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Words ring hollow for Aceh and Papua

Banda Aceh
Residents walk past a burned-out bank after a recent bomb explosion in Banda Aceh, Aceh province  

By Yenni Kwok

JAKARTA, Indonesia (CNN) ­ -- A human rights group has expressed skepticism at the presidential apology offered to the people of the country's two restive provinces, Aceh and West Papua.

In her state-of-the-nation address on Thursday, President Megawati Sukarnoputri offered an apology to the Acehnese and the Papuans, saying they had become victims of oppressive policies in the past.

Sidney Jones, the executive director of New York-based Human Rights Watch Asia, said there was nothing special in Megawati's remarks.

"Megawati is the third president offering the apology," Jones said.

In the past, two of her predecessors, B.J. Habibie and Abdurrahman Wahid, as well Gen. Wiranto, then-armed forces chief, had also expressed their sorrow.

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"And, nothing happened. People would be skeptical of an apology until there is some kind of a concrete result on the ground that indicates this is more than just words."

In the 1980s, former president Suharto launched brutal military operations in Aceh and West Papua -- Indonesia's most western and eastern provinces -- to crush the insurgency groups pursuing seccession from the central government.

Although Suharto's successors have pledged to stop the brutality, military oppression continues.

On Monday, Human Rights Watch released a report on human rights conditions in Aceh.

Titled "The War in Aceh", the report blamed both Indonesian security forces and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) for the human rights violations.

"The conflict in Aceh on the northern tip of Sumatra in Indonesia, is an increasingly brutal war in which both sides have violated human rights with impunity," Human Rights Watch said in the report.

They accused the Indonesian security forces of responsibility for extrajudicial executions, disappearances, tortures, collective punishment and arrests of members of student-led organization, the Aceh Referendum Information Center.

Human Rights Watch also accused GAM of committing killings, unlawful detention, forced expulsion of Javanese descendants from Aceh, and threats against the press.

Flawed strategy

The province's newspaper, Serambi Indonesia, stopped publication on August 11, allegedly because of threats from GAM. The separatist group also admitted it had "detained" three crew members of the national television station (TVRI).

Megawati promised autonomy status for Aceh --­ as well as to West Papua -- as an effort to redress the past mistakes. For Aceh, the implementation of Islamic law (Sharia) is included in the autonomy plan.

However, some believe this is a flawed strategy.

"The whole issues of justice and accountability for past abuses is very high on the list of Acehnese demands, far higher than application of Islamic law, which nobody in Aceh thinks it is a high priority," said Jones, who recently returned from a visit to Aceh.

"Concerning the autonomy law with the introduction of Islamic law as the key features, most Acehnese think this is the misconception of a Javanese president, Gus Dur (Wahid), about what the conflicts in Aceh are all about," she added.

Meanwhile, the Indonesian military spokesman told Radio 68H that the security approach will still be their prime tactic in solving the conflicts in Aceh.

Air Rear Marshall Graito Usodo reasoned: "Without good security, the government cannot function."

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