The US, Indonesia, and Terror

In a bid to build its coalition for a war against terrorism, the United States has demonstrated that it is keen to have on side the world’s biggest Islamic nation, Indonesia. Support from Indonesia, an ally of the United States from the late 1960s until September 1999, was being sought by the US in any case for its coalition against China. But the new ‘terrorism’ agenda has made that support more urgent.

The main trade-off for Indonesian support for the US is renewed military assistance to the Indonesian armed forces, the TNI. Indonesia has been able to produce its own small arms and buy some equipment elsewhere, but the TNI sorely needs mechanical parts, especially for its aircraft, and new higher technology equipment.

The pro-TNI government of President Megawati Sukarnoputri is keen to assist in this war against terrorism. Yet two problems arise. The first is that there is little enthusiasm within the Indonesian government for limiting the activities of fanatics operating under the banner, if not the values, of Islam.

That there is official tolerance for Islamic fanatics searching hotel registers for US citizens has been astounding. And there was too little too late in terms of official efforts to curtail the activities of the Laskar Jihad in Maluku. And this does not even begin to document the creation and maintenance of several private and official militia groups who resemble nothing so much as the fascist gangs of the European 1930s.

In most countries, such organizations would at least be the focus of very careful official scrutiny, or banned under any one of a range of laws against operating private armies. But Indonesia’s legal code remains notoriously weak, as does any sense of commitment to an idea of consistent and impartial justice.

This then raises questions about training and financial support for such groups, and the smuggling of weapons to them from abroad. Even an outsider with a passing interest in the subject can see the linkages, and who are some of the key players. Old soldiers donít retire, they just go into a related line of business. One wonders, then, why Indonesia’s own police, or its much vaunted intelligence services, cannot do the same, and act on it.

So, if the Indonesian government can’t act in these obvious areas, what can it do for its bit on the US-led war against terrorism? More than anything else, the government would step up its already high level of operations against the Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (Free Aceh Movement, or GAM) in Aceh. In justifying this, it would claim, as it has done in the past, that GAM is an extremist Islamic organization, and that it qualifies as a terrorist organization through alleged involvement in bombings in Jakarta.

Yet such claims are plainly ridiculous. Official claims that GAM was linked to any of the bombings in Jakarta have not been based on demonstrable evidence and, in the case of supposed association with fugitive Tommy Suharto, are laughable. As one GAM official recently told me: “We don’t work with any Javanese.” He said that the idea of working with the young Suharto was in particular contemptuous.

Of course, GAM has conducted attacks against government installations and personal in Aceh, and others it has believed opposed them. That is, not surprisingly, because GAM is fighting a war of secession.

Yet it is not an Islamic war. As a couple of GAM officials separately pointed out, Christian Chinese and Bataks still live comfortably within Aceh’s predominantly formal Islamic society without harassment, without having their homes or churches or shops burned. By comparison, in recent times Christian churches and homes had been burned in Java, and (usually Christian) ethnic Chinese women systematically raped.

Both GAM officials said, in two separate interviews, that what GAM wanted was not an Islamic state, but an independent state based on justice and democracy. It would be Islamic, but not exclusively so. The new state would also be a Sultanate, but more like Thailand’s constitutional monarchy than, for example, Brunei’s absolutist monarchy. This then begs the meaning of ‘terrorism’.

About 6,000 automatic weapons were recently shipped by the TNI to central Aceh, to further arm transmigrants there already receiving training from the TNI’s notorious Kopassus (special forces). Kopassus trained and led the brutal militias of East Timor. The Indonesian government would no doubt argue the training and weapons are for self-defense. But to the Acehnese, these ethnically Javanese militias are just a variation on the thugs that were trained and armed by the TNI in East Timor.

Even the Indonesian government’s attempts to ‘civilianise’ the Aceh conflict fail under scrutiny. There are supposedly fewer TNI troops in Aceh now, although still more than 10,000. But it is now public knowledge that when such claims were made in East Timor they were fabrications. The TNI continues to have a heavy presence all along the highway from Banda Aceh to near the Aceh-North Sumatra border, as do the burned homes, schools and shops. There are many differences, but the comparisons with East Timor, prior to the referendum in August 1999, are inevitable.

The national police Mobile Brigade (Brimob) also has a high presence. Yet Brimob is hardly ‘civilianising’ the conflict. In any other country, Brimob would be called the Civil Guard, or the domestic army. I even saw a Brimob post north of the Lhokseumawe, the troubled and violent town near the valuable Arun natural gas field, designated as ‘Hunters’. As one TNI Lieutenant-General told me in Jakarta, Brimob had “problems with discipline”.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of the people hunted and killed by Brimob, and the TNI, are not GAM but civilians. Officially more than 1200 people have been killed this year. Unofficially, including those who have ‘disappeared’, the figure is much higher, perhaps double. And this does not take into account the persistent use of rape, torture and beatings to attempt to compel compliance. Aceh is less a discontented part of Indonesia and more, like East Timor was, a territory under brutal military occupation. That effectively all Brimob and TNI in Aceh are from elsewhere in the archipelago confirms this impression of occupation.

The long-held and fiercely defended sense of a separate Acehnese identity, which can be dated to 1873, has only been strengthened by the ‘terror’ inflicted by the TNI and Brimob. And, it seems, apart from the offer of an internationally supervised referendum on broad autonomy or independence, there is no other offer that is acceptable in Aceh. This frustrates Indonesia’s ‘nationalists’ enormously, and calls forth more of the type of violence that in turn breeds a greater will for independence.

