Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Amid Bloodletting, Acehnese Try Music and Humor

Tuesday, May 25, 2004, Tuesday

By Andreas Harsono

In a medium-sized amphitheatre, some 200 students in faded blue jeans and T-shirts listened to speeches, applauded a traditional Acehnese dance performance and laughed at a story teller who engaged the audience with jokes.

"Stop, stop, stop for a while! Hamzah Fansuri forgot to turn off his handphone," said Agus PM Toh, the story teller. Immediately, he grabbed his handphone from his pocket and responded with the microphone still on, "Hello! Call me again later. I am in the middle of my performance now."

The audience laughed. Agus smiled and continued his performance on Apr. 13 as if nothing happened. He blended his tale about Hamzah Fansuri, an Acehnese teenager who tried to catch some fish in the open sea but ended up fighting a giant monster, with his day-to-day life.

But it was no ordinary humorous event. Agus is Acehnese and the main theme of this two-day exhibition is the Indonesian government's repression in Aceh province in northern Sumatra.

Thus, outside the amphitheatre, students and NGO activists exhibited gruesome photos of Indonesian soldiers beheading Aceh guerrillas or corpses dumped into rivers. Others sold books on Aceh and other rebellions in Indonesia.

"Many students told me that they have never imagined Aceh to be that bad," said Reni Ch Suwarso, a lecturer at University of Indonesia's school of political science, who helped her students organise the Aceh exhibition.

Indonesian students at the campus were shocked while watching a documentary on the Simpang Kraft massacre in Aceh in May 1999. At the time, Indonesian soldiers were seen shooting down hundreds of Acehnese protesters, killing at least 46 civilians and wounded 156. Not a single soldier was ever brought to justice for the violence.

"They said their stomachs were churning, prompting them to get out of the room. But they got back again after 10 minutes," said Reni, adding that more than 1,000 students had attended the two-day event.

The separatist movement in oil-rich Aceh was born in 1976, out of a deep sense of historical and economic injustice committed on the Acehnese by Indonesia's Jakarta-centric governments.

Indonesian dictator Suharto ordered military operations in Aceh in 1979 and this lasted nearly 20 years. It ended only when Suharto was forced to step down from his three-decade rule in 1998.

It is not clear how many Acehnese were killed, but some human rights organisations estimate that around 10,000 people were killed during this period.

The de facto military rule also created fear among the Acehnese toward Indonesian soldiers. Soon after the fall of Suharto, many Acehnese organisations immediately demanded a referendum.

But Jakarta rejected this and restiveness has continued ever since. Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri declared martial law in Aceh in May, after which the Indonesian army once again conducted military operations.

Megawati said this month that she would end martial law in Aceh in May and put the province under a state of "civil emergency" instead.

But the self-proclaimed Aceh Prime Minister Malik Mahmud said from his exile in Stockholm, Sweden, that the plan was a move without substance. "In other words, the change is merely a window dressing exercised to hide the dismal failure of the military to perform its duty, other than carrying out indiscriminate killing of thousands of civilians, kidnapping, rapes and other gross violations of human rights."

But if the Acehnese are finding it hard to have their sentiments heard in the usual political forums, their views are finding an audience through performances like that in the University of Indonesia campus.

Just a few days after the performance there, a similar event took place in Taman Ismail Marzuki, an art complex in the heart of Jakarta, where other Acehnese groups performed another artistic event about "peace" in Aceh.

Student organisers in the campus said they had collected nearly 1,000 signatures calling for peace during the two-day show. They will also bring the photos, movies, and star performers like Agus PM Toh to other campuses in and outside of Jakarta.

Reni said the organisers also debated whether they should support a freedom movement for Aceh. "Our colleagues from the NGOs and the Acehnese declared that independence is their goal. But we want to go beyond independence. Our goal is to have peace in Aceh. Will they guarantee that there will be peace in Aceh if GAM is to gain independence?"

Agus PM Toh, for his part, told the audience that he does not want to discuss that issue, but that at least Jakarta should not send soldiers to his 'kampung' (country).

"Why don't you send doctors or even tourists to my kampung? My kampung is beautiful and if you have money, why don't you visit my kampung during your vacation?" he asked the audience.

He triggered another round of laughter from the students when he satirically told them that many of their alumni had actually also helped to 'design' the violence in Aceh over the years when they went to Aceh, as political scientists, sociologists or government advisors in the past.

Copyright 2004 IPS-Inter Press Service/Global Information Network
IPS-Inter Press Service

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