[News] Indonesian Army steps up offensive in Aceh

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Wed Jan 5 15:10:36 EST 2005

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- Wednesday, 5 January 2005 -


In the wake of tsunami calamity

News & Analysis: Asia: Indonesia
By John Roberts

There are growing signs that the Indonesian military (TNI) is exploiting
the current catastrophe in northern Sumatra to crush the separatist Free
Aceh Movement (GAM) and establish its unchallenged control over the
resource-rich province of Aceh.

So far the death toll from the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Aceh
on December 26 is more than 100,000 and is likely to rise much higher. From
Lhokseumawe on the east coast through the provincial capital Banda Aceh
near Sumatra's northern tip to Meulaboh on the west coast, cities and towns
have been obliterated.

Transport and other infrastructure have been torn apart. Hundreds of
thousands are desperately in need of water, food, clothing, shelter and
medical attention. There is now a serious risk that further lives will be
lost through disease and hunger.

Yet, rather than concentrating resources on emergency relief efforts, the
Indonesian armed forces, with the approval of President Susilo Bambang
Yudhoyono, are preoccupied with their counterinsurgency operations against
GAM fighters. While refugees are desperate for supplies and relief workers
for transport, the TNI has launched offensives against GAM in various
locations across the province.

When the tsunami hit, the military already had 40,000 troops and
paramilitary police in Aceh as a result of its ongoing campaign to wipe out
GAM. The current offensive initiated in May 2003, under former president
Megawati Sukarnoputri, included armour and artillery as well as air and
naval support and was billed as Indonesia's own version of the US "shock
and awe" methods in Iraq.

Despite a state of emergency and a media blackout in Aceh over the last
year, human rights organisations have reported gross and widespread abuse
of local Acehnese by the military, including arbitrary detention, torture
and summary execution. Yudhoyono, a former general, was Megawati's top
security minister and played a crucial role in planning and overseeing the
offensive until he resigned last March to contest the presidency.

In the aftermath of the December 26 tsunami, the TNI's responded by
dispatching an additional 15,000 troops to Aceh, ostensibly to carry out
humanitarian relief work. But far from the well-oiled machine that swung
into action against GAM the previous year, the military's emergency
assistance in the province has been marked by disorganisation, delays and

On December 27, TNI chief General Endriartono indicated that the military
would respond in kind to a unilateral ceasefire declared by exiled GAM
leaders in Sweden to allow relief efforts to go ahead. It soon became
clear, however, that the TNI had no intention of passing up the opportunity
to inflict a defeat on GAM, which had suffered losses during the tsunami
and earthquake.

The first media reports related to a particular incident. On Thursday, a
GAM spokesman announced that Indonesian troops had killed two GAM members
in the Peurelak area of East Aceh, including the local commander Afrizal
bin Abdul Manaf. He said TNI troops had also set fire to a house in the
village of Idi Reayeuk. A TNI spokesman acknowledged the clash, but blamed
GAM rebels for provoking the incident by ambushing a convoy of military
trucks carrying relief supplies.

Sweden-based GAM spokesman Bakhtiar Abdullah strenuously denied that GAM
fighters had attacked a convoy. In turn, he accused the military of
harassing and torturing suspected GAM sympathisers in refugee camps. The
TNI's abuse of refugees was also reported to the Aceh Referendum
Information Centre by volunteers working in Banda Aceh. They alleged that
refugees on the way to relief centres were being interrogated by the

Bakhtiar told the British-based Guardian: "The reports we received are that
they are moving in more troops under the guise of relief operations. We
know that they are trying to track down GAM fighters in the area. We have
given strict orders to maintain a ceasefire and hoped that the Indonesian
military would respect that ceasefire and refrain from military action."

As it turned out, the clash was not an isolated incident. The Jakarta Post
this week reported that the TNI had launched operations against GAM
hideouts in Teupin, Batee, Seunebok Langa, Gampung Jalan, Kuburan Cina,
Buket Linteung and Buket Jok areas of East Aceh. In north Aceh, army
attacks were underway in Makmur, Gandapura and Peusangan.

The TNI not only confirmed that the operations were taking place, but was
completely unapologetic about them. In comments cited in the Guardian,
Colonel Ahmad Yani Basuki declared: "We have to maintain security
operations to prevent the rebels from attacking vital installations and
relief operations." According to Basuki, only one third of TNI troops were
involved in military operations and the remainder had been assigned to
relief work. He provided no evidence, however, for any of his assertions.

