Before the tsunami, the rebellious Indonesian province of Aceh was hardly a household name — and even after the world’s TV, radio and newspaper reporters descended on the region, the bulk of their coverage focused on the horrors of the giant wave. But Aceh has a rich and troubled history, endowed with extraordinary natural resources, and saddled with a legacy of colonialist violence that is still playing out today. Historical Turmoil
The Military: Violence, Corruption
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Historical Turmoil | top
A paradise island by any measure, Sumatra — and its northernmost Aceh province in particular — has nevertheless suffered greatly from catastrophes both natural and human in origin. Of the former class of disaster, the most notable prior to the 2004 Christmas tsunami was the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa, a volcanic island in between Java and Sumatra. Tsunamis from the explosion rose 100 feet high, claimed more than 35,000 lives, destroyed 165 coastal villages, and heaved 600-ton blocks of coral onto the shore.
In June 2001, the International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF) did what Jafar Siddiq Hamzah did not live to do: it filed a lawsuit in the Washington, D.C., U.S. District Court against ExxonMobil Corporation and PT Arun for hiring Indonesian military forces responsible for torture, crimes against humanity, sexual violence, kidnapping, murder and genocide in Aceh. Lawyers also claim that ExxonMobil provided hired troops with facilities and equipment, including excavators that were used to dig mass graves, and buildings where illegally detained prisoners were tortured. The suit requests compensatory and punitive damages, as well as an injunction to curtail ExxonMobil’s use of Indonesian security forces to protect their operations. The plaintiffs, eleven villagers from Aceh, are listed as John and Jane Does due to fears for their safety. On its website, ExxonMobil denies any responsibility for the actions of the military: “We are disturbed by any suggestion that ExxonMobil or its affiliate companies are in any way involved with alleged human rights abuses by security forces in Aceh.
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.
The oldest son of nine siblings, Jafar Siddiq Hamzah loved to watch courtroom dramas on state-run television, and in 1991 graduated from law school at Amir Hamzah University in the North Sumatran city of Medan. “He said, ‘Indonesian law is like a spiderweb. It just catches the small animals, but never tries to get a big animal.’ That’s why he really wanted to be a lawyer,” recalled his sister. Friends describe Hamzah as a man who smiled often, took pride in his recipe for fried rice, and worked tirelessly as an attorney for the Legal Aid Institute in Medan.