by Gerry Foley – February, 2005
The majority of those killed by the Dec. 26 tsunami, at least 160,000 people, were in the small nation of Aceh on the tip of Sumatra. It is a staggering loss
out a total population of only about 4 million.
Furthermore, this blow to the Acehnese people came on top of a savage repressive campaign that the Indonesian army has been waging against them for decades in an attempt to stamp out a movement for independence.
From 1989 until the fall of the Indonesian military dictatorship in 1998, Aceh was declared a “military operational zone” (DOM), isolated from the world by
the Indonesian army. A Human Rights Watch report in 2001 estimated the carnage inflicted by the Indonesian army on the Acehnese during the DOM period as follows:
“Well over one thousand Acehnese civilians were killed in the first three years of operations, the worst phase of DOM. The most conservative accounting of
victims, prepared by the provincial government in late 1998, documented 871 people killed outright by the army, and 387 missing who later turned up dead. More than 500 others were listed as ‘disappeared’ and never found. Most estimates by NGOs were at least twice as high.
“In addition, tens of thousands of Acehnese were imprisoned and tortured in military camps, and rape was reportedly widespread, with 102 cases documented by the local government team.
“So many people were affected that, today, virtually every Acehnese in the hardest-hit areas can cite a family member who was the direct target of a human rights violation—and who had no link to GAM [Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, the Free Aceh Movement] at the time.
Abuses continued through the end of DOM in August 1998, although at a lower level of intensity than in the 1990-93 period.”
The fall of the dictatorship brought a brief period of relaxation of the repression. In 1999, a demonstration assembling one tenth of the total population of Aceh, 400,000 people, was held in the nation’s capital,
Banda Aceh, demanding a referendum on independence.
But as the new “democratic” neocolonial Indonesian governments moved to the right, the assault on the Acehnese was renewed.
Under the pressure of the military, Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid issued a presidential order in April 2001 that restored martial law. The 2001 Human Rights Watch report noted: “Between the first week of June and mid-July, some 150 people had been confirmed dead by the Indonesian Red Cross, and 800 homes had been burned to the ground.”
The Indonesian military has continued massive and brutal sweep to try to wipe out the small GAM guerrilla movement, which was driven into the mountains.
In the context of the vast disaster caused by the tsunami and the international attention focused on Aceh, there has been strong pressure on both the military and the guerrillas to cease hostilities and devote themselves to aiding the population. The GAM declared a ceasefire. The government said that it welcomed it. But the military has clearly not respected the ceasefire and appears in fact to have used the emergency to step up attacks on the GAM.
The Associated Press reported Jan. 22: “Rebels in Indonesia’s tsunami-devastated Aceh province accused the government of abandoning an informal cease-fire after the military said it had killed scores of suspected guerrillas to protect aid deliveries.
“The rebels disputed the military’s claim of killing 120 rebels in the past two weeks, saying only 20 of its fighters had died in skirmishes, while the remaining 100 were unarmed civilians.”
However, because of the tsunami disaster, large numbers of outsiders have been able to come in Aceh for the first time in years, and the Indonesian
government is clearly nervous about that. It has indicated its anxiousness to clear out outsiders as soon as possible and in any case to keep them separated from pro-independence forces.
On the other hand, the Indonesian army is anxious to use U.S. involvement in relief operations as a cover to enable the United States to renew its military aid.
The Jan. 6 issue of the British Guardian pointed out that undersecretary of state Paul Wolfowitz has been trying to remove the restrictions that were on U.S. aid to the Indonesian army in response to a world outcry against its atrocities.
One of the arguments the Indonesian government has used to isolate the rebels in Aceh from world public opinion is that they are Islamists. The GAM does call for the creation of an “Islamic state.” But that does not put in it the camp of the Islamic fundamentalists.
In fact, on Pacifica Radio’s “Democracy Now,” Alain Nairn said Jan. 10 that the Indonesian government had flown representatives of fundamentalist groups linked to Al Qaeda into Aceh under the pretense of helping with relief but in fact to organize gang assaults on the GAM.
One of these groups includes the Laskar Jihad, a paramilitary gang that organized attacks on Christians in the Molukka islands. That operation was apparently manipulated by rightists in the military seeking to mobilize fundamentalist Muslims against the rise of trade unions and left organizations in the wake of the fall of the dictatorship.
The escalation of attacks on oppressed nationalities within the Indonesian archipelago has been closely linked to the moves by the Indonesian bourgeois forces to try to restore a stable neocolonial regime and to reimpose a heavy lid of repression on the rising mass movements throughout the islands.