Wednesday, September 22, 2004 – morning – Iqbal Farabi of KONTRAS (Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence) Aceh resumed his 4-week North America visit. It began about a month ago when Iqbal and five of his fellow human rights defenders and journalists from Indonesia had the chance to visit the US for a program sponsored by USAid. When Nancy Slamet from KAIROS (Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives) knew about it, then she planned and organized a program for Iqbal while he’s in Canada. Thus, after a-day long Indonesia Advocacy Group Meeting in Ottawa last August, Nancy invited all NGOs that have had concern about Indonesia and Indonesia’s observers to participate in this program.
What you are about to read are Iqbal’s program in Canada and my experience with him in Toronto.
Sept. 11-14, 2004 – Montreal. Rais Richard Zaidi of PBI (Peace Brigades International) hosted him while he’s in Montreal. Iqbal had the chance to present current Aceh situation to a number of NGOs in Montreal, such as Alternatives, Canadian Human Rights Foundation, PBI, Peace & Development, Rights & Democracy, Indonesian students at McGill, and KAIROS’ network.
Sept. 15-16, 2004 – Ottawa. Aside from reporting on the present situation in Aceh to Ottawa based NGOs, Iqbal also had the chance to present it to the Foreign Affairs Canada. I was aware that all his meetings and presentations went well.
Sept. 17-22, 2004 – Toronto. Representing CCEVI in the Sept. 17’s brown-bag meeting organized by KAIROS, I helped KAIROS to be Iqbal’s interpreter during his presentation. I arrived at KAIROS about an hour prior to the meeting because I’d like to chat with Iqbal and know him more before the presentation. It was the first time I met Iqbal. He’s a kind man, dark and skinny, with a left-pierced ear, and good sense of humor🙂 He told me that this was his first time traveling outside the country and that it had forced him to speak in English. Soon, Iqbal, Nancy and I were immersed in a discussion to make this presentation to have more impact.
There were about 25 people present in this presentation/discussion. Mostly came from churches’ networks in Canada (Anglican Church, World Vision, Christian Reformed World Relief Committee, etc.). Iskandar Saher of CRWRC (Christian Reformed World Relief Committee) was also present to support Iqbal. Nancy gave a brief introduction about this event, and then she asked all who were present to give a brief info about themselves and their organizations. Soon after, Iqbal started his presentation.
He began by telling us the background of Aceh prior to the colonial time up until now. I provided you with the links to read a brief history of Aceh including its human rights history.
For complete history of Aceh and its struggle please see the following links:
The History of Aceh by Jakarta Post
A Brief Human Rights History of Aceh by Amnesty International
A Brief History of Aceh by Estafeta
Prior to Dutch colonial time, Aceh enjoyed its prosperity. We know that under Sultan Iskandar Muda’s leadership, Aceh reached its golden era. During this time Aceh controlled trade in the Malacca straits. Because of his success in expanding Aceh, Sultan Iskandar Muda was often referred to as the Alexander the Great of the East. There was no strong leadership after the short ruling of his successor. It marked the declining of Aceh’s golden era. The Dutch declared Aceh War in 1873—2 years after the Dutch colonial signed the Sumatera Treaty with the British colonial. It became the longest war ever fought by the Dutch and claiming more than 10,000 lives. A long struggle to gain independence from the Dutch invader stretched from then until 1945. Aceh was one of the provinces in Indonesia that gave both moral and financial support to the newly independent Indonesia.
There are many milestones in Aceh’s history but Iqbal kept highlighting four of them: 1950, 1976, 1998, and 2003.
1950. The council of ministers of the Federal Republic of Indonesia decided to divide Indonesia into 10 provinces, including the province of North Sumatra, which included Aceh. The council of ministers disregarded the previous decree signed by Sjafrudin Prawiranegara on the establishment of the Aceh province. Iqbal said that Acehnese are very proud people and that this decision had blistered their pride. They could not tolerate the inclusion of Aceh into North Sumatera. And, soon Aceh was shaken by conflicts. Soekarno—Indonesia’s first President—gave the “special territory” status to Aceh in 1959 to address this issue. The central government thought that the “special territory” status would help bring Aceh into the Indonesia mainstream. Iqbal told us that this special status provided a short relief to the conflict but did not mend the gap between decree and reality. Aceh did not enjoy fair economic gains from its abundant natural resources. This dissatisfaction became the hot seedbed for some Acehnese to build an independent Islamic state.
