to the former Portuguese colony of East Timor.

Analysts said that his visit and apology in the country’s western-most province was an attempt to diffuse separatist tendencies there following the East Timor decision and also repair the political damage done by a decade of military operations.

The Indonesian military has been accused of widespread atrocities in Aceh.

The National Human Rights Commission last year unearthed mass graves of people allegedly killed by the armed forces (Abri) during a nine-year crackdown of the Free Aceh separatist movement.

Abri ended military operations there last year but a few months later, the army sent in troops again to deal with rebels.

A government report earlier this month disclosed that anti-rebel operations in three of Aceh’s eight districts left thousands of widows and orphans, rape victims and homeless people.

It had not only resulted in the fear and hatred of Indonesian soldiers but also distrust of the current administration.

Dr Habibie sought to counter such sentiments during his two-hour meeting with local leaders yesterday by pledging assistance to victims of military oppression.

Aceh’s governor, Mr Syamsuddin Mahmud, told The Straits Times that the government would offer social, educational and health assistance to the victims. Acehnese killed by the military would also be reburied at government expense.
Some of the victims would also get jobs and houses.

Commenting on these initiatives and Dr Habibie’s apology, Mr Syamsuddin said: “We feel so good. It will calm nerves and take away all the pain and hardship we had to endure for years because of the mistakes of the previous government.”

Besides government compensation, he and other local officials also discussed with Dr Habibie the future links between Aceh and the central government in Jakarta.

Seeking to downplay his earlier calls for a federal state, he said autonomy “could be a better option” because it did not entail revising the existing Constitution.

He said the present revenue-sharing arrangement was inequitable and favoured the central government in Jakarta.

A senior aide accompanying Dr Habibie on the trip said that more than 1,000 students demonstrated outside the Baiturahman mosque in the morning before the President’s arrival.

Security forces fired warning shots and tear gas to disperse the swelling crowd which kept chanting “One voice – We win”.

The ensuing melee left at least 20 injured.

Said the presidential aide: “The situation is still very threatening in Aceh. We’ve done the best we can to try and calm things down. Now it is up to God.”

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