But it seems that nationalists know of no other way, or can conceive of Indonesia in anything other than its colonial Dutch-created form, even though some of its constituents who did not wish to be a part of that colonial form do not wish to be a part of this one either. Hence, when the US offers military assistance to help fight terrorism, in Indonesia it is likely not to be used against those who might suitably qualify under the term, but against a movement that is concerned with self- determination.

When the US Congress banned military aid to Indonesia in 1999 it was because Indonesia needed to learn to resolve its differences through means other than violence. Very clearly, Indonesia has yet to learn how to do that.


War on Terror: The Media By John Pilger

During the Falklands war in 1982, the BBC’s Weekly Review Board met to discuss how the war should be presented to the public. The minutes show that senior executives decided that the news ought to be shaped to suit ‘the emotional sensibilities of the public’ and that the weight of BBC coverage would be concerned with government statements of policy. An ‘impartial style’ was felt to be ‘an unnecessary irritation’.

Argentina’s acceptance, bar three minor amendments, of a Peruvian peace plan was ignored by the BBC. The Thatcher government was not interested; BBC news reflected this, along with the deception that Argentina was to blame for the plan’s ‘failure’. ITN, whose reporting was little different, claimed that ’70 per cent of the British public want to launch an invasion’. However, the same poll showed that 76 per cent of those questioned wanted the United Nations to occupy the Falklands while Britain and Argentina negotiated. This was never reported. Instead, the poll results were interpreted on the news as showing that British public opinion was ‘hardening’. Here we go again. Last Sunday, the Observer reported that ’65 per cent of the public support the use of targeted ‘surgical’ air strikes against countries harbouring terrorists’. The paper’s poll did not say what ‘surgical’ air strikes were. It did not say whether its pollsters had explained to people that, during the Gulf war, 70 per cent of the 88,500 tons of bombs dropped on Iraq and Kuwait missed their targets completely, causing tens of thousands of civilian deaths, or that in Nato’s attack on Yugoslavia two years ago, the majority of targets were also missed. ‘Surgical strike’ is a misleading term. So why did they use it?

The same poll, however, disclosed that 60 per cent of people opposed ‘massive air strikes’. MOST BRITONS OPPOSE AIR STRIKES was the banner headline that the Observer failed to publish, yet, by any true journalistic standard, that was the headline story. Instead, the front page was given over to ‘the net tightening on Osama Bin Laden’ and Britain’s role as America’s ‘most potent war partner’. There was a breathless tone of ‘pressing ahead’. The sources were British and American intelligence and the Ministry of Defence.

Journalism sourced to unnamed officials whose job in these circumstances is to manipulate the news has a history. Pick any one of ‘our’ recent wars or slaughters and write down the ‘intelligence’ and ‘diplomatic’ lies that emerged later. The list is long. Take George Bush Senior’s attacks on Panama and Somalia just over ten years ago. Both were promoted as Wild West pursuits of bad guys, General Noriega in Panama and General Aidid in Somalia. ‘Sources’ were quoted as saying that few civilians had been killed. In fact, more than 2,000 civilians were killed by American helicopter gunships in the shanties of Panama City and, according to a CIA estimate, between 7,000 and 10,000 were killed in Somalia in what the Pentagon called ‘Operation Restore Hope’. This was not reported.

In 1998, President Clinton destroyed a harmless pharmaceutical factory in Sudan with cruise missiles. ‘Intelligence sources’ were widely quoted in the American and British media as being ‘beyond doubt’ that this was where Osama Bin Laden’s organisation was making nerve gas. Clinton’s attack killed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of innocent people. There is said to be a UN report on how many were killed and which is suppressed under pressure from Washington. The sum of the dead from all these attacks is several times that of the number killed in America on 11 September.

Regardless of an admirable strain of dissent in the Guardian and Independent, the overriding impression given by television and the press is that of a familiar rush to war. There is the same old footage of ships and planes against the sunrise, the same old ‘experts’, the same old Boy’s Own maps, the same old instant ‘evidence’, the same old military jargon used by reporters (‘surgical strikes’ and ‘assets’ are favourites), the same old warm-up stories about SAS derring-do, the same old demonising of nations and cultures, the same old nonsense about anti-Americanism (now in the realm of self-parody, with criticism of American policy described as ‘racist’); and the same old ‘approval rating’ polls drawn from a public denied credible information from independent sources, not to mention the perspective that Washington is using the 11 September disaster to accelerate American control over much of humanity, with immediate dangers for all of us.

Surely, journalists must ask themselves: is it not possible to break away from the pack? And do the media courses turning out the next generation examine and analyse such institutional failure (honourable exceptions aside) to keep the record straight? Are media students warned that true journalists must be sceptical of all authority, and that their job is to push back screens and lift rocks, especially at a time like this? It seems that the mantra ‘giving the public what it wants’, meaning giving the public no choice, has bred those who believe cynicism of the public, not their masters, ordains them as journalists. Long ago, John Milton put it succinctly: ‘They who put out the people’s eyes, reproach them of their blindness.’

Nothing justified the murder of innocent people in America, and nothing justifies the murder of innocent people anywhere else. That is the unassailable truth in this surreal time. Those who contribute to the current propaganda that says there is no other way but war might reflect that they, too, are likely to end up with blood on their hands.

Leave a comment