Indonesian Military (TNI) personnel patrol in Jeunieb district, Bireun regency, Aceh while residents pass along the road in this undated file photo taken during the prolonged conflict. (JP/Hotli Simanjuntak)
(The Jakarta Post)
In her victory speech after the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) won the June 1999 legislative election, Megawati Soekarnoputri vowed not to let Aceh, which had seen armed conflict between rebels and the government since 1976, suffer.
In that poll, the first democratic election since the fall of Soeharto the year before, the PDI-P won 33.7 percent of the vote to claim 153 of the 462 House of Representatives seats contested. Megawati was the icon of democracy at the time.
In the televised speech, she tearfully addressed the people of strife-torn Aceh.
“For Aceh people, trust me, Cut Nyak will not let even a drop of blood spill in Tanah Rencong [Aceh],” said Megawati, the daughter of founding president Sukarno, referring to herself.
Cut Nyak is a royal title given to married women in Aceh.
A number of Aceh people doubted Megawati’s remarks, because her father Sukarno had broken his promise to grant the province freedom to practice sharia immediately after Indonesia declared independence on Aug. 17, 1945.
Megawati could not do much to realize her pledge, because Muslim cleric Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid defeated her in the presidential election in October 1999. She had to settle for the vice presidency.
In July 2001, Megawati replaced Gus Dur after the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) impeached him. In 2003, as the fifth president of the Republic of Indonesia, Megawati declared martial law in Aceh to end the decades-long rebellion, contradicting her 1999 pledge not to let blood be shed in the natural-resource-rich province.
Megawati should feel some moral responsibility for one of the 12 gross human rights abuses that President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo wants to settle through a nonjudicial mechanism. The list of atrocities includes the massacre in Jambo Keupok, Aceh, which took place just before the military operations in Aceh that Megawati had ordered.
The Aceh conflict only came to an end in 2005, after a giant tsunami swept across the province and other coastal areas along the Indian Ocean, claiming more than 130,000 lives in Aceh alone.
President Jokowi launched on Tuesday a nationwide program to find nonjudicial solutions to 12 past human rights atrocities in a ceremony in Pidie, Aceh.
The event was held on the premises of Rumoh Geudong, a building that bore witness to the torture and killing of civilians by security forces.
The earliest of the 12 cases was the communist purge of 1995-1966, during which about 500,000 people were killed for their real or supposed affiliation with the now-defunct Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). The other cases include the Talangsari massacre in Lampung in 1989, which has been linked to Gen. (ret) Hendropriyono, a Jokowi ally; the 1997-1998 forced disappearances of pro-democracy activists; the May 1998 shooting of Trisakti University students; the Semanggi I and II shootings of students; the Banyuwangi mass killings; the 1993 Simpang Kertas Kraft Aceh (KKA) incident and the 1998 Rumoh Geudong killings in Aceh.
Aceh people had hoped that Megawati would remember her own pledge when she assumed office in 2001. But they doubted her, learning from their traumatic experience with her father Sukarno.
According to the official website of the Aceh government, during his visit to Aceh in June 1948, Sukarno urged Aceh people to donate money to finance the war against Dutch colonialism.
Aceh donated Indonesia’s first plane, the Seulawah. But in 1953, in an act of betrayal in the eyes of Aceh people, Sukarno said he would not let any region of the country practice Islamic law.
Like father, like daughter. Megawati emulated her father’s broken promise.
Megawati initially tried to negotiate with the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) rebel group to end the war. She agreed to grant Aceh a special status with full autonomy to implement Islamic law.
On Dec. 9, 2002, both Jakarta and GAM signed the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement in Geneva. The negotiation was brokered by the Henry Dunant Centre. Japan also actively tried to host negotiations between the rebels and the central government.
But Megawati lost her patience as there was no meaningful progress in the talks with the GAM leaders, who were living in exile in Europe. She announced an all-out war in the province in the name of the unitary state of Indonesia. During the period of martial law, the Indonesian Military (TNI) sent 30,000 personnel while the police deployed 12,000 personnel to quell the GAM. Megawati turned a deaf ear to the international outcry protesting the systematic crimes against humanity by the military against civilians.
According to the TNI, during the year-long operation, the military killed 2,439 rebels, arrested 2,003 others and accepted the surrender of 1,559. The TNI lost 147 soldiers, and 422 were wounded.
Megawati’s decision was similar to the nine-year military emergency status imposed by Soeharto that ended with his fall in 1998. The next two presidents after Soeharto, BJ Habibie and Gus Dur, opted for a softer approach, and violence in Aceh significantly dropped.
According to an official report of the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) issued in March 2016, the atrocities in Jambo Keupok in South Aceh regency occurred in May 2003, just before Megawati announced martial law in Aceh. The rights body said 16 men were burned alive, four shot from a very short range and 16 tortured to death, while five women were severely beaten.
On May 19, 2004, Megawati extended the civilian emergency in Aceh for another six months. In September of that year, Megawati lost to her former chief security minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in the presidential election runoff.
Then on Dec. 26, 2004, the killer tsunami devastated Aceh and other countries in the Indian Ocean. The disaster helped expedite the peace talks between the government and the rebels. After months of negotiations between a team lead by then-vice president Jusuf Kalla and GAM leaders, the two parties signed a peace agreement in Helsinki, Finland, on Aug. 15, 2005.
The war is long over, but its impacts remain. Three of the 12 gross human rights violations the government will seek to address occurred in Aceh, including one during Megawati’s martial law. She should at least feel guilty for the atrocities and take steps to heal the wounds of the victims and their families.
The writer is a senior editor at The Jakarta Post.