Conflict Rages in Indonesia; Rebels Call for Outside Intervention

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:13 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - Amid Indonesia's biggest military offensive in decades, Jakarta has accused rebels fighting for an independent state in Aceh province of "terrorism," while the separatists have appealed for U.N. intervention.

The Indonesian military (TNI) was sent in this week to crush the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) rebels, following the breakdown of last-ditch talks in Japan aimed at salvaging a five-month-old peace accord.

The offensive, launched after President Megawati Sukarnoputri declared martial law late on Sunday, entered its fourth day Thursday.

Jakarta has accused the GAM of setting fire this week to nearly 200 schools and other public buildings in the far-western province, and Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda told lawmakers the government may designate GAM's exiled leaders as terrorists because of the arson.

Indonesia has also accused the rebels of responsibility for a bombing at Jakarta's international airport late last month. At the time, ministers said either GAM or the al-Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiah -- some of whose leaders are currently on trial -- could be behind the blast, which wounded 11 people.

The rebels have denied both the arson and bombing allegations.

In Aceh, clashes between TNI forces and GAM fighters were reported by spokesmen on both sides.

Casualty figures are hard to confirm, but wire reports quoted villagers in the north of Aceh as saying 18 people were killed by the army in two villages Wednesday.

GAM's exiled leadership in Sweden is issuing communiques providing its version of events on the ground.

GAM military spokesman Sofyan Dawod said in a statement that 10 civilians and two rebels were killed by army forces moving from the south and naval forces landing by sea.

In another incident, Dawod said rebels had shot dead three navy troops as they tried to make landfall in a small boat deployed by a warship offshore.

The army said it had killed nine rebels in two locations on Wednesday, and on Thursday claimed that a rebel commander had surrendered. It denied civilians had been killed.

Speaking to reporters in the capital, Banda Aceh, the province's military chief, Major-General Endang Suwarya called for curbs on media coverage of the conflict, telling Indonesian journalists they should "put the interests of the unitary state of Indonesia first" and that their reports should "contain the spirit of nationalism," the state-run Antara news agency said.

An Indonesian organization called the Alliance of Independent Journalists rejected the demands, and called on the military and rebels to protect reporters covering the Aceh campaign.

'U.N. should intervene'

The resource-rich, Muslim province of 4.4 million people has been wracked by violence since the separatist rebellion began 27 years ago. More than 10,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed.

The TNI has carried out offensives there before, but the current one is expected to be the largest since Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975. Some 30,000 soldiers and policemen have been deployed to the province.

Last December, Jakarta and the 5,000-strong GAM signed a ceasefire agreement mediated by a Swiss-based organization, the Henry Dunant Center for Humanitarian Dialogue.

The deal, which envisaged limited autonomy for Aceh by 2004, required GAM to disarm and the TNI to withdraw to defensive positions, but it broke down in recent weeks. Both sides accused the other of non-compliance.

Jakarta then gave the rebels an ultimatum to drop demands for independence, but the deadline was ignored and war last week looked imminent.

Under pressure from the U.S. and other governments, Jakarta agreed to eleventh-hour talks with GAM in Tokyo, but the effort failed.

Indonesia laid the blame on the rebels for refusing to give up their demands for eventual independence.

GAM leader Mahmood Malik also blamed Indonesia for the failure of the talks.

In a statement issued in Stockholm, he said the government had both sabotaged last December's agreement and \ldblquote also blatantly blocked any attempt to revive it by making conditions that are impossible for us to accept."

Malik said GAM was appealing for U.N. intervention.

An international fact-finding mission should also be sent to Aceh "to investigate the crimes against humanity that have been committed.

He urged governments that supplied weapons to Jakarta to insist that they not be used in the Aceh offensive.

East Timor warning

Early this week, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Washington did not believe the problems in Aceh could be settled by force.

The U.S., along with Indonesia's biggest neighbor, Australia, has called for the fighting to stop and the parties to return to peace talks.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer conceded that rebel violence had exacerbated the situation in Aceh, but warned that the TNI should be careful not to repeat the mistakes it made in East Timor, where they had "turn[ed] on civilians and non-combatants."

Australia in 1999 led a U.N. peacekeeping force to quell the violence in East Timor, and the territory eventually became independent of Indonesia one year ago this week.

Washington suspended military-to-military relations with Indonesia because of TNI abuses in East Timor. There are moves to restore the links if the military reforms satisfactorily.

Writing in the Media Indonesia publication, columnist Rasyid Sulaiman said this week he saw no hope of the Aceh conflict being settled militarily.

"So far Indonesia has had four presidents with different strategies to defeat the Free Aceh Movement," he noted, adding that the rebel group merely grew stronger and more determined to win independence.

The Indonesian Legal Aid and Human Rights Association also said violence had never solved the Aceh issue, but merely caused large numbers of casualties among ordinary Acehnese.

Aceh has a long history of resistance to outside rule. During the colonial era, it was the last part of the Dutch East Indies to be conquered by Europeans, eventually capitulating to the Dutch in 1903.

During the first half of last century, Acehnese guerrillas fought the colonial rulers, and when the Japanese occupied the region from 1942-45, they turned their focus onto the new enemy.

After World War II ended, Aceh again played a role in the subsequent war for independence from the Netherlands, won in 1959.

GAM launched its campaign for independence from Jakarta in 1976.

See earlier stories:
Troubled Indonesian Province Awaits 'D-Day' (May 14, 2003)
High Hopes For Peace In War-Torn Indonesian Province (Dec. 10, 2002)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow