Indonesian army kills more civilians even as it admits to past crimes

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Hamid Papang

Jumada' al-Ula' 25, 1419 1998-09-16

South-East Asia

by Hamid Papang (South-East Asia, Crescent International Vol. 27, No. 14, Jumada' al-Ula', 1419)

Displaying characteristic brutality, personnel of the Indonesian armed forces (ABRI) shot and injured several students in front of the parliament building in Jakarta on September 7. Two days later, more students and civlians were attacked in other cities across the vast archipelago. These came a week after soldiers has shot and killed two persons and injured at least 10 others in Lhokseumawe, in the province of Aceh on September 1. The sub-districts of Samudra, Peusangan, Jeumpa and Baktia in North Aceh were also affected.

Unable to cope with people’s anger, the police requested military reinforcements. The 113th army unit was rushed to the scene which opened fire, hitting mostly youth and school children.

The people’s anger had boiled over reports that while the military had finally admitted responsibility for the deaths of thousands of people over a 10-year period in a crackdown against the Islamic Movement in Aceh-Sumatra, no one had actually been charged with any criminal act. The Indonesian armed forces chief, general Wiranto, last month apologised for human rights abuses and agreed to a limited troop withdrawal from Aceh. The military’s killings were given wide publicity even in the Indonesian press.

The troop withdrawal, however, was halted using the September 1 disturbances as an excuse. More troops were rushed to the island in an attempt to crush the uprising.

The Jakarta Post (August 6, 1998), editorially condemned the killings. It said: ‘Reports reaching us about the human rights abuses committed in recent years by Armed Forces personnel in Indonesia’s westernmost province of Aceh have made us shudder. While precise figures may as yet be lacking, estimates made by independent investigators on the basis of field observations and interviews with local residents in the Acehnese hinterIand indicate that the number of people who were killed, went missing or were physically abused between 1989 and 1998 runs into the thousands.’

This is the first time that the Indonesian press has admitted to such killings (Crescent International had, throughout the eighties and nineties carried detailed reports of military atrocities in Aceh-Sumatra). Aceh was declared a military zone in 1989. Tapol, the Indonesian human rights group, said that this gave the military a carte blanche to go on a killing spree.

Even the London-based Amnesty International reported recently that thousands of people, including local civilian supporters of the Free Aceh Movement, were killed in military operations. About a thousand more civilians were detained on suspicion of supporting the movement or simply because they had relations who were independence activists.

Following the ouster of general Suharto from power last May, an official fact-finding team from the Indonesian House of Representatives was sent to Aceh to investigate human rights abuses.

Eyewitnesses in Aceh narrated harrowing tales of those terrible years. ‘Tenku Ayah could hardly believe his eyes. His knees trembled when he saw hundreds of corpses piled up in a hole in front of him like dead rats. No sooner had he recovered his composure than an officer ordered him and his companions to bury the bodies and level the ground over the mass grave. Ayah’s fear heightened when an officer tied another man to a tree and shot him dead. The corpse was simply left there to decompose,’ Gatra newsmagazine reported in a recent issue.

As shocking as these revelations may be, the use of excessive force on civilians by members of the Armed Forces is not actually new. In the 1984 Tanjung Priok incident in Jakarta, hundreds of people were shot dead by the security forces. Similar force was applied during the July 27, 1996, riot in Jakarta. More recently, during the anti-Suharto uprising, young, dissenting political activists were abducted and tortured. The regime itself has admitted to 1200 killings.

The use of brutal and excessive force against citizens, during peacetime, by members of their own Armed Forces intent on achieving political objectives, is not new. In 1966, nearly a million people were massacred under the pretext of crushing a communist insurgency. That CIA-engineered slaughter brought general Suharto to power whose brutal reign lasted 32 years.

Muslimedia: September 16-30, 1998

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