Megawati calls for civilian militias to curb rebels
Critics accuse the President of using muscle politics’ to try and clinch presidential election.
President Megawati Sukarnoputri yesterday called for civilian militias to be set up in Indonesia as the military and police struggle to contain insurgencies and widespread lawlessness in the country.
Her comments – which sparked concern among human rights groups here because of fears that they could lead to the re-emergence of vigilante outfits that ran riot in Timor Leste in 1999 – appeared to be a move by Jakarta to up the ante in its battle against separatists in Aceh.
Her detractors charge that her suggestion also underscored a political motive – legitimising the use of ‘muscle politics’ to clinch the presidential election next year.
In a televised speech to thousands of officers celebrating National Police Day, Ms Megawati said: ‘Nowadays, as we watch conditions in certain parts of our country … we need to seriously consider and adopt sufficient measures so that citizens can defend themselves.’
The concern, as the President made clear, was that security forces were strapped for manpower and resources to fight a battle on many fronts in the sprawling archipelago.
Officials have acknowledged several times that Indonesia had a low ratio of uniformed security personnel to people but that funds were a barrier to significantly boosting numbers.
There are about 500,000 military personnel in the country of 231 million people.
Historically, the generals have always enlisted the help of militia groups to stamp out insurgencies or resistance to the government.
Instead of lowering the threshold for violence, these groups have caused more problems on the ground.
One prominent feature of mass violence in Indonesia in the past decade was the role played by the preman – thugs and hooligans – many of whom were trained by the military in East Timor.
After their stint in the former Portuguese colony, an increasing number of these premans were brought to Java by their military handlers.
The most acute manifestation of the problem was the spiralling violence during the first half of 1998 that culminated in President Suharto’s resignation.
Orchestrated mob violence, mysterious ninja murders and the rampage in Timor Leste following elections in 1999 have all stamped their bloody print on Indonesia in recent years.
There is evidence to suggest that a similar pattern exists today.
The army is believed to have already established civilian militia proxies in Aceh, where a 27-year-old rebellion is raging.
With smaller troop numbers in the area after December this year, the military will be even more reliant on vigilantes.
Human rights workers have accused those pro-Jakarta militias of extra-judicial killings and other atrocities.
The military has also allegedly set up smaller militia groups in Papua, another province wracked by decades of separatist war.
Observers said that Ms Megawati is being driven by nationalist and political imperatives. But she was stepping into a hornet’s nest of public opinion traumatised by decades of thug politics.
Political analyst Arbi Sanit of the University of Indonesia said that it was a short-term response to problems in Aceh and also a move to legitimise the use of such outfits during elections next year to scare off her opponents.
‘In the long run, it does nothing to rid the country of this propensity to resolve problems by violent means,’ he said.
In another development on the Aceh front, Indonesia’s military said yesterday that it had used helicopters to fire rockets at suspected rebel positions in the province, forcing residents to flee their homes, AFP reported.