IDI CUT, Indonesia, Nov 25, Reuter – The people of Indonesia’s Aceh province are growing disenchanted with rebels whose apparently aimless war against the army is degenerating into brutality.
"They (the rebels) were okay to start with, just killing Javanese and the army which goes down well in Aceh," said an agricultural worker in Pidie, the heart of the trouble zone.
"But now they are brutal, killing just about anyone. They have become as bad as the boys in green (the army), who have always been brutal."
The rebel group, an apparent mix of vengeful soldiers sacked by the army, separatists and discontented Acehnese, at first successfully used anti-government slogans to win local sympathy, local civil and religious leaders say.
Since late September, savagery has exploded in the year-long conflict at the western tip of Sumatra, but it is still unclear what the rebel goals are.
"What is clear is that we, the little people, are getting squeezed from both sides, and that ordinary people are dying in their hundreds," said a politician in the province, which has a long history of independence movements against Dutch and later Indonesian rule.
There are no official figures on deaths but a senior army doctor last week put deaths on both sides at more than 1,000.
The army blames the rebels it calls the GPK (security disturbance movement) for most of the slaughter.
"The people are the victims, yes, but they are the victims of the GPK not the victims of ABRI (the armed forces)," regional military commander Major General Pramono said in an interview.
In rare letters to the press from unnamed leaders, the rebels themselves claim to be killing outsiders to the province, mostly the armed forces and settlers from Indonesia’s overcrowded main island of Java.
But politicians and religious leaders say most of the victims are local people who have died at the hands of the military.
"The people have lost sympathy with the GPK largely because it is the GPK that brings the army down on their heads," said a politician in the provincial capital of Banda Aceh.
"It is like fear of a tiger and fear of a pig," said Teuku Achmad Dewi, a religious leader whose fiery speeches to the people of staunchly Islamic Aceh discourage support for the rebels.
"The people fear the rebels like a tiger, with respect for its strength, but they fear the army like a pig, with hatred for its filth," he said in an interview at his religious school.
The military were a law unto themselves, he said.
Politicians and religious leaders who declined to be identified have said bodies found at roadsides, in rivers and on plantations are those of civilians murdered by the armed forces, which they said were trying to terrorise the population into opposing the rebels.
"Okay, that does happen," said one Acehnese soldier. "But (the rebels) use terrorist strategies so we are forced to use anti-terrorist strategies."
Some Banda Aceh politicians speculate the rebels eventually want independence from Indonesia, unsuccessfully sought by the Aceh Merdeka (Free Aceh) movement in the 1970s.
"When all is said and done, the people of Aceh consider themselves Indonesians. The mistake of Aceh Merdeka was to come right out and declare independence. People just weren’t very sympathetic," said one Banda Aceh intellectual.
"Maybe they (the current rebels) are doing it by stages. First you talk a lot about Javanese colonialism, then you shoot soldiers and wait for the army to come in and terrorise the people. Only when there is a really thorough hatred of the government and army built up do you launch the idea of separatism," he said.
"It’s entirely possible that is their aim," Pramono said.
Asked why a populist movement would kill civilians and leave the mutilated corpses by the roadside as the military claims the rebels are doing, he said: "Good question. We can’t be sure until we capture their leaders and examine them."
Residents say hundreds of Acehnese have been rounded up and taken to secret detention centres where, according to one man recently released after a month in custody, conditions are grim. Many have not been heard of since.
Pramono said informing families was impractical: "This is a military operation."
Many say the flood of deaths and disappearances in the past six weeks is shock therapy designed to end the rebellion by December, the deadline Pramono set for himself when he assumed command of Aceh and North Sumatra about six months ago.
Others say the military’s severity is an indication that Jakarta fears the movement might spark similar rebellions in other parts of Indonesia, an ethnically diverse island chain stretching 3,000 miles (4800 km) eastwards from Aceh.
"The government fears this movement is subversive (to national unity) and if that’s the case the government will do anything to maintain stability," said a senior politician in Banda Aceh.