Indonesia: Aceh and the tsunami – Both the military and corruption sabotage relief work

While Aceh on the northern edge of Sumatra has registered nearly two-thirds of the total death toll by the Asian tsunami, the Acehnese so far have received only 30% of UN food deliveries. More than two weeks after the catastrophe many distant villages have not yet been reached by relief workers.

Aceh and the tsunami

Both the military and corruption sabotage relief work

While the Indonesian government tries to give the impression of a more generous attitude towards its opponents in the Free Aceh Movement (Gam), relief work is hindered by the generals’ attempt to re-assert military control. Several new incidents of deadly skirmishes are reported, while the military try to prevent relief work reaching areas under Gam control. Relief workers have now been instructed to obtain special permits to go outside the cities of Banda Aceh and Meulabou. Among other incidents, an American relief convoy was delayed by eight hours due to a shoot-out.

State of emergency

The catastrophic effects of the tsunami have been worsened by the devastated infrastructure, such as roads and bridges. But also by a lack of relief coordination, bureaucracy, corruption, the continued Indonesian ‘state of emergency’, and the war against the Gam rebels, despite Gam’s unilaterally proclaimed ceasefire. A few cases of measles have been reported, that could develop into an epidemic and become a new threat to the lives of many weakened children.

"People in helicopters say they’ve seen people presumably walking to Banda Aceh (the provincial capital) and living on coconuts", said the head of the relief operations for Aceh in the International Organisation for Migration, that co-ordinate airdrops with the US Navy. She fears that many people have received very little food and other essentials.

The latest figures say there are than 105,000 Acehnese deaths of a total of 165,000 tsunami deaths. The Indonesian minister for Social Affairs says that another 10,000 are still missing, while in reality nobody has been in a position to judge the effects in the still isolated coastal areas and some islands outside Sumatra south of Meulabou – the nearly completely erased city with around 30,000 deaths.

Relief does not reach countryside

While relief loads pile up in the airports of Jakarta and Medan outside Aceh and in the provincial capital of Banda Aceh, there have been enormous problems in distributing it to the countryside. Since no one seems to have a clear picture of how far the helicopters from the USS Abraham Lincoln have reached and there is no means of communication with the isolated southern coast, many people have probably not been reached.

Neither does everyone in the towns get the help they need. "Concerns remained on Sunday (9 January) that an unknown number of tsunami survivors in Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam have neither received any aid nor have enough aid, including many in the provincial capital city, two weeks after the disaster that killed more than 110,000 there." (Jakarta Post). One reason that is mentioned is that officials and volunteers were focusing on relief work for some 100,000 survivors in 200 makeshift settlements across the province controlled by Indonesian soldiers, while the hundreds of thousands who have received refuge with relatives or friends are left on the sidelines.

More aid is claimed to be in the pipeline, since the UN World Food Programme plan to triple their deliveries to the 130,000 homeless that have been reached so far to 400,000 in the next week or so, and possibly further to 1 million people.

Sabotage by military

In the meantime, relief work is being sabotaged by the military’s continued hunt for Gam rebels and suspected "infiltrators" in the refugee camps, that also contributes to legitimate fear among the people in relation to the "supervisors" of the aid. This can develop into an even bigger problem if the government realises its plan to build five large camps for between 8,000 and 20,000 people each.

News of new incidents of violent clashes are filtering out. In Britain The Guardian has reported that seven young men were shot dead at the end of last week in the village Lampouek, 25 kilometres south west of Banda Aceh. While the military accuses the seven of being Gam activists who had shot at them, the villagers claim that they were civilians who just had gathered on the beach in order to try to reclaim some motorbikes from the rubble of the devastated village.

"This sort of thing happens very often", one villager said. "We have been suffering from the military for a very long time. I want independence for the people of Aceh. Everybody wants it", he added.

Australian journalists witnessed another incident of gunfire further south in Lhoknga, although no-one was killed. However, they saw how Indonesian soldiers for several hours prevented Acehnese from moving towards the south, accusing them of trying to open a supply line to Gam.

Stole aid

Gam’s official spokesman, Bakhtiar, told Offensiv of another incident where some 200 traumatised refugees near Kloeng Raya, who were harassed by the army, fled from a refugee camp leaving the aid behind in the hands of the soldiers. He also claimed that civilian refugees had been badly injured in an incident in Pase, where the military has accused Gam of hindering relief work.

"Why would Gam do that when we have proclaimed a unilateral ceasefire? It would also be suicidal since we know there are a lot of soldiers in the area".

