"The key step for peace is ending corruption"
Comment by Sidney Jones in the International Herald Tribune
The Indonesian government will soon decide whether to impose a state of emergency in Aceh, the rebellious and resource-rich region on the tip of Sumatra island. But if Jakarta were serious about ending the separatist rebellion in Aceh, it would not be talking about a military solution. It would be talking instead about ending corruption, upholding the law, and making the conflict less profitable for all parties concerned.
Now more than ever, the war in Aceh is about money, and no one is clean. An autonomy law, adopted last year, has created a giant slush fund for provincial officials from oil and gas revenues, with no effective controls over how the money is spent. Every day, the local press carries stories about misspent funds, missing budget allocations, suspected cronyism, or crooked contractors.
The duty-free port of Sabang, on an island off the coast of Banda Aceh, has become a smuggler's haven, with luxury cars only one of the goods coming in from Singapore. Aceh's governor has been named repeatedly as being behind some of the smuggling.
Indonesian civilian and military officials, as well as the Acehnese rebels who say they are fighting for independence, demand their cut from aid and project funds to the point that potential investors may be more frightened off by the skimming than by the lack of security. Shopkeepers have to pay protection money to both the police and the Free Aceh Movement, known by its Indonesian acronym as GAM. It has stepped up kidnappings for ransom: A group of guerrillas took an ethnic Chinese woman off a bus last month, thinking because she was Chinese, she must be rich (she wasn't).
The gang held her until her family came up with the equivalent of $3,500. Criminal thugs have reportedly joined GAM because it offers new opportunities for extortion, while the GAM leadership hit hard by the military offensive under way for more than a year does not appear to be particularly selective about recruits. Police, soldiers, and GAM all collect money along Aceh's roads, sometimes in sight of one another.
After widespread publicity about these illegal levies, police put up signs outside their guard posts on the north-south artery serving Banda Aceh and Medan saying, "The police do not receive contributions from users of the main road."
After dark, the signs go down, and the hands come out. On July 15, truck drivers in South Aceh went on strike, complaining that making a one-way run between Blangpidie and Medan, a 12-hour trip, they had to pay a total of about $190 in unofficial fees One particularly lucrative source of income in Aceh is illegal logging. This has raised questions about a plan, backed by the governor and local military, to build a major new east-west road, called the Ladia Galaska, through virgin forest. The ostensible aim is to help isolated villages. The real aim may be greed on the part of local officials, with money certain to pile up from bribes from bidders, cuts from contractors, and income from the timber that will have to be cut for the road to go through.
When so many people have an economic interest in prolonging the conflict, more soldiers will not help; nor unhappily, will a continuation of the dialogue now going on in Geneva between the government and GAM guerrillas, unless the rampant corruption is addressed. Instead of soliciting opinions about a state of emergency, the government of President Megawati Sukarnoputri in Jakarta should be pressing for greater accountability from the provincial government. A draft regulation on direct election of district heads is languishing in a provincial government office in Banda Aceh, with neither the governor nor most local parliamentarians interested in seeing it adopted.
If local officials were accountable to the electorate in Aceh, most would be long gone. If more economic opportunities were available to young men, GAM might lose some of its recruits. If the courts were working, the officials who are stealing Aceh blind might be punished.
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