South Asia tsunami information   |   Information on Aceh

Past record raises fears of Indonesia army

19 January 2005

Indonesia's armed forces have allowed unprecedented access to Aceh province since it was devastated by last month's tsunami, but relations with the thousands of foreigners involved in the aid effort could sour quickly if the military feels its control in the strife-torn region is endangered, analysts warn.

Citing East Timor's bloody breakaway in 1999, the analysts said the Indonesian military has a history of intimidating UN agencies and foreign aid workers and could again resort to such tactics in Aceh, which was under tight military control before the disaster.

"They don't like it when foreigners don't play by their rules, and you can be sure they'll do something about it," said Robert Hampshire, an American who served as a UN policeman in East Timor when that province voted to end 24 years of Indonesian rule enforced by the military.

In Aceh, the northernmost region of Sumatra island, the military has been fighting a brutal war against separatists of the Free Aceh Movement for almost three decades and kept the province closed to outsiders.

The devastation wrought along the Sumatran coast by the Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunami overwhelmed Indonesia's ability to respond. Indonesia has invited thousands of foreigners to come in and carry out relief operations.

Singaporean, Australian and other foreign military forces are treating the injured. Japanese soldiers are to arrive soon to help with reconstruction, and US and French helicopter crews have been ferrying supplies to stricken areas.

The government in Jakarta has been pushing its generals to cooperate fully with the relief effort.

Still, there are signs the military is uneasy about the influx of foreigners.

Citing concerns that the rebels could attack relief workers, the military has asked all aid workers and journalists to register with officials and to travel outside the main population centers only with military escorts. Senior officials say they want foreign troops out of Aceh by March 26, although they insist it is not a deadline.

The rebels have welcomed the foreign aid, saying the disaster would be much worse if recovery was left to the Indonesian government. No attacks on aid workers have been reported.

Former diplomats and UN staffers say the restrictions may reflect concern among the military that the foreigners' presence is hampering their campaign against the rebels.

"When they tell you they can't guarantee your security from the rebels, that's Indonesian-speak for 'we'll attack and kill you all tonight,'" said Hampshire.

Col. Achmad Yani Basuki, a military spokesman, dismissed such concerns.

"The military has no such intentions, it is not true," he said. "In this situation, we should all be concentrating on humanitarian efforts, and we hope that none of the parties will be inventing groundless accusations."

Hampshire recounted how on Sept. 4, 1999 - five days after East Timor's voters opted overwhelmingly for independence - militiamen, troops and police opened fire on 16 UN election workers trapped in their isolated compound in the town of Liquicia, nearly killing American policeman Earl Candler.

"This was happening all over East Timor, under the gaze of the international community and despite repeated assurances from the government to the United Nations and the United States that they would maintain security," said Robert Gelbard, a former presidential envoy and Washington's ambassador to Jakarta at the time.

Gelbard said Indonesia's armed forces form a state-within-a-state, not answerable to any democratically elected civilian authority despite the overthrow of the military dictatorship of president Suharto in 1998.

Indonesia has increasingly democratized its institutions since Suharto's downfall, but the military has resisted attempts to bring it under civilian control. Indonesia is regularly ranked as one of the world's most graft-ridden countries, and the armed forces are considered among its most corrupt institutions.

Aceh, with large oil and gas reserves, is just one of Indonesia's resource-rich provinces struggling to break free from Jakarta. West Papua has been fighting for independence since it was incorporated into Indonesia in 1969.

Slobodan Lekic

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