Resource War in Aceh
Indonesia crushes insurgencies
by Al Gedicks
Z magazine, July/August 2003
While world attention is focused on the
Mideast, Indonesia has launched an invasion of resource-rich Aceh
(pronounced ah CHAY), in the country's biggest military assault
since the 1975 invasion of East Timor. Located on the tip of northern
Sumatra, Aceh has a population of about 4 million and is located
at the western edge of the Indonesian archipelago, about 1,200
miles northwest of the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, on the island
of Java. On May 18, 2003, President Megawati Sukarnoputri put
the Aceh Province under martial law and ordered over 40,000 soldiers
and paramilitary police officers to put down the Free Aceh Movement
(GAM), which consists of approximately 5,000 guerrillas, who have
been waging a war for independence in the dense, mountainous forests
for the past 30 years.
The last time the Indonesian government
declared martial law was in September 1999, when its military
and military-backed militia waged a campaign of terror in East
Timor after the local population voted overwhelmingly for independence.
After East Timor's separation from Indonesia, the Indonesian armed
forces (TNI) feared that the "loss" of East Timor would
inspire ongoing guerrilla insurgencies in Aceh and West Papua
(Irian Jaya) and resolved to crush these movements.
Indonesia's military chief, General Endriatono
Sutarto, has ordered his soldiers to hunt down the rebels and
"destroy them to their roots." The only problem with
uprooting the guerrillas is that they enjoy the support of the
vast majority of the Acehnese. The military is using the cover
of martial law to target human rights workers and students, who
are seen as GAM sympathizers. Activists are fleeing the province
in fear of their lives. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF)
warned of an impending crisis for the civilian population with
the collapse of already weak health services. In the first five
days of the invasion, the UN reported the burning of more than
200 schools. Foreign reporters have been banned from Aceh and
Indonesian journalists are under strict orders to clear all their
reports about the war with military authorities before publication.
The military assault is dependent on U.S.
and British supplied weapons, including the OV-10 Bronco counterinsurgency
aircraft, the C-130 Hercules transport planes, and the British-built
Hawk aircraft. Neither British nor American weapons are allowed
to be used for the suppression of internal dissent, according
to the terms and conditions of the arms sales. Nevertheless, the
British Times (5/26/03) cited a GAM member who witnessed two Hawk
aircraft used in an attack near the town of Lhokseumawe. "I
saw two Hawks flying and shooting rockets and dropping bombs,"
said Syukri Ibrahim, who lives in the area. "They say they
were attacking GAM, but there are no GAM positions there and we
are afraid they might have hit civilians." The counterinsurgency
strategy being carried out by the Indonesian military is designed
to separate the guerrillas from their popular base by forcibly
moving villagers into secure compounds or so-called "strategic
hamlets" reminiscent of the Vietnam War. The government estimates
that the number of refugees in Aceh will grow to 100,000 from
the current 5,000.
Announcement of the invasion came after
the breakdown of peace talks in Tokyo, led by the United States,
Japan, and the World Bank. Five months earlier, in December 2002,
the Indonesian government and GAM had signed a Cessation of Hostilities
accord (COHA), which dramatically reduced the fighting and the
number of casualties in Aceh. However, this was not to last. On
April 10, the TNI announced that they were ready to launch new
military operations to crush the GAM. At the end of April, according
to TAPOL, the Indonesia Human Rights Campaign, "the Indonesian
government, in clear violation of the terms of COHA, issued a
two-week ultimatum to GAM demanding that they formally renounce
their long-term political aim of independence and accept Special
Autonomy as the final solution for Aceh." The Aceh autonomy
law, signed in August 2001, provides for a larger share of the
revenues from oil and gas to be returned to Aceh, but the law
has never been implemented. Furthermore, the autonomy law says
nothing about what the Indonesian government will do to make amends
for the gross violations of human rights by the TNI in Aceh.
As the talks were underway in Tokyo in
mid-May, the government increased the number of troops in Aceh
from 38,000 to 45,000. Any hope that last-minute negotiations
could avert a resumption of war was lost when five GAM negotiators
were arrested in the capital city of Banda Aceh. One is now on
trial for - "rebellion. "
According to a New York Times story (5/23/03)
a senior adviser to President Megawati Sukarnoputri said that
the American campaign against terrorism helped Indonesia justify
its invasion of Aceh. "This is a blessing of Sept. 11-that
we now know that terrorism has two faces, God and nation."