1976. On Dec. 4, 1976, Teungku Hasan M. di Tiro founded the Free Aceh Movement (GAM). Indonesia’s second president, Soeharto, responded harshly to this movement. He also put Aceh under DOM (Military Operation Zone) for 10 years, beginning in 1989. Iqbal said that massive human rights violations by military and police personnel occurred during this 10-year period. People lived in terror, and extra judicial executions, arbitrary arrests, deaths, disappearances, torture, and rapes became the rhythm of their lives.
1998. DOM ended when Soeharto fell from power in 1998. But the misery of the civilians—who became the victims of violence—in Aceh had not ended that time. President Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur), Indonesia’s fourth president—pursued a softer approach to address this issue. He traveled around Aceh to search for people’s aspiration. Iqbal stressed that this initiative paved the way into a signed accord under which both parties agreed to halt offensive operations to allow the distribution of humanitarian aid and prepare the ground for further negotiations on ending the conflict. It was known as the Joint Understanding on Humanitarian Pause for Aceh and it came into force on June 2, 2000. The extension of this accord bore its fruit. On the 9th of December 2002, the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (CoHA) was signed between representatives of the Government of Indonesia and GAM in Geneva, Switzerland. The agreement was intended as the first step towards negotiating a political resolution to the 26-year-old conflict. Although always fragile, the CoHA did bring about a significant reduction of violence in the province and for a period of a few months the numbers of reported human rights violations dropped. Iqbal also said that referendum in East Timor also inspired the people of Aceh to ask for one. However, lack of clarity and political will had only exacerbated people’s long dissatisfaction towards the central government.
2003. The fear of losing Aceh, after East Timor independence, and the effort to curb violence made Megawati—Indonesia’s fifth president—declared martial law in Aceh. Iqbal proceeded his presentation to the one-year evaluation of martial law in Aceh.
When martial law was imposed on Aceh (May 19, 2003), the government sent 35,000 troops to Aceh. GAM rebels were estimated at 3,000 people. According to KONTRAS’ record, there were 915 civilian victims of violence during one-year martial law in Aceh.
Following are the list of types of violations:
* Civil and political rights violations: involuntary disappearances, torture, arbitrary arrests, extra judicial killings, summary killings, violence during general election, violence against human rights defenders, threat to freedom of expression.
* Economy, social and culture rights violations: paralyzed transportation, incapacitated source of livelihood, and violence towards internal displaced people.
* Children rights violations: to have a safe life and development, education.
* Women rights violations: rapes, involuntary disappearances, sexual violence/torture, sexual harassments, extra judicial killings, and arbitrary arrests.
I will post his evaluation report once it gets translated. There are several facts that I won’t disclose in this report on fear for his life. He lost his friend Jafar Siddik Hamzah, one of Aceh’s human rights defender. Jafar Siddik was the coordinator of IFA (International Forum on Aceh) in the US. He was reported missing in August 2000 when he visited Indonesia. He was last seen in the North Sumatra capital of Medan, but efforts to locate him had been fruitless until couple weeks later when one of five decaying bodies found in the Tanah Karo region was identified as that of Jafar. Tanah Karo is some 80 kilometers north of Medan. Jafar was the one who initiated to investigate the complicity of ExxonMobil (Exxon and Mobil Oil) in government repression in Aceh.
Aceh is very rich in oil and gas. Many big oil companies had vied for this oil and gas resources. Mobil Oil was granted to exploit and operate the oil and gas there. Although ExxonMobil claims that it has fulfilled its corporate’s social responsibility, but many can see the contrast of promise and fact in plain view. It pays the military to protect its luxurious compound. A slight protest or disturbance could drive the military in the compound to harass the local people. Its promise to develop the community around its compound was just an empty promise. ExxonMobil prefers to import staple food, fruits and vegetable from Singapore than shop in the traditional markets around its compound. For holiday people from ExxonMobil prefer to have a trip outside Aceh. And, Acehneses are bitter about this unfair condition.
I am aware that nowadays many NGOs speak on the harsh reality of economic greed of multinational corporations. In many parts of the world big multinational corporations can gain huge profits by engaging the current power in government at the expense of the poor and uneducated locals. And it is true in the case of Aceh.
Other harsh reality is that corruption is still rampant in Aceh. It has become a widespread disease—including local government, local members of parliament, and ‘ulama’ (Moslem clerics). That’s why, Iqbal said, it’s hard to expect ‘ulama’, especially elite ‘ulama’, to become the facilitator or mediator towards reconciliation in Aceh.
During martial law, no media and foreign NGOs were allowed to reside in Aceh. The military control the media center and all news had to pass military approval before they got posted. Many other hot issues on national or international level have subdued the media coverage of Aceh’s struggle. It’s hard to maintain Aceh’s issue on main page when many people have the opinion that Aceh people only want to fight for independence.
