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Military offensive hinders aid to Aceh

4 January 2005

While volunteers, relief workers and families are busy collecting and searching for bodies in Indonesia's tsunami-stricken Aceh province, Indonesian soldiers are continuing their offensive against separatist rebels, hindering the delivery of badly needed humanitarian aid, critics say.

As aid to survivors of the world's worst natural disaster in 40 years continues to hit new snags, international human-rights groups, are also urging the Indonesian government not to let politics override the emergency needs of the Acehnese people.

Although some reports say that a de facto ceasefire has been in place between the military and separatist rebels since the December 26 disaster, there are no signs yet that the state of civil emergency, which was imposed on the province in 2004 to quell the separatist movement, will be lifted.

"Delays by the Indonesian government in allowing international access to Aceh may have needlessly cost precious lives. International and Indonesian organizations must have unrestricted access to Aceh," the United States-based Non-Violence International said in a statement.

Nearly 400,000 people are now refugees and more than 94,000 have been confirmed dead in the Indonesian provinces of Aceh and elsewhere in North Sumatra as a result of the earthquake and tsunami that struck the region. The Indonesian government initially kept the international community at bay as it apparently debated whether to open Aceh up to foreigners.

Aceh has been almost entirely closed to any international presence due to military operations there against the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), which has been fighting for independence since 1976. More than 10,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed since that time.

The government put the province under martial law on May 19, 2003, before reducing this to a state of civil emergency one year later.

"Under the civil emergency, the Indonesian military continue to play a leading role and there has been no cutback in the level of military operations in most of the territory," said Paul Barber of the UK-based human-rights group Tapol. "Lifting the civil emergency would require the declaration of a presidential decree, but Indonesia's president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, has shown no inclination to move in this direction," Barber added.

On Sunday Jan Egeland, the United Nation's emergency relief coordinator, told reporters that relief efforts after the Asian tsunami disaster were falling behind in Indonesia. "We're able to reach out in all of the affected countries except in [Indonesia's] Sumatra and Aceh at the moment. That is where we are behind," he said.

Aid is beginning to filter in slowly. Sea Hawk helicopters from the US aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln have been carrying emergency aid to some of the worst-hit towns, and US and Australian transport planes, along with other civilian and military aircraft, are bringing bulk supplies and medical equipment into the capital, Banda Aceh. Distribution on the ground, however, is severely hampered by a lack of coordination, washed-out roads and a shortage of fuel and vehicles.

All eyes are on whether the government can or will make use of the opportunity for reconciliation provided by the December 26 disaster to open up Aceh to Indonesians and outsiders. How its relief efforts continue will play a key factor in this.

Many concede that the military is the institution with the best reach and logistics to help out in times of disaster. At the same time, news reports from Jakarta said hundreds of Indonesian military troops, known by their Indonesian acronym TNI, were raiding GAM hideouts across East and North Aceh, which had been devastated by the tsunami.

At present, 15,000 extra troops are being rushed to Aceh, in addition to the 40,000 already there, to help with humanitarian activities. However, Lieutenant Colonel D J Nachrowi told The Jakarta Post on Thursday that the calamity should not be seen as a way for the military to suspend security operations against GAM.

"We are now carrying out two duties: humanitarian work and the security operation," he told the daily. "The raids to quell the secessionist movement in Aceh will continue unless the president issues a decree to lift the civil emergency and assign us to merely play a humanitarian role in Aceh."

These comments infuriated Nasruddin Abubakar, president of the Aceh Referendum Information Center (Sentral Informasi Referendum Aceh, or SIRA). "The government is still maintaining the civil emergency and continuing on with military operations in Aceh despite the fact that the death toll now is close to 100,000. Is the government not yet satisfied with the killing?" he asked in a phone interview with Inter Press Service. "Are Acehnese not citizens of Indonesia?"

Nasruddin said his group had received news from volunteers working in the province's devastated capital Banda Aceh that the military was interrogating survivors making their way to relief centers, suspecting them of being GAM members. "We want to draw everyone's attention to the need to save the Acehnese from death," he pleaded.

The New York-based East Timor Action Network (ETAN) urged aid organizations and agencies to work as closely as possible with local civil society groups and to resist Indonesian government and military attempts to keep local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) out of the process.

"The high level of corruption in Indonesia, especially in Aceh, and the great distrust of Aceh's [provincial] government make it crucial that aid groups be allowed to distribute urgently needed food, medical supplies, and other assistance outside of government channels, distributing aid directly and through local NGOs," said ETAN's Karen Orenstein.

Tapol's Barber warned that the natural disaster that struck Aceh more than a week ago will only serve to reinforce the military's role under the cover of becoming involved in humanitarian activities.

"Following the imposition of martial law in May 2003, local NGOs fled from Aceh because of intimidation and the threat of violence against their activists," said Barber. "Even now, Acehnese activists based in Jakarta and neighboring Malaysia know that they would be taking great risks if they return to their homeland to help provide succor for the stricken population," he added.

According to Stratfor Global Intelligence, a security analysis website, the tsunami disaster could prove to be a boon to Jakarta in its campaign against GAM.

"Yudhoyono will send more troops into the province to rebuild and clean up if GAM does not agree to settle the problem peacefully. Yudhoyono will have more troops on hand to clean them out," the Stratfor analysts said.

Sonny Inbaraj

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