Dutch. What has propelled most of Aceh’s four million people to endorse independence, however, are three developments from the post-colonial era.
First, although Indonesian authorities in Jakarta proclaimed a special autonomous status for Aceh in recognition of its strong historical and Islamic identity (most Indonesians are Muslim, but more secular than in Aceh), in practice this autonomy was never realized. In 1945, Aceh was designated a "special area," but this was repealed in 1950. Then in 1959, following secessionist conflicts, Aceh was declared a "special territory" with considerable autonomy, but the central government never carried through its promises.
Second, Aceh’s abundant resources, especially natural gas, have been exploited for the benefit of elites in Jakarta and multinational corporations, largely bypassing the population of the province. Of course, it is not unreasonable (and indeed a matter of basic justice on socialist grounds) that resource-rich regions should share their wealth with poorer regions. But Aceh, despite its riches, actually has a larger proportion of its villages impoverished than any province on Sumatra. Foreign firms, Jakarta-based entrepreneurs, and corrupt politicians and military officers, along with a few well-connected locals, monopolize the profits from Aceh’s resources. General Suharto, who ruled Indonesia with an iron fist from 1965 to 1998, insisted on being cut in on every major economic enterprise, and members of his family continue to own vast assets.
The third factor that has led most Acehnese to favor independence has been the great brutality of the Indonesian security forces. In 1989, Jakarta declared Aceh a Military Operations Region (DOM), which essentially placed the province under martial law. The military launched a ruthless counter-insurgency campaign against the small Free Aceh Movement (GAM), particularly targeting civilians whom they suspected of sympathizing with the guerrillas. Human rights groups estimate that at least two thousand Acehnese civilians, including children and the elderly, were killed between 1989 and 1993, with further killings in years thereafter.
In May 1998, as a result of economic crisis, demonstrators forced Suharto from power and for a brief while there was some optimism in Aceh. The DOM was lifted, the army apologized for its abuses and promised to withdraw all non-territorial troops, and numerous civic and human rights organizations sprouted up, uncovering evidence of past atrocities. Both President B. J. Habibie and his successor, Abdurrahman Wahid, pledged to seek a peaceful resolution of the conflict.
But the early hopes soon evaporated. No ranking officers were tried for any human rights violations, troop withdrawals were suspended (after disturbances at a withdrawal ceremony that evidence suggests may have been manipulated by the military), and efforts at peaceful resolution have gotten nowhere. Instead, brutal counter-insurgency operations have resumed. Whatever Wahid’s intentions, his political weakness — he is facing impeachment charges — has compelled him to give the military essentially a free hand in Aceh. In May 1999, 60 civilians were massacred in the village of Pulo Rungkom; in July 1999, more than 50 students at an Islamic boarding school were slaughtered; in October, 40 were killed at Ujong Blang. The first half of the year 2001 has been Aceh’s bloodiest yet, with more than 800 dead already. Violence by the security forces has not been totally indiscriminate: human rights workers and advocates of non-violence have been especially targeted. Nashiruddin Daud, vice-chair of a parliamentary commission of inquiry into human rights violations in Aceh, was killed in January 2000. Jafar Siddiq Hamzah, a U.S. resident who had founded the NGO, International Forum for Aceh, was murdered while visiting Aceh in the summer of 2000. On Sept. 16, 2000, Dr. Safwan Idris, a supporter of non-violence and a candidate for governor was assassinated by gunmen reported to have been seen entering a police complex.
Many Acehnese endorsed neither independence nor GAM. GAM has committed atrocities of its own and has a xenophobic ideology, though it’s difficult to pin this down given its secretive nature and factionalization. Nevertheless, Indonesian policies have increased support for GAM and made independence a nearly universal demand — as indicated by the mass demonstration in November 1999 that drew a million people calling for a referendum on independence. As the owner of a small coffee shop told the Washington Post, "We don’t really want to be independent, but when we see the security forces acting like they do, beating people and killing people, that makes us support GAM." Human Rights Watch reported being told by moderate Acehnese leaders in February 1999 that a single trial of a military officer for abuses committed during the DOM period could have squelched the referendum movement, but no trial took place.
So what does all this have to do with Exxon-Mobil?
