FOCUS: Beyond the Tsunami — Aceh’s Turmoil

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
Separatist Origins
Brittle Peace
Feared Militia
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.

Krakatoa: frequently asked questions
University of North Dakota

Krakatoa history

Krakatoa images and map
University of North Dakota

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Separatist Origins | top
The ongoing human catastrophe in Aceh can be traced back to the invasion of Dutch colonists in the 1870s.

Once a powerful Islamic kingdom, Aceh ultimately fell to the Dutch after a protracted conflict that left as many as 100,000 dead.

After the end of World War II and the defeat of Japan, Aceh — part of the former Dutch East Indies — was absorbed by a new empire: Indonesia.

In 1959, the Indonesian government granted Aceh increased autonomy, but failed to quell the separatist impulse.

The Free Aceh Movement (GAM) emerged in 1976, calling for a fundamentalist Islamic government and total autonomy.

For the past three decades the rebels have been fighting against an Indonesian military notorious for its brutality. Both sides have been accused of human rights abuses.

The conflict in Aceh is made all the more high-stakes by its wealth of natural resources.

Fossil fuels are abundant, and earn billions of dollars for corporations such as ExxonMobil, and for the Indonesian government.

Activists say that ExxonMobil, which works closely with Indonesia to develop and protect its natural gas plants in Aceh, should be held accountable for doing business with a regime rarely praised for its respect for human rights.

Aceh history

Declaration of Independence
Free Aceh Movement, 1976

“The War in Aceh”
Human Rights Watch, August 2001

“Energy giants sued for third world violence”, May 13, 2002

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Brittle Peace | top
Today, with Aceh having taken the brunt of the 2004 tsunami and earthquake, foreign aid workers and military personnel have set foot in a province that has been largely off-limits to foreigners.

Partisans on both sides of the war called for a cease-fire and renewed peace talks. But not long after the guns were silenced, Indonesia’s General Ryamizard Ryacudu said his troops were “forced” to kill 120 rebels whom he claimed were stealing relief supplies.

The rebels, in turn, said that the military had only killed six of their members, and that the bulk of the dead were civilian.

In mid-January, Deputy U.S. Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz suggested that the Indonesian military should be “pushed to get out of the way” if it impedes humanitarian work.

According to Wolfowitz, Jakarta’s support of positive changes in Aceh could be rewarded by renewed military ties with the U.S.

One Indonesian intelligence officer said the U.S. used its humanitarian operations in the region to advance its own interests, including designs on the heavily trafficked Malacca Strait.

Jakarta is calling for foreign troops to leave Aceh by March, or “as soon as possible.”

Relief workers initially protested the pullout, citing their dependence on military hardware and mobility, but the U.N. later said the evacuation of foreign troops could be offset by an influx of civilian aid workers.

“Army still on attack, rebels insist”
News.Com.Au, January 22, 2005

“Aceh peace hangs in the balance”
Agence France-Presse, January 20, 20005

“Indonesian intelligence: U.S. mission in Aceh for own interest”
China View, January 20, 2005

“Troops can leave Aceh by deadline, U.N. says”
Toronto Globe & Mail, January 21, 2005

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Feared militia | top
Observers are concerned that the nationalist Laskar Merah Putih militia, a paramilitary group feared for its violent repression of the independence movement in East Timor, has set up shop Aceh.

Eurico Guterres, a former militia chief in East Timor, denied rumors that he had been in Aceh after the tsunami to assemble a new paramilitary operation there.

According to reports, Major General Adam Damiri, the former leader of Indonesian forces in East Timor, has also been active in Aceh, leading sallies against rebels, and commanding the new Merah Putih post there.

Both Damiri and Guterres were convicted of human rights violations and given short jail sentences, but have since been freed with appeals pending.

A spokesman said the Merah Putih militia is ready to “defend Indonesian unity” if needed.

Its members would join the 50,000 Indonesian troops already in the area, half of whom are dedicated not to relief work, but to suppression of Acehnese separatists.

“Military-backed militia sets up Aceh relief effort / Critics fear Laskar group, used in unrest in East Timor, will undermine cease-fire”
January 21, 2005

“Guterres denies forming militia in Aceh”, January 19 2005

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The Military: Violence, Corruption | top
The Indonesian military — already known for its violent inclinations — is also considered one of the most corrupt in the world.

It is a power unto itself, and doesn’t readily take to orders coming from civilians in Jakarta. Only 30 percent of its revenue comes from the state; the lion’s share comes from private sources, from legal foundations to bribery, graft, protection money, and illegal timber operations in the lush rainforest ecosystems of the Indonesian archipelago.

The movements of journalists and aid workers have been restricted or closely monitored, and at least one American U.N. worker said the military was capable of attacking civilian humanitarian teams.

But military officials denied the threat, and local troops proved easily bribed by one reporter working for the Malaysian newspaper The Star.

“Past record raises fears of Indonesia army”
Associated Press, January 19, 2005

“Indonesia sends more troops into Aceh”
Agence France-Presse, January 13, 2005

“Into Aceh and back”
The Star (Malaysia), January 20, 2005

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