Stage set for bloody battle in Aceh

Laying to rest the talks option, the government plans to declare a state of emergency in the strife-torn province.

A bloody battle between security forces and rebels in Aceh looks imminent as the Indonesian government yesterday announced plans to declare a state of emergency to crack down on ‘terrorists’ in the strife-torn province.

After months of deliberation, Jakarta laid to rest any hopes that peaceful dialogue was a serious option.

And as it caved in to pressure to use military force against the rebels, it also signalled clearly that the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) was getting increasingly powerful.

Security czar Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono told reporters after a Cabinet meeting:

‘It is our duty to tell the international community – enough is enough. We have given the rebels chances but it turns out like this. The government wishes to recommend a shift in status from civilian rule to a civil emergency.’

The proposal would give the Aceh governor sweeping powers to order arrests, ban the media and restrict demonstrations and other gatherings in an area where more than 10,000 people have been killed since the insurgency began in 1976.

Since 1989, the generals had imposed military rule in different districts in Aceh.

The military, however, was forced to pull out large numbers of soldiers in 1999 after being accused of human rights abuses during the 10-year period of occupation.

But with threat assessments growing more alarming in the province, operations moved up from law enforcement to a limited military operation in May 2001 and a separate TNI command earlier this year.

Gen Susilo, conscious that the impending hardline move by the government and military could generate criticism, appealed to the public not to hastily accuse soldiers of human rights violations should anti-rebel operations result in civilian casualties.

The retired four-star general also appeared to be concerned with international reaction.

Riding on the anti-terrorist global war, he said that the series of kidnappings and murders allegedly committed by the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) were ‘acts of terrorism’.

He said: ‘We have told the world that it is difficult for us to hold dialogue with terrorists. Do the United States and other Western countries talk to terrorists?’

Analysts said that it was now only a matter of time before the government formally declared a civil emergency in Aceh. For a start, Parliament had already given the military its blessings last week to crush GAM.

Mr Amris Fuad Hasan told The Straits Times that legislators had grown wary of considering dialogue as an option. ‘We have tried to convince the rebels but they don’t want to listen to us,’ he said. ‘Force is the only solution to ensure that Aceh stays within the fold of Indonesia.’

More crucially, the TNI had the backing of the palace.

On Wednesday, President Megawati Sukarnoputri told Aceh military commander Major-General Djali Yusuf to take tough action against the rebels.

‘Any group perpetrating violence and interfering with public order should be dealt with sternly,’ she said. Military analysts said that the TNI, which has popular civilian support, also had an obvious advantage in fire power.

The problem for the generals, however, could come from the international community that will scrutinise their actions.

Dr Salim Said of the University of Indonesia said: ‘The US and other countries will pay sharp attention to Aceh. If the military is not careful enough and conducts itself carelessly, it is going to damage its image even more.’

ENOUGH IS ENOUGH

It is our duty to tell the international community – enough is enough. We have given the rebels chances but it turns out like this. The government wishes to recommend a shift in status from civilian rule to a civil emergency.’
– Mr Susilo

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