JAKARTA -- Indonesia's northern Sumatran province of Aceh should be an investor and tourist paradise. The nearby island of Pulau Weh offers pristine beaches, beautiful coral reefs, and great seafood. The capital, Banda Aceh, is a friendly city where well-educated young men and women eagerly strike up conversations with visitors outside the main mosque. The suburbs seem to be straight out of a Hollywood set, with streets of single-family homes fronted by neatly manicured lawns and driveways. Indeed, the latest Hollywood fluff can be seen at the local multiplex -- the top hangout for "cool" teens.
But paradise is on a losing streak. These days the beaches are devoid of tourists, and in many parts of the province the only education on offer is a crash course in survival. Since May, Aceh has been burning -- with more than 500 schools torched by unknown arsonists. This followed Indonesia's President Megawati Sukarnoputri ending of a six-month ceasefire, declaration of martial law, and unleashing of the Indonesian armed forces against the armed, separatist Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, or GAM).
While the world has watched the war in Iraq on TV, the conflict in Aceh has been largely hidden. The Indonesian government has kept the province almost entirely closed to foreign journalists, human-rights monitors, and even humanitarian aid workers. While the government reports that more than 1,100 GAM fighters and some 100 Indonesian soldiers have been killed, there is no way to verify these figures.
The Indonesian government also reports more than 300 civilian deaths since May. But recent interviews with Acehnese refugees in Malaysia indicate that the true figure may be higher. Of 85 Acehnese interviewed, seven had directly witnessed a summary execution of a civilian by Indonesian security forces. Three had discovered bodies of civilians -- in two cases family members -- in close proximity to military operations. Several others described abductions leading to deaths. Others told of beatings, arbitrary arrests, and drastic limits on freedom of movement. All interviewees had a story of abuse to tell.
Jakarta's approach of relying on the military, instead of using other means to try to bring the conflict to an end, has resulted in a new wave of rights violations. In many cases, Indonesian security forces have been described as routinely resorting to violence against primarily young Acehnese men, who had been stopped for questioning. One man described the death of a young man named Jamal: "At first I just saw three soldiers, but then others joined in. I saw one of the soldiers handcuff the ankles of this man, and then another soldier held him by his feet and swung him against a tree. The soldier did this many times so that the man's head was hitting the tree. His brains were coming out of his head, until he was dead. And then the corpse was put on the street and another soldier shot many times into the corpse."
Tens of thousands of Acehnese civilians have been forced to flee their homes to escape the conflict or to seek food and shelter. Residents who remain in their homes are subject to shortages of food, water, and sanitation, and breakdowns in basic services such as health care and education. Many refugees explained that they left because they did not have enough food to eat.
Senior Indonesian military officials vowed to "crush" GAM within six months of ending the ceasefire in May. But they failed, and in November renewed martial law for a further six months. The comments earlier this month of police Brigadier General Guliansyah, head of law enforcement operations for the Aceh police force, are a chilling example of the kind of incendiary talk that can lead to abuses and the failure of the armed forces to distinguish between GAM combatants and civilians: "If necessary shoot on the spot anyone who raises this GAM flag. Whoever raises the flag must be a GAM member."
It is time for the Indonesian government -- and its foreign supporters -- to ensure that its military, which has a well-documented and shameful history of abuse in East Timor, Papua and Aceh, respects international human rights and humanitarian law and establishes credible processes to remove, discipline, and prosecute soldiers who commit abuses. To show good faith and maintain its good standing with the international community, it should immediately allow an independent commission to investigate allegations of human-rights violations and report findings publicly.
War is violent, bloody and dangerous, but never more so than when it is waged in secret. To discourage further violations, it is time for Indonesia to allow independent and impartial observers and humanitarian agencies to have immediate and unfettered access to Aceh. The almost hermetic seal that Indonesia has placed on Aceh's villages and mountains may be encouraging military forces on both sides to believe that, as in the past, they can commit abuses with impunity.
The international community, particularly the quartet of the United States, European Union, Japan and the World Bank -- which were previously involved in peace negotiations between Indonesia and GAM -- must now put maximum pressure on Indonesia to ensure the well-being and safety of the civilian population. While many diplomats in Indonesia have worked hard to encourage both sides to end the violence and return to the negotiating table -- last week donor governments reportedly asked the government to find a peaceful solution -- there has been little sense of urgency in key capitals like Washington, Tokyo, Brussels and Canberra. Instead, they seem to have been mesmerized by the desire to support Indonesia's domestic war on terror after the bombings in Bali and Jakarta, and as a result have looked the other way as the Indonesian government prosecutes its war in Aceh.
It is in the best interests of Indonesia and its friends to ensure that the long cycle of abuse in Aceh comes to a rapid end. Creating a new generation of victims only increases the chances that the Acehnese independence movement will grow and that the world's largest Muslim country may slip into an unpredictable round of instability.
Charmain Mohamed is the Indonesia researcher and Sam Zia-Zarifi is Human Rights Watch's deputy director for Asia.