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Last Updated: Monday, 24 May, 2004, 01:38 GMT 02:38 UK
Civilian rule returns to Aceh
By Rachel Harvey
BBC correspondent in Banda Aceh

Two Acehnese women walk past police
Martial law has been replaced by civilian rule
After a year of military operations aimed at wiping out a rebel secessionist movement, the Indonesian province of Aceh is now back in the hands of civilians.

The status of the province has been downgraded from martial law to a state of civil emergency.

The man now in charge of Aceh is Governor Abdullah Puteh. In the plush surroundings of the governor's residence, Mr Puteh outlined the way the new arrangements will work.

"It's like this. Whereas before I helped the military and police, now it's the other way around. They help me."

It does not sound like much of a difference.

In fact the military campaign is set to continue. The security forces claim to have killed around 2,000 suspected rebels of the Free Aceh Movement, known by its Indonesian acronym Gam. Another 3,000 have either been arrested or surrendered, the military said.

The figures are impossible to verify, but what is certain is that none of the top rebel commanders have been captured.

The Indonesian officer leading the operation in Aceh Besar district, Lieutenant Colonel Joko Warsito, thinks it is just a matter of time.

Corruption is a big problem in Aceh today, and it goes from the highest level, the governor, right down to the lowest level
Sociologist Achmad Humam Hamid
"We know the local Gam commander here is called Muharam. He's our main target now. If the local people continue to support us then it won't take too much longer," he said.

But it has already taken considerably more time than the military chiefs confidently predicted in May 2003, when martial law was declared.

The battle has been brutal. Over the past year, appalling human rights abuses have been committed by both sides.

The security forces have been accused of torture, rape and unlawful killings. GAM has resorted to taking civilian hostages and regularly extorts money from villagers.

Anti-governor protests

Large parts of Aceh are now more secure than they were a year ago.

The main roads are busy with traffic, while schools and businesses in the major towns are operating again.

But there is little sign of an improvement in basic services or infrastructure, which the government in Jakarta promised would be provided alongside the military campaign.

"How can the government gain the trust of the people?" asked Achmad Humam Hamid, a sociologist at Syiah Kuala University in the provincial capital Banda Aceh.

"Corruption is a big problem in Aceh today, and it goes from the highest level, the governor, right down to the lowest level of government employees."

Governor Puteh denied any wrong-doing, saying there was no evidence against him.

"The principle of innocent until proven guilty should apply here," he said. "Anybody can make accusations, but according to the law, if there is no evidence against someone, why they should have to give up?"

But the voices of protest are growing louder. In Banda Aceh, students have led noisy demonstrations calling for Mr Puteh to be removed.

Asnawi, a student at the Islamic Institute, said the people of Aceh were fighting two enemies - Gam and corruption.

"The change of status here doesn't really matter. The important thing is that the next leader should be clean. We can't accept a leader who is suspected of corruption," he said.

Asnawi's friend, Sim Hamid, said the government in Jakarta should start listening to ordinary people.

"The central government only talks to the politicians. But they should go to the villages to see the real Aceh," he said.

Indonesian troops with weapons confiscated from separatist rebels
Indonesian troops launched a crackdown against Gam a year ago
The "real Aceh" is fantastically rich in natural resources - fertile agricultural land, oil and natural gas.

Yet Aceh remains one of the poorest provinces in Indonesia.

Little of the revenue has found its way back to Aceh's long-suffering civilians. That will have to change if the government in Jakarta is serious about wanting to win the support of the Acehnese people.

The problem is that the government of President Megawati Sukarnoputri, who faces a re-election contest in July, has never had a clear political strategy for the province. Indeed, some observers link the lifting of martial law to the election, though it is not clear how much Mrs Megawati will benefit.

But even if the government was able, eventually, to win the military battle against the separatists, what then?

Achmad Human Hamid thinks the first step should be to replace Governor Puteh with a new leader, respected by the people.

"There is a window of opportunity," he said, "but I'm a little bit pessimistic. If the government in Jakarta goes ahead with this programme with no change at the highest levels of authority in Aceh, then it's a big gamble."

It is only a few days old, but already the suspicion is growing that the new state of civil emergency in Aceh may be nothing more than a cosmetic change.


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