Despite Abuses, These Indonesians Want Unity

People in Aceh were tortured and killed by military. But they still feel part of country.

Jumpa Amin wore only long-sleeved dresses after she returned home from 70 days in an military detention center.

Long sleeves hid the bruises and scratches this grandmother says Indonesian soldiers and their local henchmen gave her because they believed she supported Aceh Merdeka, a separatist guerrilla movement in the westernmost tip of Indonesia.

"They kept asking, where are the guns, where is your husband?" she says, moving her pink veil over her face to hide her tears. "Every day the same. I told them I knew nothing. I don't even know if Aceh Merdeka exists."

Mrs. Amin was still in a crowded wooden cell in Pidie when former President Suharto's 32-year rule of Indonesia came to a sudden end in May. His successor, B.J. Habibie, quickly freed more than 100 political prisoners, allowed new political parties to be formed, and introduced political reforms. The military who brought Mr. Suharto to power eased their grip on society and started pulling back troops from East Timor, Irian Jaya, and Aceh, where they had terrorized the local population for years.

"When the reforms started, I was no longer tortured," Amin says. "They told me not to tell even my children, or they'd come back and take me away again."

But many of the Acehnese who were freed in June and July, encouraged by the wave of political reforms, did report their ordeal.

Activists say the military killed more than 1,600 people in Aceh, burying them in mass graves. The more cautious National Human Rights Commission says at least 781 people were killed since the military launched its crackdown on the Aceh Merdeka rebels in 1989. These reports appear to confirm a 1993 US State Department report that said "thousands" were killed by troops between 1989 and 1991.

These revelations, echoing similar reports from East Timor, Irian Jaya, and other parts of Indonesia, have devastated popular respect for the military, who have been revered for bringing Indonesia independence and stability.

General Wiranto, the commander of the armed forces, criticized the National Human Rights Commission last week for revealing its findings without verifying them with the army. Some of the graves may date back to the independence battle with the Dutch in the late 1940s, he suggested.

But Wiranto also initiated the troop withdrawal from Aceh and apologized to the Acehnese for military abuse there. Analysts say Wiranto's mixed messages reveal the tightrope he needs to walk to achieve reforms, which he supports, without losing the backing from his more conservative officers. The military's presence still provokes strong reactions among the Acehnese, who rioted yesterday after 600 additional soldiers left the region.

Wiranto, and President Habibie, say the military has to reduce its role in civil society - where it sits in parliament, runs businesses, and stifles political reforms needed to restore stability.

FROM afar, Indonesia's thousands of islands look so diverse and so spread out that it seems a miracle the country, created by Dutch colonialists, has held together for more than 50 years now. Most of the Roman Catholic East Timorese, whose small country was occupied by Indonesia only in 1975, want to regain independence; some vocal movements in Irian Jaya, whose Papua people are mostly Christian and ethnically different from the Malay majority in Indonesia, want to break away as well. Many Hindu Balinese and Christian Menadonese also feel ill at ease among 190 million Muslims.

Aceh would appear as the third province most likely to push for independence. It is rich in natural resources but has seen little of the revenues because most of the money went to Jakarta. Its 3.5 million people are more strictly Muslim than the other ethnic groups, many of whom have mixed Islam with Hinduism and animist beliefs.

Yet almost no Acehnese, not even women such as Amin who suffered so harshly, have interest in breaking from Indonesia.

"No," says Rosmiati, a mother of three who said she was stripped naked and given electric shocks because she would not reveal where her husband was hiding. "I just want Aceh to be safe. We're still proud of being Indonesians, that hasn't changed."

"It's a big mistake to put East Timor, Irian Jaya, and Aceh in one basket," says Ahmad Humam Hamid, a sociologist.

If those views represent the majority, Indonesia may prove stronger than the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. But "we need to know who is responsible for all these killings," Otto Syamsudin Isa, a sociology professor, adds. "We need to know what happened to those who were killed, those who just disappeared. People want justice done."

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