As if the Indonesian military and paramilitaries they already have been confronting were not enough, the government (from its exile in Sweden) of the "State of Aceh" now deplores the provocative entry of new thuggish elements into Aceh. These are the so-called Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), that was formed by the generals as a vanguard of thugs and petty criminals against the Indonesian pro-democracy movement in 1998, and by the Indonesia Mujahedin Council (MMI), who want to turn Indonesia into a theocratic dictatorship. The umbrella organisation MMI is described as being led by the leader of the "terrorist" organisation, Jema’ah Islamiyah, Abu Bakar Ba’asyir.

According to Bakhtiar Abdullah, 250 ‘aid workers’ from these organisations were flown into Aceh by military Hercules planes.

"This is salt in the wounds for Aceh. And they have already marked their presence by raising the demand that foreign relief workers must respect the Sharia laws. They are told not to date Aceh women or to drink alcohol outside their camps," he said.

According to Gam these organisations have no roots in Aceh and are hostile to the tolerant attitudes of Acehnese Muslims.

The arrival of FPI and MMI to Aceh are signs of concern among hard-line Indonesian generals about the impact of foreign relief workers in the up to now closed war zone where they, after only a few months (in May 2003), succeeded in sabotaging the peace process and ceasefire negotiated in late 2002. A spokesman for the Islamic Defenders Front has, according to Australian media, warned that thousands of their supporters are watching the foreign troops in Aceh and told the relief workers to leave as soon as their humanitarian work is completed.

"We need to be vigilant. We do not want another East Timor," the FPI spokesman said.

Corruption undermines aid

Bakhtiar Abdullah of Gam is very grateful for the solidarity now shown from all over the world. He believes the aid is now beginning to get through, despite the on-going state of emergency and military ‘security operations’.

"But the relief work is slow, and there is a corrupt government in Jakarta that will try to confiscate part of the aid for themselves", he said.

Open preparations for a public theft operation of foreign aid are taking place. The Jakarta Post (10 January) warned that the government plans to take advantage of the disaster in Aceh to strengthen its own budget. The finance Ministry’s Director General for the State Treasury has said that the 2005 state budget spending for Aceh and North Sumatra would be less than Rp 100 billion from the government’s original allocation of Rp 300 billion. "The reduced money was due to the monetary donations from the public and from foreign countries," something that has now led to demands for an independent body to maintain a record of donations. (On top of that, the government hopes for a much larger debt relief than will be spent on the rebuilding of Aceh.)

Gam now demands, as several NGOs in the USA with links to Indonesia and Aceh do, in a letter to Colin Powell, that Indonesia´s "state of emergency" in Aceh must be lifted as well as all other red tape that obstructs relief work and foreign journalists, etc. These NGOs also demand that all offensive military operations must cease and that the army must focus on paving the way for the relief work without being directly involved themselves, both in order to avoid abuse and legitimate fear among the victims.

In the meantime some optimistic voices have been heard from journalists about the possibility of new negotiations between the government and Gam. The Financial Times claims (10 January) that the Swiss Henri Dunant Centre for Hunanitarian Dialogue, that was instrumental in paving the way for the failed agreement of 2002, is now trying to mediate new negotiations.

"We have all the time said that we are prepared to negotiate and fight with peaceful means, but we are not dropping our demand for Aceh independence," Bakhtiar Abdullah told Offensiv.

Responding to our question about whether there is now a war fatigue, he just reminded us that the Acehnese fought the Dutch colonisers for 70 years!

Gam’s demand for independence, however, has no support from either the USA or any of Asia’s regional powers that take a particular interest in the issue. As Sidney Blumenthal, a former advisor to Clinton, pointed out in The Guardian, the US neo-cons in the Pentagon, like Paul Wolfowitz, are instead trying to lift restrictions for US support to Indonesia’s military.

New negotiations are not ruled out, however, nor are new disappointments down that road. Colin Powell during his recent visit to Indonesia never even hinted about the need for Indonesia to lift its state of emergency.

The most important act that Aceh’s people can feel strengthened by is the massive solidarity that has been shown from ordinary working people and youth and their increased awareness of the suffering, oppression and struggle that is forced on the people of Aceh. Not the least important is the huge solidarity that is now shown by the working people of Indonesia.

The CWI believes that a solidarity struggle with them is needed against both national and class oppression – a struggle that will seek the support of the international working class and anti-imperialists worldwide, and which also must become socialist. Only together with the oppressed masses of Indonesia, can the ruling elite and its military be smashed. This is also the way to win genuine independence and develop new ways of democratic, equal and voluntary collaboration with other parts of Indonesia, East Timor and the other people throughout the region and globally. Only then will it also be possible to challenge and break the multinationals’ and imperialists’ control over the natural resources of the world and fully develop the resources for the benefit of the entire people.

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January 2005