Insult to Injury: The Longstanding Crisis in Aceh

Aceh is long overdue in receiving international attention. It’s unfortunate that it took the devastation of a tsunami to get the world to turn their heads. As TV viewers cringe and gasp at the piles of bloated bodies being bulldozed into mass graves, little do they know that mass graves are commonplace in Aceh. It’s one of the worst situations of repression in the world. The military occupation of Aceh, designed to defeat an armed independence movement and operated by convicted human rights abusers in the Indonesian military (Tentara Nasional Indonesia), has killed tens of thousands of civilians over the last three decades. The known murderers are now in charge of relief efforts in the worst-hit area of the tsunami disaster that has left over 100,000 people dead. The number of casualties are rising, as the politically driven bureaucratic mess of the Indonesian authorities restricts the flow of aid from to where it’s most needed.

As sympathizers of tsunami victims pour in donations, they need to know where the money goes. They need to know of not just the present destruction but the decades long devastation that has been forced on the Acehnese people.

Life in Aceh before the tsunami was no paradise. Even though Aceh is rich in resources, the people live in poverty with high rates of hunger and poor nutrition. A massive natural gas operation accrues high profits for Exxon Mobil and the government in Jakarta but leaves the people of Aceh oppressed and empty handed. In response to continuing exploitation from the Indonesian government, people in Aceh demanded independence. For decades, armed rebels known as the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka or G.A.M.) have battled the Indonesian military, demanding a referendum on independence from Indonesia. The Indonesian military has used G.A.M. as a scapegoat, blaming them for the lack of aid distribution in post-tsunami Aceh. Shortly after the tsunami hit Aceh, G.A.M. declared a ceasefire to ensure safe movement of humanitarian relief workers to locate victims, distribute aid and allow family members to track their loved ones.

Under martial law, the people of Aceh are not free to move. The military conducts regular sweeps where they stop cars on the road and pull people out. If you don’t have proper ID you’re taken into custody. If you resist, you are beaten. If you are on a military intelligence list of activists or sympathizers, you “disappear”. There is systematic torture, rape and murder. Mass graves pile high with victims of military beatings and massacres.

The Indonesian military is using the tsunami devastation as an opportunity to further implant their military power. They continue to attack and harass the civilian population. More lives are being lost as the military takes control of all relief efforts. The Indonesian military blames the G.A.M. for the imposed tight security restrictions on aid workers, even though the G.A.M. has publicly announced their appreciation: “We extend our deepest gratitude to the peoples and governments of countries that have not only shared our griefs and losses but have come to help our suffering people in such a swift, massive and unprecedented generosity.”

Meanwhile, reports of military control hampering relief operations are as follows:

  • Local NGOs are forbidden to participate in the distribution of aid to survivors and the families of victims.
  • Aid packages are being stock piled in Banda Aceh and Median airports and are not being effectively distributed.
  • Survivors lined up outside distribution centers are denied aid if they cannot produce identity cards. Sometimes they are harassed and beaten.
  • Donated food is being sold at black market prices outside of distribution centers.
  • The only hospital still functioning is operated by the military. Some international medical personnel are denied access.

The majority of people in Aceh do not want to live under a military occupation. They do not want to live in perpetual fear of a very real violent presence. Five years ago, a massive demonstration took place outside of the grand mosque of Banda Aceh. Over half a million Acehnese gathered to peacefully support a call for a referendum — a free vote in which the Acehnese could choose to become independent of Indonesia. Twenty-five percent of the province’s population attended this event. Faced with such a massive civilian movement, the military moved quickly to exterminate them. The key organizers and speakers were assassinated, imprisoned, forced into exile or “disappeared”. The top military and political officials of Indonesia make it clear that speech against the army and for a referendum vote are crimes against the state and something that could get you killed in Aceh.

Prior to the tsunami, military officers working in collaboration with the Indonesian government’s economic interests succeeded in tightly restricting the flow of information from the province. Security measures in Aceh deny access to foreign media, independent international observers and international human rights organizations. Local humanitarian agencies and NGOs face unacceptable threats. They must make nationalism a priority or risk the consequences. Other local activists have fallen victim to these consequences with reports of poisoning, torture and death. One report describes the body of Jafar Siddiq Hams, an international spokesman for the Acehnese. In 2000, his corpse turned up wrapped in barb wire with multiple stab wounds in the chest and his face sliced off. This is one example out of an assumed many — but the hard reality is that no one knows for sure what is actually happening in Aceh under martial law. This is exactly how the Indonesian authorities want it.

The master minds behind the Indonesian strategic operations in Aceh are the same famed human rights abusing generals who led the war against the east Timorese and student protesters in Jakarta. Major general Adam Admire, brigadier general Suhartono Suratman and major general Sjafrie Sjamsoeddin are key figures. General Damiri’s work in east Timor earned him a promotion to assistant for operations to the chief of the general staff.

ExxonMobil wields an incredible amount of financial power in Aceh. They have sucked some $40 billion from operations in the region. In order to protect their precious resources from the people who live there, ExxonMobil has hired the Indonesian national army to provide “security” for the gas extracting project in Aceh. So, the Indonesian military is paid to perpetrate human rights abuses. The business contract between ExxonMobil and the military includes the construction of buildings on ExxonMobil grounds, which the military uses for the torture and disappearance of the Acehnese. Another job perk is the provision of excavating equipment which the military allegedly uses for the digging of mass graves for the victims. In order to horde their massive revenues, ExxonMobil needs the Indonesian military to prevent the Acehnese people, at all costs, from achieving their desires: independence.

ExxonMobil, the Indonesian military and political officials must be held accountable for their atrocities. Aceh has a right to independence if that’s what the people want. Free Aceh!

*For more information on how to donate to local relief efforts, contact www.Etan.Org

Or just demonstrate at your nearest Indonesian consulate and facilitate massive boycotts of ExxonMobil.