While the GAM has been criticized by Human Rights Watch for human
rights violations during the conflict, the vast majority of the
human rights violations have been committed by the Indonesian
army. "The Bush administration has pushed for the resumption
of military ties with Indonesia in the name of fighting the War
on Terror," said Kurt Biddle, of the Indonesia Human Rights
Network. "Currently, it is the Indonesian military terrorizing
the people of Aceh."
Roots Of Rebellion
While the Acehnese are mostly devout Muslims,
this is not a war about religion, but about politics, economics,
and the environment. The Acehnese resisted being incorporated
into the Dutch colonial empire at the end of the l9th century
and were at the forefront of Indonesia's fight for independence
during the 1940s. When Indonesia declared independence in 1945,
Aceh was promised autonomy, but never received it. Acehnese dissatisfaction
with the central government in Jakarta grew during the Suharto
military dictatorship (1965-1998) that ushered in decades of resource
exploitation-degrading and depleting forests, mangrove coasts,
General Suharto came to power in 1965
by overthrowing the Sukarno government and launching a bloodbath
that led to the slaughter of at least 500,000 people. Evidence
uncovered after the massacre showed that the United States not
only condoned the massacre, but also actively participated in
it by supplying the names of thousands of communist leaders to
the Indonesian military.
Since 1971, Mobil has exploited Aceh's
huge natural gas reserves from on- and off-shore fields. In partnership
with the state oil company Pertamina, Mobil runs the liquefied
natural gas (LNG) plant nearby and exports its product to Japan
and South Korea. The LNG plant at Lhokseumawe is one of the largest
resource projects in Indonesia, representing one-quarter of Mobil's
worldwide revenue and generating more than $1 billion a year in
government revenues that go directly to Jakarta. Less than 10
percent of those revenues are returned to Aceh. Unsurprisingly,
in the area surrounding the LNG
more than 375,000 people living in abysmal
poverty. These gross inequalities of wealth, combined with the
displacement of people from their traditional lands and the degradation
of their air, water and farmlands from plant contamination, were
foremost in the minds of the leaders of the Free Aceh Movement
(GAM) when they emerged in 1976. They criticized the plundering
of Aceh's resources by "Javanese-Indonesian" colonialists
in the name of development. The Acehnese didn't defeat Dutch colonialism
only to succumb to Suharto's internal colonialism.
Secret War In Aceh, 1990-1998
While GAM has been in existence since
1976 it was not until 1998 that it developed a popular base. In
their August 2001 report on "The War in Aceh," Human
Rights Watch (HRW) explains why: "Economic grievances were
and continue to be important, but the more immediate spur to the
independence movement has been the failure of the post-Suharto
governments to address human rights abuses of the past, particularly
those committed between 1990 and 1998." After GAM guerrillas
carried out a series of attacks on military and police posts in
May 1990, the Suharto government declared Aceh an area of military
operations and mounted extensive counterinsurgency operations
against GAM. Amnesty International estimates that around 2,000
civilians, including women and children, were killed between 1989-1993
alone. More than 500 others disappeared and were never found.
Tens of thousands of Acehnese were imprisoned and tortured in
military camps where rape was widespread. "So many people
were affected, says the HRW report, "that, today, virtually
every Acehnese in the hardest-hit areas can cite a family member
who was the direct target of a human rights violation-and who
had no link to GAM at the time. "
Following the Indonesian populist uprising
of May 1998 and the resignation of Suharto from office, there
was a sudden explosion of long-suppressed information about human
rights abuses in Aceh, much like the explosion that is currently
taking place in postwar Iraq. Taking advantage of their newfound
democratic freedoms the victims of the secret war against GAM
were mobilized by student and non-governmental organizations (NGOs)
to demand justice and to make organizational links with each other.
While General Wiranto, the commander of Indonesia's armed forces,
formally apologized to the people of Aceh for the abuse they suffered
at the hands of the military, there was no investigation or prosecution
of those who were responsible for crimes against humanity.
"Not only was nothing done, "
says HRW, "but key figures in the [military operation] hierarchy
continued to occupy positions of influence throughout Indonesia."
