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Aceh Priest Says End Of Military Emergency Does Not End Fear, Problems


May 26 2004

Indonesians in the troubled province of Aceh still live in fear although the government has downgraded the military emergency to a civil emergency, a Catholic missioner reports.

"The replacement of military emergency status with civil emergency is just a ceremonial action to suggest that the security situation is improving. But actually the military operation still continues," Conventual Franciscan Father Ferdinando Severi told UCA News May 20 by telephone from Aceh.

Killings of alleged members of Free Aceh Movement (GAM, Indonesian acronym) are reported every day from areas in East, North and West Aceh districts, added Father Severi, parish priest of Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, 1,710 kilometers northwest of Jakarta.

He acknowledged that many people are happy the civil emergency status was announced but also fear the outbreak of civil war between GAM and people loyal to Indonesia. Many people felt more secure under martial law, the 70-year-old Italian missioner added.

President Megawati Soekarnoputri´s presidential decree enacting civil emergency in Aceh took effect May 19, after exactly one year of martial law during which more than 40,000 troops and 14,000 police personnel were deployed in the province.

GAM rebels in Aceh have been fighting for independence since 1976, carrying on a tradition of resisting outside rule by the Dutch, the Japanese and now the central government in Jakarta.

Last year Megawati authorized an offensive to crush GAM after five-month-old peace talks broke down. According to media, information the armed forces provided in early May said security personnel killed 1,963 GAM members and captured another 2,100, while 1,276 more surrendered since May 19, 2003.

Meanwhile, more than 40,000 people reportedly left their homes and took shelter in 14 refugee camps inside Aceh. Others fled to neighboring North Sumatra province, where the Church has been involved in relief work.

Aceh Governor Abdullah Puteh now is in charge, but the civil emergency decree requires him to follow instructions from the central government and to have decisions cleared by authorities including the Aceh military commander.

Father Severi says many people question Puteh´s leadership because he is involved in a number of graft cases. "People are protesting the governor because he and a number of officials are accused of embezzling aid provided for victims of the conflict. The cases will be brought to court soon," the priest said.

Other cases involve public works projects, but Puteh denies any wrongdoing.

Continuing poverty in Aceh despite the province being rich in oil and natural gas, and despite comparatively large outlays by the central government for development, fuels rebellion as well as charges of corruption.

Father Severi, who has worked in Aceh more than 10 years, sees rehabilitation of the economy as the best solution to the conflict. He pointed out that "about 1.6 million people of the province´s 4 million people are living under the poverty line."

The priest said the 3,000 Catholics in Aceh, 1,000 of them living in conflict areas, are safe and continue their daily activities.

About 98 percent of Aceh´s people are Muslims, and the Indonesian government has allowed implementation of Islamic law as part of a special autonomy status it granted the province in January 2002.

Father Severi explained that pastoral service has continued without disturbance due to the positive relations the local Church has with Muslims. He emphasized the conflict in Aceh is not about religion.

Catholic schools are operating as usual, he said, though the number of students has dropped from 680 students last year to 380. Half are Muslims.

The Catholic schools, providing education from the kindergarten to senior high school level, belong to the Archdiocese of Medan. The archdiocese, which covers Aceh and North Sumatra, has 495,000 Catholics.

Father Severi expressed his hope that Catholics will not leave Aceh and that those who have fled will return. "We must bear witness through our service, and we should cooperate with the people of Aceh (to develop the region) and help people who have become victims of the conflict," he said.

A particular hope he has for the new civil emergency status is that he would be able to resume medical assistance to the poor, especially physically handicapped children. He said that with the help of a Dutch surgeon, he had helped children with harelip and polio, but that during martial law he was not able to go to villages to look for children who need help.

The civil emergency decree has a six-month limit but is renewable.