Despite threats, KONTRAS is still operating in Aceh. Before martial law KONTRAS had about a hundred volunteers. But, now only 30 remain to continue volunteering work in gathering data and advocating victims of violence in Aceh. Most of their campaigns are held in Jakarta now. That’s why KONTRAS in Jakarta has received many threats and ruthless protests. KONTRAS also has human rights representatives in Penang and the UK. Iqbal also told us that all his volunteers in Aceh are women. It was quite a surprise to most of the audience, because they thought a strict Moslem territory would never allow women to go outside their homes much else to do this kind of volunteering works. Iqbal responded that women were freer than men to move from one place to the other in Aceh.
All of us were listening attentively to his presentation. At the end of his presentation those present were involved in a lively discussion.
Sept. 18-19, 2004. Iqbal had the chance to enjoy his visit in Toronto. From a walk in the city, practicing drumming with the African drummer, to a sightseeing trip to Niagara Falls. He loved the Falls and couldn’t take his eyes off of the mighty but beautiful Falls. He said that during the days he liked to observe children going to school—it was so peaceful looking at the children who can go to school without having to fear for their lives or their families’ lives. He has two little daughters, “Billy” who is almost 5 years old, and “Joel” who is 1.5 years old. He admitted that Billy Joel is one of his favorite singers. Of course, those are not his girls’ real names🙂 Wind surfing is one of his favorite pastimes when he needs a rest from the stress of his works. He would go for wind surfing to a remote island off eastern Aceh’s coast. There he said, he doesn’t have to think about the cruel life in Aceh, but can immediately immerse into the beauty and peace of nature… and there he has only to worry about how to get safely from the ocean to the land🙂
Sept. 20, 2004. Iqbal had the chance to meet YCAR (York Centre for Asian Research), among others Judith Nagata and Peter Vandergeest. Unfortunately because of time constraint there was not enough time to promote this program. But, Iqbal told me that the meeting went well and that Judith will ask her network in Penang to help Aceh refugees there.
Sept. 21, 2004. KAIROS and Iqbal had their time together to pondering on what they can do to the betterment of civil society in Aceh. It would be his last program and last day in Toronto. So, Nancy planned a get together to have a good time with him. Nancy told me to inform Eric Li (CCEVI) about this gathering because Eric conveyed his interest to meet Iqbal before he returned to Indonesia.
Then, that night, we had a warm informal dinner in a Thai Restaurant downtown. We joked around with him… I asked whether he had tried Canadian beer🙂 Of course he had! He told us that he had a palm tree on the back of his mother’s house in North Sumatera. People take the juice out of the fruit and leave it for three days. And, on the third day you can drink it… and oh, it’s so heavenly a drink. That’s what he said🙂
You may think that the people of Aceh never drink alcoholic drinks. You’re wrong! Nancy told us Judith’s (Nagata) experience when she invited a number of people from Aceh to her house. She restrained herself from offering alcoholic drink to her guests. However, after they finished their dinner, the guests kept looking at her “alcoholic display.” Probably after a one or two agonizing minute the guests asked to try those drinks on display🙂 Well, you can imagine what happened afterwards🙂
I believe Iqbal really likes Thai food… he ate his dinner with his hand, like most of Indonesians do when they really want to enjoy the meal🙂 There I met another “me”, I mean her name is the same as mine but with “z”🙂 Elizabeth Sunindyo was another NGO friend and interpreter. She got her last name when she married an Indonesian. I was amazed at how well she can speak in Indonesia. Can you imagine a ‘bule’ blurted out ‘canggih’ and other colloquial words when she engaged Iqbal and I in a conversation?🙂 There was also Kien, a volunteer at Refugee Centre who had worked with boat people. Fortunately, Eric and his wife Grace could join us and took several pictures before this small gathering was over. We engaged in a short discussion on how we could assist his struggle in civil empowerment and peaceful transformation in Aceh.
Iqbal had a long flight the next morning, Toronto-SF-Hongkong-Singapore-Penang-Medan-Banda Aceh. He didn’t look tired after a long program in North America. In fact I could say that he enjoyed it. I believe he needs it before he returns to the “civil emergency” life in Aceh. (Note: Many networks of human rights defenders have offered him to continue his Aceh’s struggle from the foreign land. But he refused it, saying that his place is among his people, the Acehnese.) We promised to send him the pictures—and hope that one day the people of Aceh can live a peaceful life. Ah, maybe before that time coming I’ll have the chance to visit him for wind surfing on a remote island by northern or eastern Aceh’s coastline🙂