Resource War in Aceh

Indonesia crushes insurgencies

by Al Gedicks

Z magazine, July/August 2003


While world attention is focused on the Mideast, Indonesia has launched an invasion of resource-rich Aceh (pronounced ah CHAY), in the country's biggest military assault since the 1975 invasion of East Timor. Located on the tip of northern Sumatra, Aceh has a population of about 4 million and is located at the western edge of the Indonesian archipelago, about 1,200 miles northwest of the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, on the island of Java. On May 18, 2003, President Megawati Sukarnoputri put the Aceh Province under martial law and ordered over 40,000 soldiers and paramilitary police officers to put down the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), which consists of approximately 5,000 guerrillas, who have been waging a war for independence in the dense, mountainous forests for the past 30 years.

The last time the Indonesian government declared martial law was in September 1999, when its military and military-backed militia waged a campaign of terror in East Timor after the local population voted overwhelmingly for independence. After East Timor's separation from Indonesia, the Indonesian armed forces (TNI) feared that the "loss" of East Timor would inspire ongoing guerrilla insurgencies in Aceh and West Papua (Irian Jaya) and resolved to crush these movements.

Indonesia's military chief, General Endriatono Sutarto, has ordered his soldiers to hunt down the rebels and "destroy them to their roots." The only problem with uprooting the guerrillas is that they enjoy the support of the vast majority of the Acehnese. The military is using the cover of martial law to target human rights workers and students, who are seen as GAM sympathizers. Activists are fleeing the province in fear of their lives. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) warned of an impending crisis for the civilian population with the collapse of already weak health services. In the first five days of the invasion, the UN reported the burning of more than 200 schools. Foreign reporters have been banned from Aceh and Indonesian journalists are under strict orders to clear all their reports about the war with military authorities before publication.

The military assault is dependent on U.S. and British supplied weapons, including the OV-10 Bronco counterinsurgency aircraft, the C-130 Hercules transport planes, and the British-built Hawk aircraft. Neither British nor American weapons are allowed to be used for the suppression of internal dissent, according to the terms and conditions of the arms sales. Nevertheless, the British Times (5/26/03) cited a GAM member who witnessed two Hawk aircraft used in an attack near the town of Lhokseumawe. "I saw two Hawks flying and shooting rockets and dropping bombs," said Syukri Ibrahim, who lives in the area. "They say they were attacking GAM, but there are no GAM positions there and we are afraid they might have hit civilians." The counterinsurgency strategy being carried out by the Indonesian military is designed to separate the guerrillas from their popular base by forcibly moving villagers into secure compounds or so-called "strategic hamlets" reminiscent of the Vietnam War. The government estimates that the number of refugees in Aceh will grow to 100,000 from the current 5,000.

Announcement of the invasion came after the breakdown of peace talks in Tokyo, led by the United States, Japan, and the World Bank. Five months earlier, in December 2002, the Indonesian government and GAM had signed a Cessation of Hostilities accord (COHA), which dramatically reduced the fighting and the number of casualties in Aceh. However, this was not to last. On April 10, the TNI announced that they were ready to launch new military operations to crush the GAM. At the end of April, according to TAPOL, the Indonesia Human Rights Campaign, "the Indonesian government, in clear violation of the terms of COHA, issued a two-week ultimatum to GAM demanding that they formally renounce their long-term political aim of independence and accept Special Autonomy as the final solution for Aceh." The Aceh autonomy law, signed in August 2001, provides for a larger share of the revenues from oil and gas to be returned to Aceh, but the law has never been implemented. Furthermore, the autonomy law says nothing about what the Indonesian government will do to make amends for the gross violations of human rights by the TNI in Aceh.

