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While tsunami victims wait for help...
Indonesia's war on Aceh goes on

January 14, 2005 | Page 8

ALAN MAASS and DAO TRAN report on Aceh in Indonesia--the epicenter of the tsunami disaster.

TWO WEEKS after one of the most deadly natural disasters in world history, desperate people are still waiting for help along the devastated Western coast of Aceh in Indonesia. But the Indonesian military that rules Aceh with an iron fist has other priorities.

After a week that included soldiers gunning down seven people suspected of having ties to Aceh's independence movement, Indonesian authorities last weekend warned relief organizations that separatist rebels may have "infiltrated" refugee camps for survivors of the tsunamis. And Major Gen. Bambang Darmono announced that the government planned to station soldiers as guards at major camps--where refugees will live for much of the next year, according to United Nations officials.

The tsunami disaster hit hardest in Aceh--on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra. By official counts, more than 110,000 Acehnese are dead, nearly half that many are still counted as missing, and no one knows how many more lives will be claimed by starvation and disease following in the wake of the disaster.

But Aceh has long been the victim of an unnatural disaster--at the hands of the Indonesian government, historically one of Washington's favorite allies in the region.

Allan Nairn--a left-wing journalist and expert on Indonesia with firsthand knowledge of the brutality of the country's military after several detentions--says that Aceh has been under martial law for several years. "For the first four days after the tsunami," Nairn told Socialist Worker, "they refused to allow foreign relief agencies, foreign journalists or Indonesian NGO people into Aceh to help--crucial days when many, many people were dying. Then, under intense world political pressure, they buckled and allowed them in.

"But even now, the military is trying, one, to steal as much as they can of the international aid, and two, use the aid to further intensify their military control over the Acehnese.

"For example, we have many reports from towns along the east coast of Aceh where the military is requiring that people produce their Merah Putih--their red and white ID card--before they can get food and supplies. This card has been required of all Acehnese during the recent martial law period.

"In order to get the card, you had to go to the police, and the police had to certify that you were not an opponent of the army. Naturally, many people were terrified to go and get their Merah Putih. And those who were underground or exiled because they'd been hunted by the military of course didn't get one. So now, when they say, 'no Merah Putih, no food,' the consequences are obvious."

After a slow start, the U.S. government claims to be doing all it can for Aceh, providing military equipment to help in the relief effort. But behind the newspaper photos of U.S. military personnel helping Acehnese children lies a more sinister relationship.

The U.S. government has a long history of support for the former military dictatorship of Gen. Suharto--including the Suharto regime's crimes in Aceh, carried out in large part to protect ExxonMobil.

Aceh is one of the world's main producers of natural gas, and ExxonMobil runs the show. Aceh produces big profits for the U.S-based oil giant, and some of the money also ends up in the pockets of officials in Jakarta. But Aceh's population remains stuck in poverty--with as many as 40 percent of Acehnese children qualifying as undernourished, by international standards.

Now, the U.S. is using the disaster as an excuse to get around restrictions on giving money to Indonesia's brutal military for equipment and training.

After Suharto was driven from power in 1998, as many as 1 million people--a quarter of the population--turned out for a demonstration in Banda Aceh to demand a referendum on their future. The Indonesian government responded by renewing the occupation and clamping down on all signs of opposition in Aceh.

According to Max Lane, an Australian socialist and national convenor of Action in Solidarity with Asia and the Pacific, the Indonesian military treats "Aceh as if it was a foreign country that it has invaded, borrowing all the policies they used in East Timor. As a result of two decades of treating the Acehnese as if they were a hostile population in an occupied foreign country, the general mood among Acehnese has been increasingly to see themselves as no longer Indonesian.

"Just imagine! A population that, generally speaking, enthusiastically fought for the Republic of Indonesia in 1945-49 and participated in national political life quite fully until 1965, when the dictatorship took over, has now been driven to no longer seeing themselves as Indonesians."

With tens of thousands of its soldiers in Aceh, Lane told Socialist Worker, the military "could be a major source of work in the overall relief effort if they were mobilized, leaving their rifles in the barracks. But the [military] does not seem interested in this."

On the contrary, the Indonesian government seems to be doing all it can to exploit the nightmare of the tsunami disaster--to tighten its grip on a rebel province.

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