Aceh gets new military command

Army generals say there is nothing sinister about it, but the move could retard the fragile peace process.

The Indonesian army yesterday tightened the screws on rebels in Aceh and dealt a potential blow to the peace process there with the inauguration of a new military command to specifically handle the restive province.

The carving out of a new strategic zone headed by a one-star general and the deployment of 16,750 soldiers to the province could very well spark renewed clashes between security forces and separatist rebels of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM).

But Indonesian Army chief Endriartono Sutarto has vowed not to repeat the “injustices of the past” and said that the new Aceh command would resolve problems in the area.

“We can end the ways of violence and replace the weapon with shovels and tractors to build a better life for the people,” he said at a ceremony to inaugurate the command in the capital of Banda Aceh.

His comments resonated among top generals, who insisted that there was nothing sinister in the plan to re-establish the Iskandar Muda command some 17 years after it was decommissioned.

A three-star general told The Straits Times that the army had no plans to turn Aceh into a “military command area”, the way it did under the Suharto regime in the 80s.

“It is done mainly to improve our operational effectiveness,” he said.

“Logistically, it makes more sense to have troops stationed permanently in a troubled area rather than having to fly them in often. We think the situation will only improve.”

But critics of the army charge that a command will further pave the way for the military to use force to crush pro-independence rebels and retard the peace process.

Former Indonesian Human Rights Minister Hasballah Saad, who was involved in peace negotiations with GAM, said the government’s latest move threatened to “intensify problems”.

“By giving the military free reign, it shows that Jakarta is not serious in negotiating a deal with the rebels,” he said.

He also noted that the inauguration of the command could not have come at a worse time because GAM had indicated just days ago that it was prepared to consider a proposal for autonomy in Aceh after weekend talks in Geneva.

Yesterday’s development appeared to have hardened the rebels’ stance.

Reports here quoted GAM spokesman Sofyan Daud as saying that the separatists would discuss Jakarta’s autonomy law in peace talks – but he denied that they were softening demands for independence.

“We want full independence for Aceh. If someone suggested that we accept autonomy, that’s a lie,” he said.

The respected Jakarta-based Control Risks Group said in a report that the recent death of GAM military chief Tengku Abdullah Syafei Syafei was a tactical and symbolic loss but hardly a strategic setback for the rebels.

It noted that the group fielded local guerilla bands that had little formal or informal links beyond district lines.

The report said: “GAM, in fact, has persevered on and off for nearly three decades with almost no formal military hierarchy … There is little likelihood of GAM throwing in the towel any decade soon.”

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