British Tanks in use in Aceh


The government yesterday faced severe embarrassment over arms dealing as Indonesia broke repeated assurances and deployed 36 British-made Scorpion light tanks as part of its intensifying campaign to crush separatists in the Aceh province.

The move came as more than 80 non-governmental organisations around the world called for a global arms embargo on Jakarta in the wake of mounting, credible reports of systematic human rights violations by Indonesian troops in their five-week operation in Aceh.

Indonesia has been a test case of a foreign policy with an “ethical dimension” announced by the then foreign secretary, Robin Cook, after Labour came to power in 1997.

He said lawyers had advised him the government could not cancel orders for Scorpion tanks, armoured cars, water cannon and Hawk jets, agreed by the Conservative government. But he had been given assurances by Jakarta that the military equipment would not be used for internal repression.

The Foreign Office yesterday said it was awaiting a report on developments in the province from the British ambassador to Indonesia, Richard Gozney. “We will have to see how [the tanks] are used,” a spokesman said.

The Scorpions, regarded as ideal for use in towns and the rugged, forested interior, arrived in Aceh on Sunday. The senior military spokesman in Aceh, Colonel Ditya Sudarsono, yesterday insisted they would not be used to violate civilians’ human rights but would be used offensively.

“They will become a key part of our campaign to finish off the separatists,” he said. “They will be used for the benefit of the people in Aceh and restoring peace to the province.”

Colonel Ditya admitted Britain might be unhappy at the Scorpions’ deployment. “Maybe later the British foreign minister will have a fit,” he said.

Ministers are likely to be deeply embarrassed. Last November Jack Straw, Mr Cook’s successor, wrote to Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, saying the Indonesian government had said it would “investigate thoroughly any report of misuse of [British] military equipment”.

After Indonesia was found to be using British Hawk fighter jets offensively in Aceh last month, the Foreign Office minister Mike O’Brien paid a whistlestop tour to Jakarta to urge the president, Megawati Sukarnoputri, not to use British arms against insurgents or in violation of human rights.

Assurances

The assurances have been broken and the pleadings ignored. Senior generals have repeatedly said they have no intention of abiding by non-binding assurances made to the British government about the use of weapons.

The military has increased its forces from 26,000 to about 40,000 since the start of the operation on May 19 after the collapse of a five-month ceasefire.

Indonesia’s independent Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras) said in a report published last week that Jakarta’s tactics were resulting in massive abuses of civilian human rights.

Kontras said 176 civilians had been killed in the first month, 101 tortured, 50 arrested and 15 had disappeared. By comparison, it calculated that 202 Gam (the Free Aceh Movement) fighters had been killed and 112 arrested.

The majority of the civilian fatalities were shot by troops, the report says. “[We believe] most of the civilian victims were murdered extra-judicially because from the field data it was found that the majority of the corpses had bullet wounds.” More than 40,000 people have become refugees.

The military is refusing to disclose civilian casualties. Spokesmen claim to have killed about 260 Gam fighters and detained a further 540, of whom 225 have surrendered.

But in numerous places visited by the Guardian locals said the “Gam fighters” killed had been civilians and in some cases those “arrested” had in fact been executed.

Gam has been fighting for independence since 1976 after decades of broken promises of greater autonomy.

The founder of Tapol, the Indonesian Human Rights Campaign, Carmel Budiardjo, said yesterday she was not surprised that Indonesia is not keeping its promises about use of weapons.

“What I am surprised about is that the British government puts any faith in assurances the Indonesian government gives them,” she said.

In response to the deteriorating situation in Aceh and elsewhere in Indonesia, combined with the military’s overt attempts to regain some of the political power it has lost over the past five years, Tapol has organised a global campaign to demand a total arms embargo on Indonesia.

In a statement released yesterday and signed by more than 80 other non-governmental organisations from around the world, Tapol called for an end to arms sales and other military cooperation with Indonesia and the withdrawal of Indonesian forces from Aceh and Papua provinces.

Indonesia’s military, the NGOs say, “represents a grave threat to the stability and security of Indonesia and we believe that the policy of western countries to strengthen their military ties with Jakarta as part of the ‘war against terror’ is wholly misguided and dangerous”.

Indonesia traditionally has been a lucrative market for British arms exporters. When it invaded East Timor in 1975 it had several dozen Saladin armoured reconnaissance vehicles, Ferret armoured vehicles and Saracen armoured personnel carriers, all made by the Coventry-based firm Alvis, manufacturer of the Scorpions.

A retired Indonesian officer, who asked not to be named, said he remembered the British vehicles being used regularly in East Timor.

“They were very effective and very reliable,” he said. “They always did what was expected of them.”

In April 1996 the Indonesian military used Scorpions to assault a university in the city of Ujung Pandang (now Makasar), where students were protesting at bus fare increases. Three students were killed and many injured.

By early 1998 General Suharto’s regime was starting to crumble and massive, peaceful student protests demanding democratic change were becoming a daily occurrence.

British-made Tactica water cannon were regularly used on the demonstrators and, when rioting broke out in May 1998, Scorpions and other armoured vehicles were deployed on the streets of Jakarta.

Hundreds of people were killed in the unrest of May 1998. The majority of analysts believe it was at least partly orchestrated by elements within the armed forces.

Scorpions were used November 13 1998 by Gen Suharto’s successor, BJ Habibie, to crush student protesters in Jakarta. Thirteen people were killed on what became known as Black Friday.

The other major British-made weapon the Indonesians have used in violation of assurances given to the British government is the Hawk fighter jet.

Jakarta has bought dozens of the aircraft that are primarily used as trainers but can, and have been, easily adapted for offensive use.

There have been regular and widespread reports that the Hawks were used in East Timor, mainly for terrorising people on the ground rather than for air-to-ground combat, though not all of these reports have been verified.

The Scorpions now in use there were exported to Indonesia in 1997 and 1998, early in Labour’s period of office, in deals worth nearly £200m.

Ironically, Britain’s weapons sales to Indonesia have declined significantly in recent years, to the extent that the diplomat stationed in Jakarta solely to look after the arms trade has been withdrawn.

Leave a comment