As the talks were underway in Tokyo in mid-May, the government increased the number of troops in Aceh from 38,000 to 45,000. Any hope that last-minute negotiations could avert a resumption of war was lost when five GAM negotiators were arrested in the capital city of Banda Aceh. One is now on trial for - "rebellion. "

According to a New York Times story (5/23/03) a senior adviser to President Megawati Sukarnoputri said that the American campaign against terrorism helped Indonesia justify its invasion of Aceh. "This is a blessing of Sept. 11-that we now know that terrorism has two faces, God and nation." While the GAM has been criticized by Human Rights Watch for human rights violations during the conflict, the vast majority of the human rights violations have been committed by the Indonesian army. "The Bush administration has pushed for the resumption of military ties with Indonesia in the name of fighting the War on Terror," said Kurt Biddle, of the Indonesia Human Rights Network. "Currently, it is the Indonesian military terrorizing the people of Aceh."

Roots Of Rebellion

While the Acehnese are mostly devout Muslims, this is not a war about religion, but about politics, economics, and the environment. The Acehnese resisted being incorporated into the Dutch colonial empire at the end of the l9th century and were at the forefront of Indonesia's fight for independence during the 1940s. When Indonesia declared independence in 1945, Aceh was promised autonomy, but never received it. Acehnese dissatisfaction with the central government in Jakarta grew during the Suharto military dictatorship (1965-1998) that ushered in decades of resource exploitation-degrading and depleting forests, mangrove coasts, and fisheries.

General Suharto came to power in 1965 by overthrowing the Sukarno government and launching a bloodbath that led to the slaughter of at least 500,000 people. Evidence uncovered after the massacre showed that the United States not only condoned the massacre, but also actively participated in it by supplying the names of thousands of communist leaders to the Indonesian military.

Since 1971, Mobil has exploited Aceh's huge natural gas reserves from on- and off-shore fields. In partnership with the state oil company Pertamina, Mobil runs the liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant nearby and exports its product to Japan and South Korea. The LNG plant at Lhokseumawe is one of the largest resource projects in Indonesia, representing one-quarter of Mobil's worldwide revenue and generating more than $1 billion a year in government revenues that go directly to Jakarta. Less than 10 percent of those revenues are returned to Aceh. Unsurprisingly, in the area surrounding the LNG

more than 375,000 people living in abysmal poverty. These gross inequalities of wealth, combined with the displacement of people from their traditional lands and the degradation of their air, water and farmlands from plant contamination, were foremost in the minds of the leaders of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) when they emerged in 1976. They criticized the plundering of Aceh's resources by "Javanese-Indonesian" colonialists in the name of development. The Acehnese didn't defeat Dutch colonialism only to succumb to Suharto's internal colonialism.

Secret War In Aceh, 1990-1998

While GAM has been in existence since 1976 it was not until 1998 that it developed a popular base. In their August 2001 report on "The War in Aceh," Human Rights Watch (HRW) explains why: "Economic grievances were and continue to be important, but the more immediate spur to the independence movement has been the failure of the post-Suharto governments to address human rights abuses of the past, particularly those committed between 1990 and 1998." After GAM guerrillas carried out a series of attacks on military and police posts in May 1990, the Suharto government declared Aceh an area of military operations and mounted extensive counterinsurgency operations against GAM. Amnesty International estimates that around 2,000 civilians, including women and children, were killed between 1989-1993 alone. More than 500 others disappeared and were never found. Tens of thousands of Acehnese were imprisoned and tortured in military camps where rape was widespread. "So many people were affected, says the HRW report, "that, today, virtually every Acehnese in the hardest-hit areas can cite a family member who was the direct target of a human rights violation-and who had no link to GAM at the time. "

Following the Indonesian populist uprising of May 1998 and the resignation of Suharto from office, there was a sudden explosion of long-suppressed information about human rights abuses in Aceh, much like the explosion that is currently taking place in postwar Iraq. Taking advantage of their newfound democratic freedoms the victims of the secret war against GAM were mobilized by student and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to demand justice and to make organizational links with each other. While General Wiranto, the commander of Indonesia's armed forces, formally apologized to the people of Aceh for the abuse they suffered at the hands of the military, there was no investigation or prosecution of those who were responsible for crimes against humanity.