Carmel Budiardjo, the founder and director of TAPOL, the Indonesian
Human Rights Campaign, emphasized that "state terror-and
the failure to punish the perpetrators, have done more to make
the Achenese secessionists than their many other grievances. "
In 1999 there was another critical event
that mobilized the independence movement. After the East Timorese
were given the opportunity to choose between increased autonomy
and separation from Indonesia, an all-Aceh student congress called
for a referendum to be held in Aceh. The congress evolved into
a student-led organization called SIRA (the Information Center
for a Referendum on Aceh). The students put forward the referendum
as one way of peacefully resolving the conflict caused by what
they called "state terrorism" against the Acehnese.
This civil society movement was entirely independent of the GAM
and pursued a political strategy committed to peaceful means for
achieving its goals.
When SIRA showed in November 1999 that
they could organize a peaceful demonstration of more than 500,000
on the streets of the capital of Banda Aceh, under a pro-independence
banner, they were targeted by the military, along with human rights
defenders, humanitarian workers, academics, and environmental
In 2000, the tortured, mutilated, and
decomposing body of Jafar Siddiq Hamzah, the internationally known
Acehnese human rights activist, was discovered outside the city
of Medan, Aceh, where other corpses were also found. The Indonesian
security forces are widely believed to be responsible.
On March 9, 2001, Exxon Mobil (the companies
merged in 1999) shut its gas fields in North Aceh, citing attacks
on its employees. The same day, the Indonesian defense minister
announced new military operations against GAM. When the plant
reopened in July 2001~ Indonesia sent more than 3,000 troops in
what the defense minister described as, "the biggest security
deployment in Indonesia ever to defend a vital installation."
Indonesia had contracts with Japan and Korea for sales of natural
gas and the military wanted the gas fields re-opened. However,
this increased security came at the cost of human rights abuses
carried out by the military.
In June 2001, the U.S. based International
Labor Rights Fund (ILRF) filed a lawsuit in federal court against
Exxon Mobil on behalf of 11 villagers next to their plant. The
lawsuit was brought under various U.S. federal statutes, including
the Alien Tort Claims Act of 1789. This law has been interpreted
to allow victims of serious human rights violations abroad to
seek civil damages in U.S. courts against their alleged abusers
located in the U.S. It charges that the villagers were the victims
of murder, torture and kidnapping by Indonesian soldiers paid
to protect the plant from 1999 to 2001.
The ILRF accuses Exxon Mobil of allowing
the military to use the company's construction equipment for harrowing
purposes such as digging mass graves for those murdered by the
military. Exxon Mobil is also charged with knowingly benefiting
from the forced relocation of villagers in order to accommodate
the company's facilities. According to ILRF general counsel Terry
Collingsworth, "Exxon Mobil understood from the day it decided
to begin its project in Aceh that the army units (TNI), assigned
to protect company wells were notoriously brutal in their treatment
of ethnic minorities." The Indonesian special forces, known
as Kopassus, are best known for their part in the genocide in
East Timor and the ongoing repression in West Papua (Irian Jaya),
at the easternmost edge of the archipelago.
In August 2002, the U.S. State Department's
top lawyer urged a federal judge to dismiss the ILRF lawsuit on
the grounds that allowing the case against Exxon Mobil to go forward
could "impair Indonesia's cooperation with the U.S. across
the full spectrum of diplomatic initiatives, including counterterrorism."
He noted Washington viewed Indonesia, the world's most populous
Muslim country, as a "focal point" in the war against
A1 Qaeda and other terrorist organizations and that Indonesia
is highly sensitive to other countries meddling in its affairs.
Apparently, the State Department doesn't consider the 1965-66
U.S.-supported mass murder of Communists and popular resistance
supporters as significant "meddling." Prior to this,
16 congresspeople and 2 U.S. senators asked the State
Department not to intervene in the case,
warning that ;'intervention...would send precisely the wrong message:
that the United States supports the climate of impunity for human
rights abuses in Indonesia."
Lawyers for Exxon Mobil had asked for
the opinion, knowing the Bush administration would favor dismissing
the suit. Exxon Mobil was the second largest contributor to the
Bush campaign after Enron. Prior to the Exxon Mobil case, the
state department argued that pursuit of a lawsuit against Rio
Tinto, the international mining company, in Papua New Guinea,
would harm American interests, and it was dismissed. Ronald I.
