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South China Morning Post
Monday, May 15, 2000

Tragic Tale of A Good Soldier Betrayed for Gold

Chris McCall in Sigli

An Indonesian soldier cannot expect an easy life in troubled Aceh at the best of times, but most assume their own colleagues will not betray them. That was a mistake for former first sergeant Maju Ali Siagian.

If the preliminary peace deal signed in Geneva on Friday is to be more than a footnote in history, it has to deal with the war's human detritus.

Aceh's farming villages are dotted with people missing limbs, or whose nervous systems have been ruined by electric shocks inflicted during torture. Most accuse the military - and particularly those brought into the province from outside, whom Acehnese generally hate. Of at least 366 people killed in fighting this year, 38 were police and soldiers, so they have to watch their backs.

Mr Siagian served in the province for decades, but was betrayed by more influential soldiers sent in by then president Suharto when the fighting escalated in 1989. "He is still free," Mr Siagian yells angrily when asked about the officer in the Kopassus special forces who first accused him of being a traitor.

His story perhaps illustrates why the Free Aceh Movement rebels are still demanding the special forces leave the province before they go further than signing an initial three-month "humanitarian pause" and join fully fledged peace talks.

Now 56, Mr Siagin has been out of jail for just a few months. He cannot speak clearly and has trouble moving his limbs. A military court convicted him of supporting the rebels after Kopassus soldiers tortured a confession out of him.

Reformist President Abdurrahman Wahid admitted the ruling was wrong after his election and ordered the conviction expunged from records. But by then Mr Saigian had spent nearly a decade in military jails.

The real issue, as so often in Indonesia, was money. Or rather gold. A career soldier from neighbouring North Sumatra province, Mr Siagian is a Muslim. He married an Acehnese wife and made the province his home.

Like most Indonesian soldiers, his life revolved around his work. He lived in army housing, socialised frequently with army colleagues and could look forward to a modest pension when he retired. Unlike soldiers based outside the province, Mr Siagian knew and respected Acehnese culture. He was liked by the local people and had just made the rank of first sergeant, with 14 men under his command.

But the rivers of Geumpang, the mountainous area where he served, contain gold. The locals pan for it and regard it as rightfully theirs. When Kopassus turned up, they wanted a piece of the pie. Mr Siagian said no. And he paid the price. Kopassus forces detained him. He was tortured and his subordinates were intimidated into testifying against him.

In the end he broke down and confessed. But he insists he never helped the rebels and only confessed to stop the torture. But his fellow soldiers, who understood little about life in the province, could not speak its language and were distrusted by the Acehnese, were easily convinced that a popular colleague was a traitor.

Worse than the jailing was the effect on Mr Siagian's family. His wife and children were thrown out of their military house. His pay was cut off, so they lost their source of income and the prospect of a pension.

Mr Siagian now receives a modest pension. A decade's missing back pay would amount to a small fortune in Aceh, but financial compensation is still a novel legal concept in Indonesia. At best he is free to live a modest life in a modest village house, a broken man. "I feel sad," he says, when asked about his life. "Why am I like this?"

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Last modified: June 16, 2000