"Not only was nothing done, " says HRW, "but key figures in the [military operation] hierarchy continued to occupy positions of influence throughout Indonesia." Carmel Budiardjo, the founder and director of TAPOL, the Indonesian Human Rights Campaign, emphasized that "state terror-and the failure to punish the perpetrators, have done more to make the Achenese secessionists than their many other grievances. "

In 1999 there was another critical event that mobilized the independence movement. After the East Timorese were given the opportunity to choose between increased autonomy and separation from Indonesia, an all-Aceh student congress called for a referendum to be held in Aceh. The congress evolved into a student-led organization called SIRA (the Information Center for a Referendum on Aceh). The students put forward the referendum as one way of peacefully resolving the conflict caused by what they called "state terrorism" against the Acehnese. This civil society movement was entirely independent of the GAM and pursued a political strategy committed to peaceful means for achieving its goals.

When SIRA showed in November 1999 that they could organize a peaceful demonstration of more than 500,000 on the streets of the capital of Banda Aceh, under a pro-independence banner, they were targeted by the military, along with human rights defenders, humanitarian workers, academics, and environmental campaigners.

In 2000, the tortured, mutilated, and decomposing body of Jafar Siddiq Hamzah, the internationally known Acehnese human rights activist, was discovered outside the city of Medan, Aceh, where other corpses were also found. The Indonesian security forces are widely believed to be responsible.

On March 9, 2001, Exxon Mobil (the companies merged in 1999) shut its gas fields in North Aceh, citing attacks on its employees. The same day, the Indonesian defense minister announced new military operations against GAM. When the plant reopened in July 2001~ Indonesia sent more than 3,000 troops in what the defense minister described as, "the biggest security deployment in Indonesia ever to defend a vital installation." Indonesia had contracts with Japan and Korea for sales of natural gas and the military wanted the gas fields re-opened. However, this increased security came at the cost of human rights abuses carried out by the military.

In June 2001, the U.S. based International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF) filed a lawsuit in federal court against Exxon Mobil on behalf of 11 villagers next to their plant. The lawsuit was brought under various U.S. federal statutes, including the Alien Tort Claims Act of 1789. This law has been interpreted to allow victims of serious human rights violations abroad to seek civil damages in U.S. courts against their alleged abusers located in the U.S. It charges that the villagers were the victims of murder, torture and kidnapping by Indonesian soldiers paid to protect the plant from 1999 to 2001.

The ILRF accuses Exxon Mobil of allowing the military to use the company's construction equipment for harrowing purposes such as digging mass graves for those murdered by the military. Exxon Mobil is also charged with knowingly benefiting from the forced relocation of villagers in order to accommodate the company's facilities. According to ILRF general counsel Terry Collingsworth, "Exxon Mobil understood from the day it decided to begin its project in Aceh that the army units (TNI), assigned to protect company wells were notoriously brutal in their treatment of ethnic minorities." The Indonesian special forces, known as Kopassus, are best known for their part in the genocide in East Timor and the ongoing repression in West Papua (Irian Jaya), at the easternmost edge of the archipelago.

In August 2002, the U.S. State Department's top lawyer urged a federal judge to dismiss the ILRF lawsuit on the grounds that allowing the case against Exxon Mobil to go forward could "impair Indonesia's cooperation with the U.S. across the full spectrum of diplomatic initiatives, including counterterrorism." He noted Washington viewed Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, as a "focal point" in the war against A1 Qaeda and other terrorist organizations and that Indonesia is highly sensitive to other countries meddling in its affairs. Apparently, the State Department doesn't consider the 1965-66 U.S.-supported mass murder of Communists and popular resistance supporters as significant "meddling." Prior to this, 16 congresspeople and 2 U.S. senators asked the State

Department not to intervene in the case, warning that ;'intervention...would send precisely the wrong message: that the United States supports the climate of impunity for human rights abuses in Indonesia."

