President jeered by students after apologising for past 'shortcomings and mistakes'

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 September, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 September, 2001, 12:00am

President Megawati Sukarnoputri had a taste of the problems she faces in preventing Aceh from breaking away from Indonesia during her brief visit yesterday.

Apologising once again for past abuses in the separatist-inclined province, Ms Megawati was clearly upset at what she saw as the lack of respect shown to her by jeering students.

Ms Megawati's first act on arrival in Aceh was to change her clothes from Javanese to traditional Acehnese wear, complete with Muslim headscarf.

The purple scarf was a significant concession from the woman once passed over for the presidency after complaints from Muslim politicians about her gender. Though leader of a largely Muslim nation, Ms Megawati usually eschews the scarf.

After talks at the Governor's office, Ms Megawati delivered a public apology to Aceh, mirroring one she delivered on August 17, Indonesia's Independence Day.

'Governments in the past have had shortcomings and made many mistakes,' she said. 'For that, personally and on behalf of the Government as President of Indonesia, I offer my deep apologies to the people of Aceh. But we must look to the future. Otherwise we will get nowhere.'

Her style - emotional and conciliatory - was perhaps the only change she brought to Aceh. Some of her predecessors visited Aceh to promise change. Each failed to deliver and instead opened the way for more military and police repression.

The depth of cynicism as a result of such visits was evident in the exchange between Ms Megawati and students at the open gathering. She had promised to learn from her time in Aceh, but the students wanted dialogue there and then.

Ms Megawati told them to sit down and be quiet, provoking jeers from the crowd.

'I hope the people of Aceh can treat their guests well without making unpleasant noises,' a distressed Ms Megawati responded. 'I say again, even God ordered guests to be treated well.'

Ms Megawati can count herself lucky that no further breach of protocol or security occurred. The separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM) had promised not to disrupt the visit, despite her refusal to talk to them. Security was heavy across the capital, Banda Aceh. Most residents stayed at home and shops were closed.

Such a setting could hardly be more different from the adoring crowds that greet Ms Megawati elsewhere in the archipelago.

'It's fine for her to say we should look to the future, but she won't get far if she doesn't deal with our past,' said a human rights activist from Aceh who is in hiding near Jakarta because troops have made his home in Aceh too dangerous.

Symbolic though the President's trip may be, the exile and many other Acehnese are waiting to see if anything more constructive will follow.

The more radical advocates of outright independence for Aceh insist she must restart dialogue with GAM on a government-to-government level. But Ms Megawati has ruled out independence and wants to persuade Acehnese to accept special autonomy.

More moderate Acehnese leaders say she must talk with GAM anyway and that she must directly tackle the legacy of human rights abuses by her troops.

Ms Megawati gave no indication yesterday that she was ready for either step.

An estimated 50,000 Acehnese are refugees in their own land, crammed into under-funded camps after losing homes and livelihoods in fighting. Some observers had hoped Ms Megawati would visit such victims, but she failed to do so.

'It will be very disturbing for Aceh people if Megawati just wants to go sightseeing in Aceh during her short visit,' activist Maimul Fidar said. 'She must talk with poor Aceh people living in refugee camps, and rights violations in Aceh must be settled legally. Talks with GAM are also a must.'

Seven people were killed in the days before Ms Megawati's visit, including a human rights worker and the rector of the State University. The rector, Dayan Dawood, was the second member of the Independent Commission on Aceh to be murdered.

That Commission, set up by former president Bacharuddin Habibie, is the only body to have pursued court cases against top generals for abuses in Aceh. Its work was watered down into one trial, which convicted medium-level soldiers following the disappearance of a key military witness.

In the past two years the Government has failed to come up with any significant measures on human rights violations.

'This has not been touched on at all . . . People have become very disappointed,' Care for Human Rights Foundation executive director Syaifuddin Bantasyam said in Banda Aceh.

'It is inconceivable that the Government does not understand this . . . All issues are crucial and related: the unsettled human rights violations, dialogue with the Free Aceh Movement, which is now stalled . . . and the humanitarian issues, which will continue - mainly the refugees and the destruction and burning of property.'