by John Tribbett
Most Americans know little about the Indonesian province of Aceh. In fact, before the earth’s crust shook and the sea turned homicidal—killing somewhere between 166,000 and 220,000 in Aceh alone—it is fair to guess many Americans had never even heard of Aceh.
But they should have.
before the waves hit, this was already a wounded land. America has played a
part in the wounding and if the neo-cons get their way, the bloodletting will
continue. You see, Aceh is another forgotten corner of the globe tainted by
American foreign policy and corporate interests.
We need to back up with some history to understand the story. Since 1976 Aceh
has been the sad host of a civil conflict between GAM (The Free Aceh Movement),
which has been battling for independence, and the Indonesian government.
Aceh has long been a culturally and ethnically distinct entity. The modern conflict
started in the wake of WWII. The Dutch colonizers that ruled Indonesia before
WWII never fully subjugated Aceh. When the Dutch attempted to return after the
war, Aceh joined with the rest of the islands to fight them off. With the Dutch
gone, GAM says Aceh never agreed to fully cede independence to the new nation
of Indonesia. Therefore, GAM sees itself fighting for a return of Aceh’s
But this desire for sovereignty is perpetuated not so much by history, but by
fear and exploitation.
One of the reasons help was so slow reaching Aceh after the tsunami was because
there wasn’t much infrastructure to begin with. Aceh has long been a treasure
house for the Jakarta-based government with its abundance of natural resources.
Most of the wealth has been siphoned off into the hands of officials. Very little
has been returned in the form of money or development for the people.
This is where the U.S. comes in. Since 1969 ExxonMobil has held a contract with
the Indonesian government to extract liquefied natural gas in Aceh. This operation
is the second largest foreign-currency earner for the Indonesian government.
And it just so happens ExxonMobil also pays a tidy sum of protection money to
the Indonesian military (TNI)—allegedly to the tune of $6 million a year.
As a result of this, ExxonMobil has found itself facing a multimillion-dollar
lawsuit filed by the Washington DC-based International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF).
The suit is filed on behalf of Acehnese villagers who were murdered and tortured
on ExxonMobil property by hired TNI soldiers.
In 2003 the case was effectively silenced when the defense for ExxonMobil brought
the U.S. State Department into the mix. They sent a memorandum to the judge
stating the case threatened national security by jeopardizing the U.S. relationship
with Indonesia in the War on Terror. Indonesia is the world’s largest
When the disaster hit, Aceh was already hermetically sealed by an ongoing military
operation. That’s another reason the response was so slow. There was no
one there to help.
In May 2003 martial law was declared in Aceh and all international aid workers
and journalists were kicked out. This was downgraded, in name, to a civil emergency
in May 2004 but the situation remained mostly unchanged.
Prior to the crackdown the government had agreed to a plan allowing partial
autonomy and a 70 percent return on oil revenues. Emboldened by the U.S. actions
in Iraq and the inability of the United States to make ethical claims against
Indonesia’s military actions, the Indonesian government instead poured
tens of thousands of troops into the region. Washington’s response was
weak, again not wanting to alienate Jakarta—a crucial ally in the war
The human rights record of the TNI in general and in Aceh specifically, is deplorable.
Widespread rape, murder, torture, arbitrary arrest and imprisonment of civilians
are well documented by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Mass graves
litter the countryside and acts of barbarity are commonplace. At least 12,000
people—mostly civilians—have been killed in Aceh since 1976. The
TNI claims over 3,000 rebels alone have been killed in the last year and half.
Refugee reports suggest many of these were civilians and not soldiers.
After the tsunami hit Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz was in Indonesia,
ostensibly to discuss relief, when he told reporters it was time to reconsider
restoring military ties with Indonesia. Critics see this as extremely opportunistic.
The reality is that the administration has been lobbying on this point for years.
Military relations with Indonesia were restricted in 1991 after a massacre of
civilians in East Timor, another area of Indonesia. The U.S. severed ties completely
in 1999 in response to military-inspired killings by militia groups there. Ironically,
it was President Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger that had given
the green light to the original bloody military invasion in 1975, leading to
the decades of oppression.
9-11, the Bush administration has circumvented the restrictions on military
aid by offering “anti-terrorist” assistance and some military training
not officially under the State Department’s hand.
To use the tsunami as a pretext to restore military ties is extremely cynical.
Observers warn this sends a direct signal to the TNI that Washington approves,
or will choose to ignore, its continual and systematic campaign of human rights
violations not only in Aceh but also throughout the Indonesian archipelago.
Meanwhile, the fighting in Aceh continues. Despite a ceasefire offer by GAM
immediately after the tsunami, attacks by Indonesian troops continue. The TNI
reports over 200 rebels have been killed since the disaster. It appears the
military hopes to use the tsunami to its benefit, to further decimate the opposition,
instead of focusing efforts on relief and reconstruction.
Sadly, the problems for Aceh run much deeper than the natural disaster and the
unthinkable numbers of dead. Aid workers in the region report relief supplies
have been stolen by the military, sold instead of given away, and used as a
political weapon against the people of Aceh.
The majority of the people of Aceh are not involved in the conflict there, but
because they are Acehnese they are deemed guilty by the military and suffer.
More than our charity alone, Aceh needs the United States to work for peace.
Building opportunistic ties with elements long set on the destruction of the
Acehnese is not the way to do this. Instead, the United States needs to promote
stability and democratic reforms through tangible actions.
Rhetoric about liberty does the long-suffering people of Aceh little good. ||
If you want to find out more about the situation in Aceh
you can visit these websites: