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After several months' controversy and intimidation, around 400 women participated in the first ever Aceh women's congress in February this year. Their resolutions and initiatives outstripped many other attempts to resolve the complex conflict between Jakarta and Indonesia's westernmost province. They proposed a peace commission for Aceh to mediate change and a much greater role for women. They declared, `We, the women of Aceh, demand at least a 30 per cent share in the decision-making process for the future of our land'.

Aceh's women's groups, student movements and non-government organisations have been part of the new post-Soeharto wave of political activity in the strife-ridden province. Their growth reflects the more open political system since Soeharto stepped aside in May 1998, and the rapid politicisation of the population throughout the last two years around the issues of human rights, referendum and independence.

During the previous decade political activity and debate were thwarted by a crushing TNI presence and virtual media blackout on the province, ostensibly to wipe out secessionists of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) which the Indonesian government numbered at only a few hundred. The toll of dead and missing civilians and other gross violations of human rights during that period was estimated at around 7,000 by local NGOs. Aceh is estimated to be home to 3000 widows and 16,000 orphans as a result of this decade of military occupation. This is partly a result of the killing of males, but also the result of what is described in the statement by the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women as the systematic use of rape and sexual violence as a form of torture by the military in the province.

Today human rights abuses continue, with around 180 killed in the first months of the new millennium, and what appears to be deliberate targeting of humanitarian and human rights workers in attacks. The new government of President Abdurrahman Wahid, which has had dialogue with many parties in Aceh, initiated human rights reports, and requested testimony from several former top generals about their roles in Aceh, has nevertheless not been able to advance peace or bring an end to human rights abuses. This is in part due to the new president's inability to seriously challenge military methods of dealing with regional conflicts, and in part to his underlying commitment to the integrity of the Indonesian nation-state.

The limitations of what the new government has to offer Aceh can be seen in the upcoming trial (probably in April 2000) of about two dozen military accused of killing fifty-seven civilians at Beutong Ateuh last year. The trial is in part a response to the report of the Independent Commission to Investigate Violence in Aceh (Komisi Independen Pengusutan Tindak Kekerasan di Aceh) set up by former President Habibie last year. The report recommended that five incidents, including the Beutong Ateuh shootings, should be brought to special human rights tribunals as a matter of priority.

The upcoming trial is being co-ordinated by Indonesia's first ever Minister for Human Rights, Aceh-born Hasballah Saad. However, it appears that the only legally and politically possible method at present for trying the accused -- other than using the notoriously biased court martial process -- is a so-called koneksitas court. This court allows for a mixed panel of civilian and military judges who can preside over cases which cross civilian and military jurisdictions. While this is the first time a koneksitas court has been used to hear human rights cases, many are suspicious that the court will be hamstrung by the military judges present. Additionally, the main suspect and most senior military man to be tried, a Lieutenant-Colonel Soedjono, has `disappeared', and is suspected of being hidden, or even killed, by the military in order to delay and weaken the trial.

All of this does not bode well for what could have been an historic attempt to break the cycle of military impunity in Aceh -- and indeed, Indonesia. A new human rights law currently before national parliament offers some hope, as it allows for the establishment of ad hoc tribunals able to hear cases retrospectively. It is as yet unclear whether the political will exists for such an ad hoc tribunal to be established for Aceh.

In the long term, Aceh's civil society leaders see internal difference and conflict as one of the crucial issues in their territory. This was highlighted at the women's conference in workshops on topics such as `The position of women under Islamic and indigenous law', and various conference motions. They underlined what is likely to remain a major stumbling block towards cooperation amongst the various movements for reform amongst Aceh's roughly four million citizens: religion and Islamic law.

Most Acehnese are Moslem and the province has a long history of practising Islamic law in certain areas of life -- one of the hallmarks of its difference from the rest of Indonesia. But last year, for the first time in known history, Acehnese women began to be forced by Islamic extremists to wear the veil. Most Acehnese NGOs and women strongly objected to this affront (known as operasi jilbab). The Free Aceh Movement (which denied accusations it was responsible for operasi jilbab) and religious teachers (ulama) failed to condemn the push.

The women's conference, after much argument and dissent, decided to avoid the larger political issue of a referendum for Aceh -- seen by many as central to any debate on Aceh's future. This led to anger from the student movements and others, who saw the women as trying to be too apolitical, and kowtowing to foreign funding and other interests by trying to appear secular.

Critics were also responding to an awareness that President Wahid (who although a Moslem leader has not made himself popular in Aceh) has tended to regard demands for change from Aceh as based on religion rather than based on universal human rights and political aspirations. Many fear that he is trying to downplay the terrible trauma and economic injustice suffered by the people of Aceh by offering only broad autonomy, which gives greater but limited access to the province's oil and agricultural wealth, and license to implement Islamic law in more areas of Acehnese life.

Nevertheless the women's conference was a major step forward for Aceh's women, who wish to strengthen their place in politics, and regain some of the prominence they have had through the centuries in Acehnese public life. Alongside the demands for a greater voice in politics, their motions `ranged from a demand for equal recognition with men under Islamic law, to a ban on economic growth based on foreign debt, to the rehabilitation of female sex workers and to the right to act as mediators seeking a peaceful solution to the long-standing conflict that is ripping the province apart'.

Peaceful resolution in Aceh has become one of the tests by which the world is judging President Wahid. Whether he will be able to deliver remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: the Acehnese people -- not least Acehnese women -- are more organised than they have been in decades, and the international community is, at last, following the fate of the Acehnese with close interest.

For photographs, see:

Vanessa Johanson works at the ACFOA Human Rights Office in Melbourne. She visited Aceh in 1998 and was an international election observer there during the 1999 Indonesian General Elections.
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Publication:Arena Magazine
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Apr 1, 2000
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