Aceh’s most lucrative resource is natural gas. The gas is produced under contract by Mobil (which merged with Exxon in November 1999) and the gas is liquified and sold by PT Arun, a joint venture owned 55 percent by Indonesia’s national energy company, 35 percent by Mobil, and 10 percent by a Japanese firm. Mobil obtained its contract in the early 1970s by the standard method for obtaining contracts in Suharto’s Indonesia: namely, by providing stock shares in Mobil of Indonesia to Suharto’s family, as well as other kickbacks. The lawsuit filed last week against Exxon-Mobil charges that in order to protect its exceedingly profitable investment, the U.S. oil giant was complicit with Indonesian security forces in carrying out gross violations of human rights. This complicity is alleged to have operated on a number of levels:
1. Suharto assigned at least one unit of the Indonesian army, Unit 113, "for the sole and specific purpose" of providing security to Mobil and PT Arun. (Public knowledge in Aceh that the Suharto family was involved in the gas project made it an object of popular resentment quite apart from GAM.) Mobil and PT Arun "paid the Indonesian military a regular monthly or annual fee for such services." Moreover, according to the suit, Mobil did not just pay for the military services, but controlled and directed them, "making decisions about where to place bases, strategic mission planning, and making decisions about specific deployment areas."
2. Mobil, claims the lawsuit, provided Indonesian security forces with buildings that were used to "interrogate, torture and murder" Acehnese civilians suspected of separatist activities, with heavy equipment such as excavators that were used by the military to dig mass graves for their victims, and with roads on which the victims could be transported to the grave sites near Mobil facilities.
3. Mobil, charges the lawsuit, has also purchased military equipment for the Indonesian security forces and "paid mercenaries to provide advice, training, intelligence and equipment" to the Indonesian army. Mobil’s funds and support have been used not just to help the military protect the natural gas facilities, but to "crush any dissent within Aceh."
Exxon-Mobil has defended itself by arguing that it had no knowledge of what was going on and of how its assistance was being used. The company claims it was told that its equipment was being borrowed "for projects beneficial to the community." Said Mobil’s CEO in 1998, "If anything happened because somebody used the equipment in a wrong way, I’m sorry about that." According to Mobil officials, if the company had had any knowledge of atrocities, it would have protested strongly.
These are dubious claims, both regarding Indonesia generally and Aceh specifically. Suharto came to power in 1965, presiding over the slaughter of between half a million and a million suspected leftists. Mobil could not have been unaware of this — the killings were widely cheered in the West (and facilitated by the prompt dispatch of arms from Washington). The mass murderers were not punished or even retired; rather, they were the very ones that Mobil cozied up to and hired as its security force. This was not just a police state that Mobil was working with, but a regime responsible just a few years earlier for one of the great atrocities of the twentieth century.
As for Aceh itself, Business Week quotes H. Sayed Mudhahar, a former top official in the province: "There wasn’t a single person in Aceh who didn’t know that massacres were taking place." On a road traveled by Mobil employees every day in 1990 and 1991, there was a spot known as "Skull Hill," where the stench of rotting human flesh could be smelled half a mile away. A former Mobil employee reports that rumors of massacres and of Mobil equipment being used to dig graves were frequently discussed at work and in the company cafeteria.
But even if Mobil could show that it was unaware of what its facilities and equipment were going to be used for beforehand, this cannot excuse the fact that when it learned the truth it continued to use the same troops for "security " and "even demanded an increase in the number of troops" protecting its operations. In October 1998, a coalition of Indonesian human rights groups held a press conference in which they detailed the ways in which Mobil had supported human rights abuses in Aceh. If by some miracle Mobil didn’t know what was going on before, it certainly knew now. Yet it made no effort to break its ties to the Indonesian military. The 11 John and Jane Does bringing suit against Exxon-Mobil all allege serious abuses — murder, rape, kidnapping, and torture — committed by Unit 113 since 1998.
In March 2001, Exxon-Mobil announced that it was going to suspend its activities in Aceh — not because of the ongoing massive atrocities against the Acehnese people, but because the military could not guarantee the safety of Mobil facilities and personnel. On June 19, after further deployments of Indonesian troops, including specially trained anti-insurgent commandos, Exxon-Mobil indicated that it would resume its operations.
The lawsuit against Exxon-Mobil makes use of the Alien Tort Claims Act, under which foreign citizens can sue corporations in United States courts for human rights violations, among other things. Such cases — others involve those against Unocal in Burma and Shell/Chevron in Nigeria — are long shots and will likely take years to be decided. But if they can be combined with popular protests and mobilizations aimed at the corporate villains as well as at the U.S. and other governments that support and promote them, such cases can help in the struggle against current-day imperialism.
Stephen R. Shalom is co-editor of Bitter Flowers, Sweet Flowers: East Timor, Indonesia, and the World Community (Rowman & Littlefield, 2001).