Army harassment compounds the misery of tsunami victims in Aceh

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The Independent Online

The Acehnese fishermen had just returned with their catch and were on their way back to the refugee camp. As they passed a security post, soldiers barred their way and ordered them to lie face down on the ground. The men were then told to crawl through the dust. Their ordeal ended with a lecture on the virtues of the Indonesian unitary state.

The Acehnese fishermen had just returned with their catch and were on their way back to the refugee camp. As they passed a security post, soldiers barred their way and ordered them to lie face down on the ground. The men were then told to crawl through the dust. Their ordeal ended with a lecture on the virtues of the Indonesian unitary state.

It was an exercise in ritual humiliation, but it could have been worse. Troops have reportedly been beating up refugees, stealing their food aid and forbidding them from returning home to their villages. Young men have been plucked from their families and shot dead, their bodies dumped in ditches.

Sadly, this is standard fare in Aceh, where the Indonesian military (TNI) has been fighting the separatist Free Aceh Movement, known as GAM, for three decades. The difference now is that international attention is focused on the province, and hundreds of foreign aid workers are milling about. So the 35,000 troops stationed here are learning to be a little more discreet.

One result of the tsunami, which devastated Aceh six months ago tomorrow, was that the outside world woke up to a dirty little war that few people knew or cared about before. Peace talks were revived, and the former US president Bill Clinton, who visited last month to assess progress in rebuilding, said the conflict needed to be resolved.

While the TNI has been helping with relief operations, it has also reverted to its old ways. Indeed, the disaster has made it easier to intimidate locals, who are concentrated in crowded camps and temporary wooden "barracks''.

Many Acehnese have refused to move to the barracks. In the past they have been forcibly relocated from villages by troops pursuing GAM fighters. Moreover, some barracks are situated next to military camps. A few days ago, the TNI carried out a "sweep'' of four barracks near the village of Gle Bruk, on Aceh's west coast. The communal buzz of cooking, washing and gossiping abruptly subsided when the soldiers appeared. One man, Ruzli, visibly stiffened. "They say they're looking for GAM, but they're just making trouble," he said.

In the TNI's informal rulebook, anyone believed to be sympathetic to the guerrillas is fair game to be roughed up or killed. The proof could be as trivial as a packet of cigarettes found in a pocket, clearly destined for delivery to GAM.

In Gle Bruk, chilli and corn farmers say the TNI has banned them from working their land, for reasons that remain unclear. The men shrug and accept it. Most quietly say they support GAM - not because they want independence, but they believe cutting ties with Jakarta is the only way to get rid of the troops.

The peace process had been stalled since May 2003, when marshal law was declared. This year government and GAM negotiators have held four rounds of talks in Helsinki, Finland, and will meet again next month. Some in Aceh dare to hope a deal could be struck, ending a conflict that has claimed 14,000 lives. But not the TNI, which has publicly scoffed at the prospect of peace. Indeed, the military - which runs illegal logging and smuggling rackets in Aceh - would lose much.

An informal truce was announced after the tsunami, but it did not last long. There have been skirmishes almost every day, and last month a seven-year-old child died after being caught in crossfire. The military says it has killed 230 rebels since Boxing Day. Locals and human rights groups claim that many of the victims were civilians.

The TNI's new commander in Aceh, Major-General Supiadin, told The Jakarta Post last week that military forces had never committed a single human rights violation in the province. Asked about the impact of the tsunami, he replied: "Heart wrenching is the loss of firearms and ammunition, buried under the sand.''

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