Lieutenant-Colonel D.J. Nachrowi told the Jakarta Post that the TNI was
"now carrying out two duties: humanitarian work and the security
operation." He put forward a different argument, maintaining that the
military was obliged by the state of emergency to attack GAM. "The raids to
quell the secessionist movement in Aceh will continue unless the president
issues a decree to lift the civil emergency and assign us to merely play a
humanitarian role in Aceh," he said.

Yudhoyono has shown no intention of lifting the civil emergency in Aceh or
of reaching a temporary truce with GAM. Instead, in an appeal for national
unity, the president has called on the separatist fighters to lay down
their weapons, in other words surrender, to facilitate relief operations.
The military, of course, would remain armed to the teeth.

Various human rights groups have confirmed that military operations are
continuing in Aceh. A spokesman for the British-based Tapol organisation,
Paul Barber, told the Inter Press Service News Agency: "Under the civil
emergency, the Indonesian military continue to play a leading role and
there has been no cutback in the level of military operations in most of
the territory."

Nasruddin Abubakar, president of the Aceh Referendum Information Centre,
angrily condemned the TNI's actions, saying: "The government is still
maintaining the civil emergency and continuing on with military operations
in Aceh despite the fact that the death toll is now close to 100,000. Is
the government not yet satisfied with the killing? Are Acehnese not
citizens of Indonesia?"

The fact that the Indonesian military has been devoting resources--troops,
transport and coordination--to its military operations would help to
explain the limited and chaotic character of the relief effort in Aceh. Air
transport is crucial in reaching remote areas and moving relief supplies
into the province, but it has been a shambles. The Indonesian air force has
made no effort to either regulate airspace over Aceh or to provide air
traffic control to vital airports in Banda Aceh and Medan where
international aid is arriving.

Numerous media reports point to the bottlenecks in ferrying aid into Aceh
and distributing it. On New Years Eve, an aircraft had to wait 14 hours in
Banda Aceh for a takeoff clearance. At one stage the only surviving air
traffic controller in Aceh was reportedly left to operate the airport
alone. Trucks and fuel have been in critically short supply. The Sydney
Morning Herald reported that US relief organisations in Medan, forced to
rely on their own resources, had "begged, borrowed and rented" 80 trucks to
provide transport.

The disinterest of the Indonesian military in the plight of Acehnese is
most graphically revealed by the inexplicable delay in surveying the extent
of the disaster on the west coast, which lay in the direct path of the
tsunami. It took four days for the Indonesian air force to send a flight
over Meulaboh, which one journalist likened to the scene after the
Hiroshima atomic bomb.

Highly publicised relief operations are now underway by US and Australian
military, which are providing key logistical support. US military
helicopters flew the first significant supplies of aid into Meulaboh last
weekend. The Australian military teams are in Banda Aceh providing clean
water and other assistance. All criticism of the TNI and its appalling
human rights has been shelved as these efforts are hailed in the media as
ushering in a new period of cooperation.

These joint operations have very little to do with any genuine concern the
victims of the December 26 disaster. Both Australian and the US have been
seeking to reestablish working relations with the Indonesian military since
the fall of the Suharto dictatorship in 1998. The relief efforts provide an
ideal opportunity not only to work closely with the TNI but potentially to
establish a foothold in Aceh--a key region with significant oil and
reserves adjacent to the strategic Strait of Malacca.

As for the TNI, the support provided by the US and Australian military for
relief efforts allows the diversion of additional Indonesian military
forces into its operations against GAM. There is every indication that the
Indonesian military has the tacit support of Washington and Canberra,
which, unlike in the case of East Timor, have maintained a complete silence
on Jakarta's dirty war in Aceh over the last 18 months.

US military establishment thinking was revealed in a recent comment by the
US-based Stratfor Global Intelligence thinktank. It noted that the tsunami
disaster might prove to be a boon for the military's campaign against GAM.
"Yudhoyono will send more troops into the province to rebuild and clean up
... If GAM does not agree to settle the problem peacefully, Yudhoyono will
have more troops on hand to clean them out," it noted.

What is emerging in embryo in Aceh is a return to the relations that
existed prior to 1998, when the US, Australia and other major powers relied
on the ruthless Suharto dictatorship to safeguard their economic and
strategic interests in Indonesia and the region.

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