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Locked down by Indonesian military
Aceh's unnatural disaster

January 7, 2005 | Page 2

THE TSUNAMI disaster took its most devastating toll in Aceh, a part of Indonesia on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra. Whole villages along the coast were nearly erased from the map, and an estimated 90,000 Achenese are dead, with many more homeless.

But, wrote solidarity activists Sylvia Tiwon and Ben Terrall, "[w]hile nature wreaked almost unimaginable havoc in a matter of hours, it did so on a terrain already scarred by acts of violence only the human mind can concoct and enact in the name of security and order--and business interests."

Aceh has suffered for decades under the Indonesian government's iron heel. The 40-year dictatorship of Gen. Suharto especially sought to silence independence struggles in rebel regions like East Timor and Aceh.

When Suharto was driven from power in 1998, the Acehnese pressed their case for self-determination. In 1999, more than 1 million people--about one-quarter of the population--demonstrated in the capital of Banda Aceh to demand a referendum on their future.

But Indonesia's rulers--led by the feared military, a favored ally of the U.S. government for four decades, under Republicans and Democrats alike--have tried to regain the upper hand, renewing the reign of terror with thousands of soldiers and police sent into Aceh. That's why in the first days after the tsunamis struck, there was little news from Aceh--the province has been virtually closed to the international media and humanitarian organizations while the military does its work of silencing dissent.

Here, MAX LANE, an Australian socialist and national convenor of Action in Solidarity with Asia and the Pacific, reports on the situation in Aceh.

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THROUGHOUT INDONESIA, people of all backgrounds and from all islands have been mobilizing to collect and send aid to the victims of the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Aceh.

In almost every neighborhood, collection depots have been inundated with clothes, blankets and food such as dried noodles. Most of the initial goods that arrived at the Jakarta airport were donations from Indonesians. Community groups, religious centers, government departments and even businesses are sending all they can to the Acehnese.

The generous reaction of most Indonesians and the extension of their solidarity to their fellow country folk is taking place at a time when many Acehnese, understandably, no longer feel fully Indonesian because of Jakarta 's two decade-long militarization of Aceh.

In the devastated areas of Aceh, according to reports from activists, almost everybody not injured or traumatized by the disaster is helping out. Crisis and distribution centers or "posko" are being staffed by survivors, as well as volunteers from East Aceh and other parts of Indonesia. Soldiers have been mobilized to help clear dead bodies from the main thoroughfares.

The odd ones out in this whole scenario is the leadership of the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI). While the rest of Indonesia--itself burdened by poverty and underdevelopment and a corrupt and politically bankrupt political and bureaucratic elite--mobilizes the best it can, TNI officers have announced that they will not organize an all-out mobilization for the relief effort.

Reuters news agency quotes a military spokesperson in Aceh, Lt. Col. Edi Sulistiadi, as saying: "There is no cease fire. The policy is, half of our troops in Aceh will be concentrated on the humanitarian operation, and the rest are still focused on security, in a 'defensive-active' mode."

The London-based TAPOL human rights group quotes another senior TNI officer in the Aceh military command, Lt. Col. Nachrowi, as making it clear that the "calamity will not be seen as way for the military to suspend military operations against GAM." He said that "raids to quell secessionists in Aceh will continue unless the president issues a decree to lift the civil emergency."

With estimates of more than 100,000 dead, tens of thousands more under threat of death from disease and starvation, the TNI's official policy is "only half." When there is a shortage of labor, drivers and every kind of human skill and effort, the TNI declares: "only half!" The Yudhoyono government must also accept responsibility for this policy--or change it!

From other media and community group reports, it is clear that the TNI's "defensive-active" mode includes increasing the number of military operations against villages believed to support GAM, the Free Aceh Movement. Why is this necessary when GAM has offered a cease-fire?

Meanwhile civilian volunteers are being constantly stopped by TNI officials to have their identity checked, and citizen initiatives to obtain and distribute food are often being blocked. Citizens bringing trucks to gather aid to take and distribute are beingturned away because "they don't have the right papers."

Action in Solidarity with Asia and the Pacific (ASAP) is calling on the Indonesian government to:

-- Issue an immediate decree to halt to all military operations, agree to a cease-fire and lift the emergency and repressive regulations and policies in Aceh;

-- A full mobilization for the relief effort--soldiers should leave the weapons in their barracks.

-- A guarantee that all local-based NGOs will continue to be allowed back into Aceh without fear of repression against their activists

-- The continued unrestricted access to Aceh of all international aid agencies and organizations; and

ASAP expresses its solidarity with the collective effort of the Acehnese and Indonesian peoples, and is committed to working with the Achenese in Australia, Aceh and Indonesia to mobilize community funds in Australia for relief and reconstruction work.

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