South Asia tsunami information   |   Information on Aceh

A war for all to see

15 January 2005

Indonesia lost East Timor after its atrocities there were exposed. Now, with foreigners helping the tsunami clean-up, it fears Aceh may go the same way.

It is more than 13 years since Max Stahl shot his famous footage of Indonesian troops massacring East Timorese at the Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili. Hiding behind gravestones, Stahl stayed calm as he filmed hundreds of Timorese fleeing a relentless spray of automatic fire, some reaching safety, many falling dead or wounded before his lens.

When Stahl managed to get his dramatic vision out, the brutality of the cold-blooded killings stunned the world and unleashed a flood of condemnation of Indonesia and sympathy for the Timorese.

Looking back over the 25 years Indonesia claimed East Timor, it is hard to think of any other event that did more to fuel international support for East Timor's independence campaign.

Aceh is not East Timor, but there are some striking similarities between the two places where Indonesia for decades fought brutal if low-level guerilla wars to crush independence movements.

Thanks in part to Stahl, Indonesia lost East Timor to the Fretilin fighters and it has long been determined no similar incident will see it lose Aceh to the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM). With thousands of foreign soldiers, aid workers and journalists now spreading out across Aceh, a fear is emerging among Indonesia's leadership that its iron grip there might be slipping.

Sound figures are hard to come by but most believe more than 14,000 people have died since the war began in the 1970s. The Indonesian military admits it has killed more than 2000 people in the past 20 months alone.

Mostly this war has been little reported but after the declaration of martial law in May 2003, journalists were allowed briefly into villages where the army claimed it had "clashed" with GAM.

What they found was compelling evidence of executions, scores of young men shot dead, sometimes with guns held so close they left marks on the skin from the muzzle flash. At the time, the army readily admitted these suspected GAM members were not armed, claiming they had been shot while trying to escape. Witnesses and the evidence told different stories, stories that were reported around the world.

Stung by these reports, Indonesia quickly imposed a ban on journalists visiting villages. In three decades of warfare, no one has filmed one of these clashes, but with so many foreigners now in Aceh, the chances are higher that they will.

This week evidence has emerged to suggest Indonesia is anxious to stop foreigners getting as close to this secret conflict as Stahl did in East Timor. In Jakarta the Vice-President, Jusuf Kalla, said soldiers from more than 30 countries should all have left Aceh by the end of March.

Perhaps three months will be enough time for the visiting militaries to complete their aid tasks and that deadline will not cause problems. But there is no evidence to suggest that's the case. No one has yet done a serious assessment of the size of the Aceh disaster, let alone of what needs to be done to overcome it.

Indeed, after touring Indonesia and other affected regions, the president of the World Bank, James Wolfensohn, said the disaster was so big it could take three months even to work out a reconstruction plan.

The Asian Development Bank estimates the tsunami has plunged a million Acehnese into poverty. About 400,000 are sheltering in schools, mosques and government buildings or hiding from the wet season torrents under plastic tarpaulins.

All down the isolated west coast tens of thousands of people are surviving thanks only to the US navy, whose helicopters are flat out ferrying supplies. Bridges are smashed, huge stretches of road have gone and in Banda Aceh thousands of bodies lie rotting in streets where no serious attempt has even been started to clean up.

But for many nationalists in Indonesia's parliament and the military, the distasteful reality of large number of foreign forces on their soil is still hard to accept. Control of these foreigners is fast becoming a more pressing issue than caring for the tsunami survivors.

The deadline is just one illustration of this. Others include a new requirement for aid workers and other foreigners to register before going outside the capital, Banda Aceh, and the main town on the west coast, Meulaboh.

When an Italian journalist, Bruno Bonamigo, tried this week to get permission to visit Sigli for a story on Medecins Sans Frontieres, he found the shutters were already down. He was refused permission to go to a town all journalists had been largely free to visit since martial law, the Jakarta Post reported.

At a briefing of foreign military leaders on Wednesday, Indonesia's chief of the armed forces, General Endriartono Sutarto, announced other limits on foreign forces that reveal Indonesia's desire for control.

Tourists usually get a 30-day visa on arrival in Indonesia, but the soldiers and sailors conducting aid work will be allowed to stay for only 14 days before having to seek a permit extension. Every plane and ship must have its own Indonesian military liaison officer.

The US carrier Abraham Lincoln was forced to leave Indonesian waters after it failed to get permission for its warplanes to use Indonesian airspace to fly the practice flights which navy rules say their crews must do every 14 days.

And US marines who were going to camp ashore while they carried out clean-up and engineering jobs have scaled back their plans and now spend much of their time on ships because of Indonesian sensitivity about their presence.

Despite these attempts to exert control, hiding a civil war won't be easy, especially with a military and police force that won't necessarily modify their behaviour just because of a tsunami or the arrival of thousands of foreigners. The army and the police are used to bullying the Acehnese, who are also targeted by the rebels.

Neither GAM nor the security forces have adequate sources of income, so both extort money from the villagers. So far there's little evidence the tsunami will make much difference to the way things have been for years.

Take the little town of Cot Leupueng, about 20 kilometres out of Banda Aceh, which has grown steadily poorer because farmers are often too scared to go to their fields in case GAM or the police want money or information from them.

About 5.30am on Wednesday, troops from the Brimob (paramilitary police) post walked through the town shooting their guns in the air for about half an hour. Their aim, they told the villagers, was to scare off six GAM members they believed were in town.

When the Herald visited a few hours later, several villagers who were too frightened to have their names used confirmed GAM members had come down from the hills to get food.

One man we spoke to had lost his only daughter when the tsunami hit Banda Aceh and had come home to his village to deal with his grief.

It was not the first time he had woken to the bullets, but he was deeply upset.

"I cannot describe how we feel, we just have this big disaster and then we have this shooting. We are caught between the two sides. Some of the GAM are also our friends and family members but because of them we have this problem."

The villagers wanted peace but they felt neither GAM nor the army offered any real prospect. 'The police should help people deal with the disaster, not just walk around and shoot."

On December 27, the day after the tsunami, GAM's exiled and aged leadership based in Sweden promised a ceasefire to allow everyone to deal with the tragedy. It was an effort to show the world the group's humanitarian face, but the tactic flopped when its spokesman on the ground, Sofyan Daud, threatened to resume attacks if the army did not stop pursuing his men.

Since then, General Sutarto has offered his own moratorium to GAM members, promising they won't be punished if they join the aid effort. But no one takes either of these offers too seriously.

It's hard to when The New York Times and The Guardian reported seven villagers were shot by soldiers in the village of Lampook, not far from Banda Aceh, nine days ago, one more sign that the tsunami hasn't stopped hostilities.

Still, some observers believe the presence of so many foreigners and the impending arrival of so much aid money will increase pressure on both sides to resume the peace talks that collapsed before martial law was declared. Some believe that if GAM makes a more substantial offer than a ceasefire, it will force the Government to respond.

Dr Ed Aspinal, from the University of Sydney, thinks the offer of a five-year moratorium on the military campaign would have to be taken seriously. Unless GAM comes up with some clever offer, he believes it risks fading into irrelevance as Aceh is rebuilt by a coalition of the military and foreign aid.

Dr Damien Kingsbury, from Deakin University, said GAM had made tentative overtures to Indonesia's new Government to resume the peace process last year but that the military had no interest in pursuing it and had ensured no progress had been made.

"The Government seems to want to find a settlement," he said, "the TNI [military] does not."

Matthew Moore

Information on Aceh   |   Peace Movement Aotearoa