Wilson, the president and general manager of Exxon Mobil Indonesia
Inc., said the company "doesn't condone human rights violations
anywhere in the world, including Indonesia. If troops did anything
to violate human rights, we did not condone it and we're not party
to it. "
Freeport's Army in West Papua
Exxon Mobil's troubles are not unique.
Similar lawsuits against Occidental Petroleum Corporation's complicity
with human rights abuses by Colombian soldiers employed by the
company, and Unocal Oil Corporation's complicity in the use of
forced labor by the Burmese military, are making their way through
U.S. courts. In West Papua, at the far western edge of the Indonesian
archipelago, the Freeport McMoRan mining company has a similar
history of complicity in human rights abuses by Indonesian soldiers
employed by the company to guard the company's extremely profitable
gold and copper mine. A $6 billion class-action lawsuit brought
by native groups charged Freeport with human rights abuses, the
robbery of native ancestral lands, violations of international
environmental law and "planning the demise of a culture of
indigenous people whose rights were never considered" as
mine development proceeded. The suit was a public relations nightmare
for the company but was eventually dismissed by a U. S . court.
The company's 2002 annual report states
that the Grasberg mining complex is the "flagship" of
their worldwide operations. In a report to the Securities and
Exchange Commission, Freeport disclosed that it paid the Indonesian
military (TNI) an estimated $5.6 million in 2002 for security
purposes. Since 1996, the number of soldiers increased from 200
to over 2,300. The Indonesian military receives less than one-third
of its budget from the government. To make up the difference,
the Indonesian army has relied upon its own income-generating
activities which include: illegal logging, mining, and running
prostitution. When Freeport reduced its level of payments to TNI
in 2001, the company reported threats of retaliation from the
military if more payments were not forthcoming (NYT 1/30/03)
The cozy relationship between the company
and the military came under sharp criticism in August 2002, when
a group of international schoolteachers and their families were
attacked in their vehicles on a remote road near the Freeport
gold mine by unidentified gunmen. The ambush killed two American
teachers, one Indonesian teacher, and injured 10 others. Military
officials immediately accused rebels, who have been fighting for
independence from central rule by Jakarta for several decades.
Papuan rebels said the military itself was responsible for the
attack and had accused the rebels in order to justify their own
security role in the region. An initial Indonesian police investigation
also pointed to military involvement. The key piece of evidence
was an Australian-supplied telephone intercept between Indonesian
military commanders. The conversation, which takes place after
the incident, leaves no doubt of military involvement in the killings
All of this has greatly complicated Indonesia's
role in the Bush administration's war on terrorism. In 1999, the
U.S. Congress cut off all military assistance to Indonesia because
of massive human rights violations in the aftermath of the East
Timor independence vote. The only contact between the U.S. and
the Indonesian military was through the International Military
Education and Training (IMET) that allowed Indonesian officers
to attend counterterrorism training courses in the U.S. However,
on May 23, 2003 the Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously
agreed to an amendment restricting IMET for Indonesia until President
Bush certifies that Indonesia is "taking effective measures"
to fully investigate and criminally prosecute those responsible
for the attack on the U.S schoolteachers and their families in
West Papua in August 2002.
The East Timor Action Network (ETAN) and
the Indonesia Human Rights Network (IHRN) applauded the Senate
Committee's action. "The amendment reflects a growing distrust
with the failure of Indonesia to meet a wide range of conditions
placed on military assistance by Congress in recent years,"
said Karen Orenstein of ETAN. "Never before has the Indonesian
military displayed such boldness in attacking U.S. citizens as
it did in 2002. It is not difficult to imagine how the TNI treats
Indonesian citizens. "
"With the international monitors
gone, there is a real risk soldiers will think they can get away
with murder," says Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch. This
would not be the first time that the U.S. has looked the other
way when U.S. trained and equipped Indonesian troops engaged in
genocidal aggression in the name of national security.
Al Gedicks teaches sociology at the University
of Wisconsin-La Crosse and is the author of Resource Rebels: Native
Challenges to Mining and Oil Corporations (South End Press 2001).