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Regional Grievances and the Indonesian Elections

Testimony before the House International Relations Committee Asia and the Pacific Subcommittee by Sidney Jones, Executive Director, Human Rights Watch, Asia Division

The first free elections in Indonesia since 1955 are now less than a month away. I would like to focus my attention on areas where the forthcoming election has generated little excitement and where discontent with the government in Jakarta is so deep that any new government coming in will have to confront the fundamental question of the country's unity. Three provinces -- Aceh, Irian Jaya, and Maluku (the Moluccas) -- were seeing major problems with voter registration as of early May, and in East Timor, moves toward a referendum on independence scheduled for August were rendering the June 7 vote irrelevant. The violence and unresolved grievances in these areas, as well as in West Kalimantan, and to a lesser extent in Riau province on the eastern coast of Sumatra, are important, because they underscore how little the elections are going to solve, even if they are free and fair.

This is not to demean the importance of the elections themselves or to diminish the huge step toward democratization that they will represent. But it underscores the need to look beyond June 7 and beyond November, when a new president will be chosen, to some of the political shoals ahead.

I. East Timor

The more important vote for East Timor is not June 7 but August 8, when East Timorese will vote in a ballot organized and conducted by the United Nations on whether they accept or reject an autonomy package that would leave the territory under Indonesian sovereignty. East Timorese provincial government leaders seem determined to proceed with the June 7 elections, and pro-Indonesia militias may see it as a useful focus for mobilizing their forces. With election day falling in the midst of a major deployment of U.N. personnel, however, the attention of most East Timorese is likely to be elsewhere.

This hearing may not be the place to discuss the obstacles to a fair ballot on August 8, but they are enormous. And even if, by some miracle, that vote proceeds smoothly, the question is what happens after the votes are counted, since it is not at all clear that the losing side will accept the outcome. There are at least three possible scenarios:

1. The vote is 85 percent or more in favor of rejecting the autonomy package. In effect, it is an overwhelming vote in favor of independence. Indonesia's highest legislative body, the MPR, agrees to let East Timor go, East Timor reverts to its pre-1976 political status, and a U.N. transition authority is established that will lead to independence. At this stage, an overwhelming vote in favor of independence would probably carry the least threat of violence, but it might well lead to an exodus of pro-Indonesia advocates and their families, civil servants associated with the Indonesian administration, and non-Timorese. After the militia attacks of the last few months, however, I am not sure that an overwhelming vote for independence is the most likely scenario, especially if the U.N. and the international community cannot guarantee that pro-independence groups will be able to compete on the same footing as the military-backed militias.

2. The vote is closer to 70 percent in favor of rejecting autonomy, with an overwhelming majority favoring independence in eastern East Timor and a much more ambivalent vote in the western districts, including Liquica and Bobonaro. Maliana, the district capital of Bobonaro, is one of the militia strongholds. Under these circumstances, the MPR would still agree to let East Timor go, but such a split vote could be a recipe for major violence on the part of the militias in those districts, violence that could eventually envelop the territory.

3. The vote is 65 percent or lower in favor of rejecting autonomy. Then the MPR will be placed in a very difficult position and might not agree to East Timor's separation. If it does not, it will be the pro-independence groups that turn to violence. If the MPR does agree to separation, the pro-Indonesia militias would likely rebel.

In the meantime, both the autonomy package and the U.N. operation in East Timor are likely to be heavily scrutinized by Indonesian provinces desirous of more devolution of power from the center, since the autonomy package grants more power to something called the Special Administrative Region of East Timor than provinces currently have under new laws on revenue-sharing and government decentralization that were approved at the end of April. The package also includes more explicit protections for human rights than any Indonesian province currently enjoys. With movements for independence gathering strength in several different areas of Indonesia, developments in East Timor have major implications for Indonesia as a whole.

II. Aceh

The special region of Aceh had one of the lowest registration rates in the country as of about two weeks ago. It is now reported to be up to 50 percent province-wide, but with an election boycott campaign in full swing, there are still almost no voters registered in large areas of three of the region's most important districts, North Aceh, East Aceh, and Pidie.

North Aceh, where Mobil Oil has major investments, had a 20 percent registration rate as of May 8, and it is an area where pro-independence activity, both armed and unarmed, is highest.

