Lawsuits Target Energy Giants: Rebellion & Referendum

By Jennifer Huang | World Power I: Business & Law

Page 3 of 11

Aceh, at the northern end of Sumatra, is a lush country of farmers, fishermen, tropical rainforest and endangered orangutan. Until the 1970s, rubber and coffee plantations dominated the economy, along with rice and tobacco, and timber products like paper pulp and palm oil.

All that changed with the discovery in 1971 of even greater riches beneath the fertile soil -- natural gas and oil.

With facilities near the northern towns of Lhokseumawe and Lhoksukon, Acehnese operations made Indonesia the world's leading exporter of liquid natural gas (LNG).

Bloomberg news reported in December 12, 2001, that the Indonesian government in Jakarta brings in an estimated US $1.7 billion from the operations in Aceh.

But according to a 1998 census by KONTRAS, an Indonesian human rights group, North Aceh is the poorest in the region.

Activists and academics say that this inequitable distribution of wealth has exacerbated existing separatist tensions, resulting in violence against ExxonMobil facilities and Indonesian government security forces.

"Aceh has never received any benefit from the presence of ExxonMobil on its soil," Faisal Ridha of the Aceh Referendum Information Center (SIRA) wrote via email. "In fact, they have been impoverished by this presence, their lands had been confiscated without adequate compensations, their livelihood destroyed by pollution ... They have to suffer under a very oppressive military occupation just for the sake of letting the company operate unchecked."

"Foreign people in ExxonMobil live in a very exclusive area; they have their own schools, their own market," said KONTRAS Aceh coordinator Aguswandi. "Around the complex people live on one dollar a day. People attack because they are jealous ... They survive, they have something to eat, but just day to day ... don't ask about health services, school facilities, public transportation, they never talk about it. This is in their dreams."

Lesley McCulloch, an Asian studies lecturer at the University of Tasmania, said Acehnese feeling about ExxonMobil is more complicated.

"GAM doesn't attack ExxonMobil, they only attack the military who are protecting [the company]," she said. "The official GAM policy is not to attack ExxonMobil. They welcome foreign investment in Aceh."

McCulloch said, however, that GAM objects to ExxonMobil's reliance on the Indonesian military for security, and wants the company to offer training and employment opportunities for Acehnese.

According to Sidney Jones, former executive director for the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, "economic grievances are certainly a factor in why anti-government sentiment grew up in Aceh, but not the only reason."

Today's separatist movement in Aceh draws on its pre-colonial history as an autonomous sultanate strategically located on the Straits of Malacca.

In 1949 the Dutch gave up their claim on the archipelago that would become modern Indonesia, paving the way for Jakarta's rise to power.

But ongoing rebellion in Aceh resulted in the region winning "special territory" status from Indonesia's Sukarno government in 1959.

Relative calm followed, but the insurgency returned in 1976 with the emergence of GAM -- which remains active to this day, despite years of intense military action by Jakarta.

Now, inspired by East Timor's secession from Indonesia via referendum in 1999, a movement for a popular vote on independence has been growing in Aceh.

According to Kyodo newswire, on November 8, 1999, Indonesian police counted "hundreds of thousands" of attendees at a pro-referendum rally held by SIRA that month. Human Rights Watch said the rally drew over one million people -- one-quarter of the population of Aceh.

But CNN and the BBC reported that SIRA's anniversary rally in November 2000 brought a military crackdown, with dozens -- and perhaps hundreds -- of travelers killed by soldiers to prevent their attendance.

"They put the roadblocks to stop people coming to Banda Aceh. People were trying to come by boat, by the back roads, and they were being shot at," said McCulloch, who attended the two-day gathering. "SIRA, who had organized the rally, said ... 'it's a massacre, stay away.'"

Despite this, Agence France Presse reported on November 10, 2000, that close to 400,000 people turned out for the referendum movement. A poll taken by SIRA that December found 90 percent of Acehnese voters favored independence.

But widespread public support has not swayed Jakarta's opinion on a popular vote.

"There's no chance in hell we'll have a referendum," Dino Patti Djalal, head of the political division at the Indonesian Embassy, said. "Look at what happened in East Timor. It's going to raise the stakes in a negative way ... This is a make or break, life or death situation for us."

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