ACEH PIDIE, Indonesia, April 30, Reuter – As corpses pile up in Indonesia’s northern province of Aceh, the government in Jakarta insists it has wiped out a separatist rebellion.
But Aceh residents who live with curfews, well-armed soldiers and a steady stream of civilian deaths say no end is in sight to the 18-month old fighting between troops and rebels in the north Sumatran province.
"Why would I be here if the situation were normal?" asked a Javanese special forces commando nursing his semi-automatic weapon in an Aceh coffee shop. "That’s absurd. I’m here to fight rebels. Otherwise I would be in Java where the food is better."
Military officials in command headquarters in Medan in north Sumatra and Jakarta would not talk to foreign journalists recently returned from Aceh (pronounced Achay).
But the Jakarta Post on Tuesday quoted the Coordinating Minister for Security and Political Affairs, Sudomo, as saying common criminals were responsible for any violence in Aceh.
He was quoted as saying separatist leaders had all been shot and that the few left had only about 20 guns between them.
The military has forbidden international human rights organisations to work in Aceh but local groups who keep a careful count of killings say over 2,100 people, mostly civilians, have died in the province.
The rebels have no public face but some are now in court on charges of fighting for independence from Jakarta’s rule in the name of Aceh Merdeka, Free Aceh, a group whose leaders have been in exile since a failed separatist movement in the late 1970s.
Most Acehnese, who have a long history of fighting outside rule, first against the Dutch and then Jakarta, say they sympathised with the rebels at the start of the rebellion.
Then their major targets were soldiers and police from Indonesia’s main island of Java, which locals say feeds off oil-rich Aceh’s wealth.
As the armed group took to killing poor Javanese settlers and villagers accused of spying, people began to talk of them as little better than bandits.
Local officials say several of the 200 or so rebels are criminals or vengeful soldiers dismissed for poor discipline.
Around September last year, a new military commander aiming to wipe out the rebellion by the end of the year introduced a tougher approach.
Villagers began to find the corpses of shot civilians strewn along the roadsides. The military officially said the killings were the work of rebels.
But religious leaders and soldiers in the field said the military was killing people to frighten Acehnese into dropping support for the rebels.
Villagers in the east coast trouble zones say there are four or five deaths a day and local officials acknowledge the army is shooting people they believe to be involved in the rebellion.
"Involved? What does that mean? Does it mean your son is a rebel, you once gave rice to a rebel, you buried a corpse? All Acehnese are involved. Anyway, what do they (the military) know? They’re not from here, they are from Java or Padang (in West Sumatra)" said a local bus driver.
Officials acknowledge it is hard to pinpoint rebels and their supporters, especially in a vindictive culture like Aceh where personal grudges sometimes lead people to inform on others.
"But I think they are usually right. Let’s say 70 per cent of the time," said one local official.
He said more people were being shot on the spot now because soldiers feared they would get killed first if they tried to capture rebels alive.
A student who said he had been held for a month as a rebel and tortured because a commando was after his girlfriend gave a different reason.
"They have realised if they arrest people and then let them out there are that many more people with a grudge. Better to kill right away."
The special forces commandos roaming the streets are straightforward. "This is my wife," said a commando stroking his gun. "I kiss her and she kills for me."
How many rebels had "she" killed? "Oh, I’ve lost count now."
Intellectuals in the provincial capital Banda Aceh say a heavy-handed military approach will create a generation of orphans with a grudge and may perpetuate the problem for years.
They point to the disappearance of Teuku Achmad Dewi, a respected religious leader in the solidly Islamic province who has in the past acted as a mediator between the government and the rebels.
Achmad Dewi’s family say they have heard nothing of him for a month and he is widely believed to have been shot by the military when he went to pick up the corpse of his brother, also shot because he was said to be involved with rebels.
"If they are shooting ulamas (Islamic religious leaders), what’s more the very ones who are on their side, then there is no hope. This will go on and on," said one intellectual.