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Indonesia's Shame

June 09, 2003

When Megawati Sukarnoputri took over as Indonesia's president 23 months ago, her first major speech included an apology for years of human rights abuses by the military in the province of Aceh. Now she has imposed martial law there, unleashed the soldiers and again terrorized a population caught between thuggish troops and independence-minded guerrillas. The military campaign in the province must be short-lived and subservient to a resumed attempt to find a political solution.

Megawati cracked down after the Free Aceh Movement foolishly chased the chimera of full independence rather than settle for increased autonomy during negotiations that broke down in May.

The rebel group has fought for independence for more than a quarter-century. It has only a few thousand poorly armed guerrillas but considerable support in the province, at the northwestern tip of Indonesia. It has less support elsewhere on the island of Sumatra and little on the other islands that constitute Indonesia.

But the brutality of the army in the 1990s greatly increased the guerrillas' popularity and is likely to do so again. Troops sweep into villages and beat, abduct and kill males as young as 12, Acehnese told Times reporter Richard C. Paddock. Then soldiers go house to house, taking money and molesting women and girls.

Even if troops refrain from that outrageous behavior, Indonesia needs to concentrate on fighting Al Qaeda and not be distracted by a second front. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, a former ambassador to Indonesia, urged the government two weeks ago to let outsiders monitor paratroopers' sweeps through Aceh. He also urged a political solution. Indonesians could learn a lesson from Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka and their own history of fighting Dutch colonizers: Military superiority does not guarantee indefinite subjugation of rebels.

Wolfowitz also insisted that Indonesia must thoroughly investigate the killing of two U.S. teachers in Papua last year, a crime that police said was the work of the military -- which denied involvement.

Aceh residents validly complain that the central government derives great wealth from their province's oil and natural gas and returns little. But the province must understand the central government's fears that the country could fracture as Yugoslavia did, riven by ethnic, religious and economic warfare.

The international groups that brought rebel and Indonesian government negotiators together must try again. Japan, which hosted the failed talks and is Indonesia's largest foreign donor, should push Megawati to let international observers into Aceh. Military brutality is a recruiting tool for guerrillas who otherwise would have little support from most villagers.

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