Aceh: An Interview with Allan Nairn


Derrick O’Keefe: Could you tell us the latest with respect to the devastation caused by last month’s earthquake and tsunami, specifically in Aceh?

Allan Nairn: Well, the coastal areas of Aceh have been crushed by the earthquake and the tsunami. Large parts of Banda Aceh are under water; they’ve become part of the sea. The west coast is hardest hit and whole villages are leveled. But this is not the first catastrophe to hit Aceh. Previously, it was devastated by unnecessary and preventable poverty. Aceh is rich in resources; it’s one of the world’s main natural gas producers. It supplies much of the natural gas for South Korea and Japan, and yet the revenues have gone to Exxon Mobil and the central government in Jakarta, with almost nothing left for the poor of Aceh. And as a result, we’ve seen malnutrition and undernourishment levels among the children of Aceh running as high as 40 percent.

O’Keefe: A number of activist groups in the United States have concerns that the Indonesian government will hamper disaster relief efforts, and also that they will exploit the situation to further repress Acehnese political activists. Do you know of, or see evidence of this taking place in Aceh?

Nairn: Well, the Indonesian military is doing that as we speak. They are continuing to attack villages, more than a dozen villages in East Aceh and North Aceh away from the coast, even though General Susilo, the president of Indonesia, announced that they would be lifting the state of siege. He hasn’t actually done it. And an Indonesian military spokesman came out and said, ‘we will keep attacking until the President tells us to stop.’

The military is also impeding the flow of aid. They’ve commandeered a hanger at the Banda Aceh airport, where they are taking control of internationally shipped in supplies. We just got a report this afternoon that the distribution of supplies is being done in some towns and villages only to people who hold the ‘red and white,’ which is a special ID card issued to Acehnese by the Indonesian police. You have to go to a police station to get one of these ID cards, and it is only issued to people who the police certify as not being opponents of the army, not being critics of the government. Of course many people are afraid to go and apply for such a card.

There’s been a tremendous outpouring from the public; all over the world people are giving donations. But most of these donations are being channeled through the UN agencies or through the big mainstream charities. There’s a major problem. Those agencies and charities all have contracts with the Indonesian government, contracts which oblige them to either channel funds through the government or work in concert with the government, which means that government officials and army officers can steal the aid, and there are already indications that this is happening. And even that aid which is not stolen may be used in a way to consolidate military control over the population.

O’Keefe: What is the background to the political conflict in Aceh?

Nairn: Really the second wave of devastation to hit Aceh was the Indonesian military. Aceh is one of the most repressive places in the world. They have been under de facto Martial Law for years. Now, international relief workers and foreign journalists are pouring in, but, until the tsunami, they were banned by the Indonesian military. The reason is that the Acehnese want a free vote; they want a referendum which would give them the option of choosing independence from the central government and Indonesia.

In 1999, there was a demonstration in front of the Grand Mosque in Banda Aceh which drew anywhere from 400 000 to a million people. That’s anywhere from 10 percent to a quarter of the entire Acehnese population of 4 million. In proportional terms, that makes it one of the largest political demonstrations in recent world history. The military responded to this demonstration by crushing the civilian political movement that was calling for referendum – assassinating, disappearing, raping activists, and continuing with the massacres that had already dotted Aceh with mass graves before the tsunami created new mass graves.

The Indonesian military actually encourages the armed conflict that is going on between them and the GAM (Aceh Freedom Movement), which is an armed rebel pro-independence group. The Indonesian military occasionally sells weapons to the GAM. The military likes this war because, one, they can’t be defeated militarily, and two, because it gives them a rationale for their political existence. The Indonesian military is one of the most repressive and corrupt in the world and, after the fall of Suharto, it became extremely unpopular in Indonesia – there was a strong popular movement against it. But by prolonging the war in Aceh, the Indonesian armed forces are able to say to the public, ‘see, we’re facing an armed rebellion, you need us to protect you.’ And then third, the war in Aceh is a rich source of corruption for the Indonesian military officers. They do systematic extortion of business, small business and the poor, so they want to stay there. And they crush the civilian movement to avoid a political contest that they might well lose, and they encourage a military fight which they can only win.