Lawyers for Exxon Mobil had asked for the opinion, knowing the Bush administration would favor dismissing the suit. Exxon Mobil was the second largest contributor to the Bush campaign after Enron. Prior to the Exxon Mobil case, the state department argued that pursuit of a lawsuit against Rio Tinto, the international mining company, in Papua New Guinea, would harm American interests, and it was dismissed. Ronald I. Wilson, the president and general manager of Exxon Mobil Indonesia Inc., said the company "doesn't condone human rights violations anywhere in the world, including Indonesia. If troops did anything to violate human rights, we did not condone it and we're not party to it. "

Freeport's Army in West Papua

Exxon Mobil's troubles are not unique. Similar lawsuits against Occidental Petroleum Corporation's complicity with human rights abuses by Colombian soldiers employed by the company, and Unocal Oil Corporation's complicity in the use of forced labor by the Burmese military, are making their way through U.S. courts. In West Papua, at the far western edge of the Indonesian archipelago, the Freeport McMoRan mining company has a similar history of complicity in human rights abuses by Indonesian soldiers employed by the company to guard the company's extremely profitable gold and copper mine. A $6 billion class-action lawsuit brought by native groups charged Freeport with human rights abuses, the robbery of native ancestral lands, violations of international environmental law and "planning the demise of a culture of indigenous people whose rights were never considered" as mine development proceeded. The suit was a public relations nightmare for the company but was eventually dismissed by a U. S . court.

The company's 2002 annual report states that the Grasberg mining complex is the "flagship" of their worldwide operations. In a report to the Securities and Exchange Commission, Freeport disclosed that it paid the Indonesian military (TNI) an estimated $5.6 million in 2002 for security purposes. Since 1996, the number of soldiers increased from 200 to over 2,300. The Indonesian military receives less than one-third of its budget from the government. To make up the difference, the Indonesian army has relied upon its own income-generating activities which include: illegal logging, mining, and running prostitution. When Freeport reduced its level of payments to TNI in 2001, the company reported threats of retaliation from the military if more payments were not forthcoming (NYT 1/30/03)

The cozy relationship between the company and the military came under sharp criticism in August 2002, when a group of international schoolteachers and their families were attacked in their vehicles on a remote road near the Freeport gold mine by unidentified gunmen. The ambush killed two American teachers, one Indonesian teacher, and injured 10 others. Military officials immediately accused rebels, who have been fighting for independence from central rule by Jakarta for several decades. Papuan rebels said the military itself was responsible for the attack and had accused the rebels in order to justify their own security role in the region. An initial Indonesian police investigation also pointed to military involvement. The key piece of evidence was an Australian-supplied telephone intercept between Indonesian military commanders. The conversation, which takes place after the incident, leaves no doubt of military involvement in the killings (NYT 1/30/03).

All of this has greatly complicated Indonesia's role in the Bush administration's war on terrorism. In 1999, the U.S. Congress cut off all military assistance to Indonesia because of massive human rights violations in the aftermath of the East Timor independence vote. The only contact between the U.S. and the Indonesian military was through the International Military Education and Training (IMET) that allowed Indonesian officers to attend counterterrorism training courses in the U.S. However, on May 23, 2003 the Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously agreed to an amendment restricting IMET for Indonesia until President Bush certifies that Indonesia is "taking effective measures" to fully investigate and criminally prosecute those responsible for the attack on the U.S schoolteachers and their families in West Papua in August 2002.

The East Timor Action Network (ETAN) and the Indonesia Human Rights Network (IHRN) applauded the Senate Committee's action. "The amendment reflects a growing distrust with the failure of Indonesia to meet a wide range of conditions placed on military assistance by Congress in recent years," said Karen Orenstein of ETAN. "Never before has the Indonesian military displayed such boldness in attacking U.S. citizens as it did in 2002. It is not difficult to imagine how the TNI treats Indonesian citizens. "

"With the international monitors gone, there is a real risk soldiers will think they can get away with murder," says Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch. This would not be the first time that the U.S. has looked the other way when U.S. trained and equipped Indonesian troops engaged in genocidal aggression in the name of national security.


Al Gedicks teaches sociology at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and is the author of Resource Rebels: Native Challenges to Mining and Oil Corporations (South End Press 2001).

Asia watch

Index of Website

Home Page