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Autonomy Not Enough for Aceh? 
by Marianne Kearney, The Straits Times - Singapore , March 27, 1999

JAKARTA -- For the first time, President B.J. Habibie made a long-awaited visit to the troubled province of Aceh yesterday. The visit comes hot on the heels of the submission of Aceh's autonomy proposal to Jakarta, and increasing demands for a referendum. Along Aceh's east coast, on the northern tip of Sumatra, the small towns and cities have already declared their views on Aceh's autonomy proposal. A white banner outside Lhokseumawe declares: "War is not what we want, a referendum is what we demand." Another banner in a small town north of Siglie says: "We supports the students' conference on a referendum." Clearly, an autonomy proposal is not enough for some Acehnese. 

At the heart of the demand for a referendum is the question of how Aceh's considerable oil, gas and forestry resources would be distributed if Aceh gains autonomy. In the last 30 years, all profits made by the oil, gas and forestry industries, estimated at US$2.1 billion (S$3.63 billion) annually from gas alone, have gone straight to Jakarta, with a tiny 1.6 per cent returned to Aceh. 

Until recently, the Acehnese parliament did not even know how much money was made from Aceh's resources, as the state-owned oil and gas companies refused to release any information on their profits. 

The last 30 years of being treated like a colonial outpost of Jakarta have led many Acehnese to question why Aceh should continue to be a part of Indonesia. The 1989-98 military operation, which suppressed the small separatist movement brutally, killing and torturing thousands of civilians, only increased Acehnese resentment at having their resources milked so effectively. 

Some critics think Jakarta should be asked if Acehnese are still a part of Indonesia or if they are considered as enemies. "If we are Jakarta's enemies don't ask us to be a part of Indonesia. If we are not Jakarta's enemies, they should treat us like a brother," says Dr Teuku Iskandar, the dean of economics at Syiah Kuala University. Even Aceh's governor, Mr Syamsuddin Mahmud, until recently favoured greater separation from Java. He raised the possibility of Aceh becoming a federated state of Indonesia in a television interview last month, but has since backtracked. Instead, he insists now that autonomy is the best option. He says that if the Acehnese government were able to tap into Aceh's resources, receiving a percentage of the profits directly from the lucrative oil, gas, gold and forestry industries, local government would be able to direct its own programmes. Dr Iskandar, a member of the governor's team examining what Aceh produces, suggests that the regional government should receive 55 per cent of profits made by oil and gas. 

Many Acehnese do not believe that the central government would ever deliver a fair share of the profits from their resources. Dr Hasballah M. Saad, a politician, said the Acehnese fear that the autonomy plan will not be very different from the "istemewa" (special) status granted to Aceh in the 1950s "which in fact meant nothing, it was all talk". This special status was granted as recognition for the role Aceh played in fighting the Dutch during the independence war. 

Mr Rizman Rachman, from the environmental organisation, Wahli, voiced this disillusionment with Jakarta when he dismissed the prospect of a new coalition government, even under the pro-federation opposition leader Amien Rais, sharing resources equitably with Aceh. He thinks the new government would still be Java-centric and dominated by the armed forces, which have guaranteed seats. 

Riding on the tide of discontent created by military operations in January and February, the students' campaign for a referendum has been gaining ground. Students have been educating residents in eastern Aceh and calling for a boycott of the June national elections, if Jakarta refuses to promise to give Aceh a significantly larger share of profits from Aceh's natural resources. 

On Monday, 200 Acehnese students in central Jakarta demanded that the government commit to a referendum before the elections. Last week, 18 students began a hunger strike outside the regional military headquarters in Aceh's capital, Banda Aceh, also demanding a referendum. 

Much depends on what Dr Habibie says and does during his Aceh visit. Many Acehnese, said Dr Hasballah Saad, would be looking for an indication of government sympathy. "If it is to respond to the last 10 years in Aceh, then okay. But if there is no rehabilitation offered for the victims of the military operation, then people will be disappointed," he said. 

However, if Dr Habibie had meant to promote a conciliatory image, he sent a mixed message to Banda Aceh. The deployment of 3,000 additional troops in Banda Aceh for his one-day visit has provoked a reaction from student groups angered at what they see as an unnecessarily high number of troops. 

Mr Feisal Hadi of Wahli says Acehnese are concerned that if the troops are from outside Aceh, they might remain even after Dr Habibie's visit. As Mr Maimul Fidar a human-rights campaigner, said: "The Acehnese and Abri hate each other." Abri refers to the Indonesian armed forces. The Acehnese have been traumatised by he nine-year military operation, and each new incident further increases resentment towards Jakarta. The search for the rebels who killed seven soldiers in January, and the incident in February, where soldiers opened fire on a gathering at a mosque, served only to convince Acehnese that little has changed. 

Although the military operation, known as Operasi Merah, ended officially in the first week of February, local human-rights lawyers say non-local soldiers are still patrolling the streets. Some residents report that even the dreaded Kopassus soldiers, renowned for their ruthlessness during the previous military operation, have returned, dressed in local military uniforms. 

A journalist from a local newspaper, Serambi, says an additional 10 soldiers have been installed in every military post, and that more soldiers arrive each week, providing an extra 1,000 soldiers for the region. 

Significantly, Dr Habibie would not be visiting Lhokseumawe, or Pidie, on the eastern coast, where the highest fatalities from the military operation occurred. Security reasons have been cited, but some commentators say he is avoiding local anger. Operasi Merah seems to have stirred support for the disorganised separatist movement. Mr Humam Hamid, a social researcher who documented much of the military's human-rights abuses, estimates that 90 per cent of villagers had little idea about the separatist movement before the military operation, but now, "since their husbands and family have been killed, they support Aceh Merdeka". Mr Suliaman Yacob, from a small rice-farming village in Pidie, who was tortured during the military operation for supporting the separatist movement, still distrusts the Indonesian government. He says autonomy is not enough, "although other people are demanding a referendum, Aceh must be free, because ever since 1977, Aceh has not been taken seriously". 

In this small village of 300, where four people were killed during the military operation, the local village leader, Mr Abdullah David, was also tortured, only last year, for suspected involvement in the seperatist movement. Last August, at the time the military was withdrawing from Aceh, he was taken by soldiers to the military hospital in Medan and given minimal treatment to heal his useless hands and the long scars on his back. 

Afterwards, he was warned not to tell anyone he had been tortured and not to return to Aceh until the situation improved, meaning he should wait until human-rights groups stopped investigations into the military operation.

"It is as if they think we can just forget the torture, as if it never happened," he said.

[The writer, who reports for Australian newspapers from Jakarta, was in Aceh recently where she interviewed the province's governor and other people. She contributed this article to The Straits Times.]


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