O’Keefe: It sounds very much as if conditions for the people of Aceh are as bad today as they were under the Suharto dictatorship. When did the conflict between the independence movement of Aceh and the government of Jakarta begin, and what are its origins?

Nairn: Well, Aceh as a nation predates Indonesia. It was actually an ancient kingdom that ruled the area that is now Aceh as well as a lot of what is now Malaysia. When Indonesia came into being after World War II, with the uprising against the Dutch colonialists, Aceh played a leading role in fighting off the Dutch. And the Acehnese made a bargain with the other islands that came to form Indonesia that they would join the new country of Indonesia in exchange for substantial internal autonomy, and freedom to go their own way. But very quickly the central government in Jakarta reneged on that deal, and the Acehnese became quite unhappy. And then when Suharto and his army seized power in the 1965-67 period, and staged massacres all across Indonesia to consolidate their power, it began a period of military repression of the pro-independence movement in Aceh. The Acehnese tried for years the political route, and it didn’t work. Then in the 1970s the GAM, the armed rebel movement, was formed. But even before they existed the Indonesian military and police were killing Acehnese civilians.

O’Keefe: What are some of the connections between U.S. corporate interests and the Indonesian military repression in Aceh?

Nairn: There’s one main connection, and that’s Exxon Mobil. Their natural gas facility dominates the Acehnese economy, by way of extraction. They also have Indonesian troops garrisoned on their property. The Exxon Mobil company pays protection money to the Indonesian military and the military buries bodies of its victims on Exxon Mobil lands. The revenues from Exxon Mobil are a mainstay of the Jakarta central government. Not much of it finds its way back to Aceh.

O’Keefe: As someone who operates in the United States, what did you think of the spectacle over the past couple of days of U.S. military helicopters delivering aid, in sharp contrast to U.S. military operations over the past couple of years in Iraq, for instance?

Nairn: It’s bitterly ironic. You don’t even have to go as far a field as Iraq to get an illustration of the role the U.S. has played. The Indonesian military is a long-time client of the U.S. The U.S. supported the military as they were bringing Suharto to power, as they were carrying out a massacre of anywhere from 400 000 to a million Indonesians during 1965-67. The U.S. gave the green light to the invasion of East Timor by the Indonesian military, which wiped out a third of the Timorese population, 200 000 people.

It’s only as a result of grassroots lobbying in the U.S. after the ’91 Dili massacre that the U.S. Congress stepped in and cut off much of the U.S. military aid to Indonesia. But this was done over the objection of the U.S. executive, over the objection of the first President Bush, and then President Clinton, and now the current President Bush. And there will be a major battle coming up in the U.S. Congress as Bush tries to restore the military aid now. But hopefully the public will bring enough pressure to bear on Congress that Congress will resist.

But the U.S. has deep complicity in the massacres over the years in Indonesia, in occupied Timor, currently in Papua and very recently and currently in Aceh. So it’s bitterly ironic to see U.S. helicopters coming ashore in the role of deliverers of relief.

O’Keefe: You’ve mentioned some problems with the established NGOs working in Indonesia and Aceh. Is there a way that people can contribute to the relief effort, and to efforts to raise awareness about the situation in Aceh more generally?

Nairn: Yes, fortunately there is a way around the problem of Indonesian military cooptation of the UN and big mainstream relief channels. And that is to give directly to the grassroots Acehnese groups, which have been working for years with people in the refugee camps and which – even though their people are at risk – can deliver aid directly to the public because they do not have these contractual relationships with the Indonesian government and military. One such group is the People’s Crisis Center (PCC) of Aceh, which for years has been going into the ‘re-education camps,’ which are set up by the Indonesian military – farmers are driven off their land, put into these camps to have their thoughts cleansed by military propagandists. And the children in these camps were often going hungry, not getting clean water, not getting schooling, and people from the PCC would come in and try to aid the children and give some education and some subsistence. And now they’re working on disaster relief. Over the years their organizers were often targeted by the military, but they’ve persisted, they’ve been very brave.

Now the East Timor Action Network (ETAN) of the United States is channeling aid to the PCC and similar on-the-ground Acehnese groups. So if people want to donate, they can go to the ETAN U.S. website, which is www.etan.org.

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