Journalists Told to Keep Quiet on Aceh Skirmish
7 January 2005
Australian journalists who witnessed a confrontation between Indonesian soldiers and alleged separatists in tsunami-ravaged Sumatra yesterday were ordered to leave the area and warned not to report on the incident.
The clash occurred just 40km from the provincial capital Banda Aceh, the centre of the relief operation spearheaded by US and Australian forces in Aceh, where some 100,000 people died from the Boxing Day earthquake and tsunamis.
After being the apparent target of rebel snipers, government soldiers fired into the air and roughed up Indonesians they suspected were Free Aceh Movement (GAM) sympathisers.
The incident prompted special forces (Kopassus) soldiers to confront The Australian's representatives in the area.
"Your duties here are to observe the disaster, not the conflict between TNI (the Indonesian army) and GAM," a Kopassus commander told The Australian's journalist and photographer before ordering them to leave.
The international relief effort and the arrival of foreign journalists have presented the Indonesian military with a dilemma - how to maintain military operations against the rebels while not attracting international attention to the 28-year-old conflict.
In the absence of a ceasefire, Indonesian military leaders have been anxious to avoid giving the impression that their commitment to contain the rebels was hampering their emergency relief role.
The military says yesterday's skirmish began when rebels on a fishing boat fired at tsunami victims and soldiers at Lhoknga, on Aceh's devastated west coast.
No one was injured in the incident, near a destroyed bridge about 40km southwest of Banda Aceh, said Sergeant Muhammad Guntur.
The two gunshots rang out when a TNI patrol was wrapping a dead soldier in black plastic.
The soldiers formed quickly into battle lines and ran across the dunes, a lieutenant calling urgently for backup.
The Australian was in what was once a GAM stronghold and which for the past two years has been a hotspot in the Indonesian Government's fight against the rebels.
Within minutes, a truck carrying Kopassus soldiers arrived.
Locals waiting to head south huddled with downcast eyes. Three men were hauled from the crowd, pushed into lotus positions and interrogated. Then another trio was summonsed.
As one local tried to ride off on a motorbike, a Kopassus soldier shouted angrily and fired two shots in the air. He walked up to the motorbike rider and hit him twice across the face, then threatened him with the butt of his M-16.
The rider was hauled away and accused of being a GAM sympathiser who had tried to flee. We were told to leave and again reminded of constraints on reporting in Aceh.
For the past week, Lhoknga had been a staging point for refugees from the remainder of the west coast who had fled their villages, or those game enough to walk the other way along the ruined road, seeking out relatives. All morning, troops wearing combat kit had been stopping those heading south, accusing them of forming new supply lines for rebels in the hills.
This was the last TNI station between Banda Aceh and the great unknown. The only other soldiers along the coastline to Sumatra are involved in relief work.
The checkpoint officers had been rigorous, to the point of pedantry. One local was asked why he was carrying five bananas on his 160km journey. He was allowed to leave after a five-minute grilling.
The official line from Jakarta has been that GAM, or the Free Aceh Movement, which has fought a decades-long guerilla campaign to win self-rule, is all but a spent force. The army believes it is now in a mopping-up phase.
But during yesterday's alert a young soldier said his platoon had been involved in two contacts with rebels since the tsunami hit.
A spokesman for the Indonesian embassy in Canberra said the TNI had a role to maintain security, and this case might have been a simple example of that.
"The role of the TNI is to assist in the humanitarian role but, because of the limited police, the TNI has a role in maintaining the rule of law in Aceh. At these times there's an opportunity for the insurgents to exploit the situation. The TNI is trying to stop that."