Local people held deep grievances against the central government anyway, largely for failing to make any move toward prosecuting army officers for systematic human rights abuses that occurred there between 1990 and 1998, and a massacre by the army of at least forty civilians on May 4 is certain to heighten them.(1)

The demand in East Timor for a referendum on independence, widely publicized in Indonesia after Soeharto's resignation, directly influenced students in Aceh, who on January 28, 1999, at an all-Aceh student congress, started a movement to call for a similar referendum in Aceh. The movement grew with astonishing speed, moving far beyond student circles including into the current political campaign, and it is not likely to disappear any time soon. Serious prosecutions of past abuses may be the only way to halt the momentum, but chances of that appear slim.

In the meantime, there are allegations and counter-allegations about intimidation of would-be voters in Aceh, to the point that many Acehnese are afraid to register, let alone to join political parties or actively campaign. The army says that the rebel group, Aceh Merdeka (the Free Aceh Movement) is behind the intimidation, a charge Aceh Merdeka spokesmen have denied. Some Acehnese opposition politicians say that in fact, the ruling party Golkar and the army have the most to lose from a free election in Aceh and the most to gain by intimidation. But in the meantime, the level of fear is such that according to one account, 150 village heads in North Aceh resigned, rather than continue to be subjected to threats from unidentified sources.(2)

When I was in North Aceh last February, it was clear that Aceh Merdeka was very active and had almost certainly committed serious human rights violations, including executions of suspected collaborators with the Indonesian government. It was also clear, however, that the military response, involving widespread arbitrary detention, torture, and killings, was only serving to generate more resentment of Jakarta and more support for a referendum.

At least one of the political parties, Partai Amanat Nasional or PAN, has campaigned on a platform of federalism, an idea that seemed to have widespread support in Aceh. But the events of recent weeks, including the May 4 massacre, may further radicalize the Acehnese, with far-reaching consequences.

Aceh, unlike East Timor, is critical to Indonesia's concept of itself as a nation. East Timor was never part of the Indonesian nationalist struggle, and its departure from the Indonesian republic, to which it was illegally annexed in 1976, will not put the unity of the Indonesian republic in jeopardy. Aceh was not only at the forefront of the nationalist struggle against the Dutch colonial government, but it is vital to Indonesia, politically, strategically, and economically. The low registration rate in Aceh should thus be a wake-up call to Jakarta.

III. Irian Jaya

Irian Jaya is said to have a 70 percent registration rate as of last week. I'm not sure how the figures were calculated or how meaningful they are -- intimidation in Irian Jaya to vote for the ruling party has traditionally been overpowering, and it is too far away for most Jakarta election officials to take notice or care. Nevertheless, Irian Jaya is another area with a revitalized independence movement and one that is almost certain to grow unless it is handled with far more sensitivity than it has been thus far.

On February 26, 100 political, tribal, and community leaders from all over Irian Jaya presented a petition to President Habibie expressing a desire for independence of the country they call West Papua. This was supposed to be the first stage in a "national dialogue" that was to be followed first by discussions of the meeting in local gatherings throughout Irian Jaya, then a workshop on March 31 to discuss options for change. Even before the meeting, the government had made it clear that of the three options -- "O" for otonomi (autonomy), "F" for federalism, and "M" for merdeka or independence, the M option was off limits.

But after the statement was presented, the idea of a workshop seemed to evaporate, and the government made formal moves to shut off further debate. At the end of March, after a reception for one of the participants in the meeting, an NGO leader from Merauke named Max Mahuse, both Mahuse and the program organizer were summoned for interrogation by police. On April 17, an order went out from the provincial police command in Jayapura banning any attempts to set up local "communication forums" to discuss the February 26 meeting. The police apparently feared that the forums would be little more than separatist fronts. On May 5, seventy-four people were arrested in the town of Fakfak, charged with planning to set up an independence taskforce.

