tsunami disaster: Indonesian government finally open up closed war zone in Aceh

The Indonesian ‘province’ of Aceh, on the island of Sumatra, is just 155 kilometres from the epicentre of last Sunday’s earthquake.

Only after several days, and only since the Indonesian government finally gave in to massive pressure to open up the closed war zone for international journalists and aid workers, could the full and horrifying scale of the Tsunami catastrophe there be seen.

The official death toll stands, at the time of writing (29 December) at above 45,200 – well over half of the total confirmed deaths for the region and it can probably rise further with possibly tens of thousands more.

Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna (CWI, Sweden), talked to Bakhtiar Abdullah. He is spokesman for the exiled leadership based of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) in Sweden He tells the story of a brutal state of emergency and a war that has seriously undermined Aceh’s health service and the state of its infrastructure.

"Now there is the grave threat of epidemics such as malaria, cholera and typhoid that can claim several tens of thousands more lives. According to the health ministry, those most vulnerable are the more than 500,000 injured. Just as is the case with those killed, most are children and old people.

"The worst affected areas are the north-eastern coast from the capital Banda Aceh (on the northern edge of Sumatra) and the western coast down to the Meulaboh district. Most of the houses have just disappeared," Bakhtiar Abdullah told Offensiv.

"Since Aceh has a very difficult terrain, with high mountains and tropical jungles, most of its people live along the coasts, where many are fishermen. On top of that, inland there is still a war going on against our movement, GAM," he explains.

Meulaboh wiped out

A CNN reporter described the centre of the capital Banda Aceh as totally destroyed. Bulldozers stood ready to bury thousands of the dead bodies that littered the streets into mass graves. According to an SOS message from the town Meulaboh´s police chief, only about 20 per cent of the town’s buildings remain in place. There is a rapidly growing risk of starvation among the ruins and widespread plundering. A journalist from a state news agency that had flown over the 200 km long coast line between Banda Aceh and Meulaboh said that most of the area was under water and that there were very few signs of life. 10,000 have been counted dead in Meulaboh of the town’s total population of 40,000.

"It is unfortunately very difficult to get the aid work going in the area. There is no electricity, no fuel, no food, no water, no trucks. It is simply impossible to get there with what is now the most important things: food, body bags and sanitary equipment in order to stop outbreaks of epidemics," says the chief of the UN’s OCHA, Michael Enquist, (AFP).

A spokesperson for nearly 100 doctors that had begun to gather in Banda Aceh also declared their inability to reach out with food and medicine to Aceh´s 4.3 million inhabitants. "We can only reach a quarter of the western coast. The military has tried to get through with their heavy machines but they have failed," said an aid worker, Dr. Doti Indrasanto.

Indonesian military

In the meantime, the 100,000 strong Indonesian military occupation force is accused of achieving little by way of assistance and of giving priority to their own families. However, a whole army brigade is reported to have been swallowed by the waves. The Free Aceh Movement (GAM) soon after the catastrophe declared a unilateral ceasefire in order to assure safe relief work. GAM will only defend itself if it comes under direct attack.

The Indonesian military, in a nonchalant way, declared that they were now too busy to be able to hunt the rebels. This is a false statement, according to Bakhtiar Abdullah, speaking for the exile leadership of GAM.

"We have received reports saying that military operations still go on during this disaster in order to crush GAM in the mountains. At the same time, international rescue workers have been seriously blocked and delayed on their way to Aceh. 28 Australian journalists were stuck at the airport in Medan outside Aceh. It doesn´t look very promising," comments Bakhtiar Abdullah.

"International aid organisations should seek to reach out themselves to the people of Aceh with food, pure water, medicine, doctors, tents and blankets. Now the first priority must be, above everything, to help the victims and to stop epidemics. In order to rebuild Aceh in a longer perspective a political solution with peace, liberty and security is necessary," he says.


To reconstruct Aceh may take five years, according to Indonesia’s vice prime minister, Jusuf Kalla. At the same time as the regime in Jakarta proves its inefficiency in the relief work there are reports of widespread solidarity with the Acehnese people throughout Indonesia.

In a blog from Makassar in Eastern Indonesia, the female labour leader, Dita Sari, reports that kiosks have been put up every 300 metres along the streets in that town to collect clothes and other necessities for the Acehnese. Similar initiatives are going on in Jakarta and other towns. In Jakarta student activist are planning to organise a demonstration against the government in order to demand that the relief efforts get through to the people in need.

Also, the CWI believes that for the long term reconstruction of an independent, prosperous and just Aceh, it is of course a vital necessity to reach out for massive solidarity between the Acehnese and Indonesia’s workers and oppressed peoples in the future struggle for a Socialist Aceh within a voluntary socialist federation of the whole region.

Background to disaster in Aceh: the failed agreement

There is no solution in sight for the 30 year-long armed struggle between the Indonesian government and Aceh’s liberation movement, GAM. A kind of phased peace agreement was reached in December 2002 after negotiations in Tokyo, sponsored by the US, Japan, the EU and the World Bank. This agreement quickly broke down in the following months and, since then, another 10,000 or so people have been killed by Indonesian terror and armed clashes, according to GAM.

"In his election campaign, the new Indonesian president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (a 55 year old retired general who took office in October 2004), promised to sort out the conflict in Aceh at the beginning of his mandate. But the result is the same as last time – they demand our capitulation, that we must be satisfied with autonomy and a ‘back to the motherland’ policy. This is something that was neither part of the agreement, nor is it something that our people wish," says Bakhtiar Abdullah.

Aceh has for several centuries been, according to GAM, an independent nation, – "One of the world’s oldest", that could never be colonised or put under the control of a foreign government. The old sultanate was known for its stubborn resistance to both the Dutch empire and later the Japanese during the second world war. And the Dutch government’s transfer of its non-existent sovereignty over Aceh to Indonesia after the war, without any say for the Acehnese people, is dismissed as totally illegal according to international law.

The Tokyo agreement of 2002 was launched as a step by step process that was meant to begin with an armistice, a dialogue with sectors of the Acehnese people, security zones and demilitarisation. An Indonesian law of autonomy for Aceh would be the starting point of an ‘all-inclusive’ dialogue with the aim of organising elections of a democratic government in Aceh. According to GAM´s way of interpreting the agreement, this would leave the door open to future independence.

In reality, both Jakarta and its imperialist allies see an independent Aceh as a dangerous example. It could open up a Pandora´s box of national demands that they would go a long way to ensure were never allowed. The CWI defends the democratic rights of any nation or nationality, including the right to self-determination and independence, if the people so wish.

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