In the middle of its efforts prevent debate on independence, the government announced that it was going to split Irian Jaya into three provinces. The timing of the announcement in April, just after a public expression in support of independence from leaders across the province and just before the national elections, was greeted with anger and suspicion from many within Irian. Irian Jaya is unquestionably a huge and difficult-to-manage province, but the division, which is likely to go forward immediately after the elections, seems more calculated as a security measure, to facilitate the breaking up of any Irian Jaya-wide political movement. Each new province would come with its own new complement of troops, unless the central government can be persuaded to treat Irian Jaya differently than it has other provinces.(3)

Other Problem Areas

East Timor, Aceh, and Irian Jaya are not the only trouble spots. The oil-rich province of Riau on the east coast of Sumatra is threatening secession unless it gets a fair share of the income it produces. Violence in West Kalimantan between ethnic Dayaks and Malays on the one hand and Madurese on the other continues with no resolution in sight and with tens of thousands of displaced people causing a potential for further violence elsewhere. The communal violence in Ambon remains unresolved, and holding the elections in some districts there may well prove impossible. The army appears either incapable or unwilling of restraining some of the violence, and indeed, in some areas, is accused of provoking it. The police, marginally separated from the army as of April 1, are not yet under civilian control and in any case are too weak, too lacking in training, and in many places, too corrupt to rely on.

What can the U.S. do?

The U.S. has rightly accorded high priority to the elections and to voter education and training programs. It has also institututed a program to train the Jakarta police in crowd control, a program we very cautiously support, understanding the risks here are high. We support active and extensive U.S. participation in election-monitoring and urge in particular that some of these troublespots be given particular attention. But it is critical that the U.S. not lose sight of other pressing issues. In particular:

1. With respect to East Timor, we welcome indications of U.S. support for the U.N. Trust Fund and hope that the actual contributions of funds will take place expeditiously. We also hope that the U.S. will contribute its share to the U.N. civilian police force. But the U.S. must make it clear to the Habibie government that a vote on the autonomy package can only proceed if conditions for a reasonably fair ballot are in place. Those conditions will not be in place if the civilian militias, responsible for the deaths of scores of people in the last two months, are not disarmed. If the Indonesian government does not make progress in this disarming, the U.S. and other donors to Indonesia must increase the pressure to do so. One possible lever for doing so is a May 18 board meeting of the World Bank where two major loans are up for approval. The U.S. Executive Director could be urged to vote either against these loans or for postponing the date for meeting to approve them until the Indonesian government evidences clear determination to move forward with disarming, and the process has begun. Another lever would be for the U.S. to tell General Wiranto and the Indonesian army that it is dropping its support for the resumption of International Military and Education Training (IMET) until disarmament of the militias is underway.

2. The U.S. might be able to help cool the political temperature in Aceh by urging the Habibie government to make a far more serious effort to prosecute perpetrators of past abuses than it has thus far, but it must also press for a full investigation into the May 4 massacre in Lhokseumawe. It could offer forensic assistance for the investigation and exhumation of mass grave sites and fund legal assistance to Acehnese NGOs compiling evidence to use in eventual prosecutions. The planned reopening of a U.S. consular presence in Medan is a welcome development and will enable the U.S. to better monitor developments in Aceh, but unless there is serious, concerted, and multilateral pressure on the Habibie government and its successor for accountability of past abuses there, U.S. investments and U.S. interests could be in serious jeopardy.

3. The U.S. should discourage any steps that would serve to increase the size or role of the Indonesian army. It should actively discourage the establishment of new military commands. The Habibie government should be urged to reverse a decision to set up a new regional military command (KODAM) in Aceh. It should also be urged to consult extensively with the people of Irian Jaya, including religious and community leaders, before taking any decision to divide the province into three, especially given the military implications.

4. The US should continue to encourage Japan to constructively utilize its diplomatic and economic influence. As the lead aid donor, Japan's voice has been particularly helpful in recent weeks on East Timor. Just prior to the UN talks in New York last month, the Japanese foreign minister (Masahiko Komura) sent a letter to Ali Alatas, his Indonesian counterpart, and phoned Indonesian economic czar Ginandjar Kartasasmita to express concern about the escalating violence and attacks by the civilian militia. Japan is also providing funding and other support for the June elections.


1. The massacre occurred when soldiers opened fire on hundreds of people marching on an army base to protest military operations in the area. The operations began after a soldier disappeared during a pro-independence rally on April 30.

2. "Menjegal Pemilu di Serambi Mekah," Forum Keadilan, May 9, 1999.

3. The division of the province also has economic implications. Under the new Law on Intergovernmental Fiscal Relations -- the revenue-sharing law -- provinces will be allowed to keep 80 percent of the revenue from mining, forestry and fishing, 30 percent of gas revenues, and 15 percent of oil revenues. Irian Jaya is rich in natural resources, and if the law is fully implemented, will receive far more than it does now of the income it produces.

For Further Information:
Sidney Jones (New York) +1 212 216 1228

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