ENTIRE TOWNS in the Aceh province of Indonesia have been wiped out by the earthquake and tsunami. But human rights campaigners say the huge death toll is increasing because the Indonesian government has delayed aid reaching the stricken province.
Aceh was already suffering before the tsunami hit. The province has seen the rise of a massive movement for independence from Indonesia—one that has been met with brutal repression by the Indonesian government.
Five years ago, the Grand Mosque in Banda Aceh, now one of the few large buildings standing in the area, was the scene of a huge demonstration of up to a million Acehnese calling for a referendum on independence from Indonesia.
But a crackdown by the government has led to thousands of Acehnese deaths at the hands of the Indonesian state. Since May 2003, more than 2,000 people have been killed while the province was under martial law and then a civil emergency.
Around 10,000 Acehnese were killed during an earlier period of martial law, from 1989 to 1998. Others have been “disappeared” and women activists raped.
Journalist and activist Allan Nairn, who has recently returned from Indonesia, said, “Thousands, many thousands from Aceh were driven off the land by the military even before the tsunami.
“Now after the tsunami people are being dumped into mass graves. This has been going on for years in Aceh, except before the mass graves were produced by military bullets.”
After the disaster, which at the start of this week was thought to have killed around 60,000 people in Aceh, the Indonesian government initially blocked access to international agencies.
Michael Beer, of US-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) Nonviolence International, said, “Delays by the Indonesian government in allowing international access to Aceh may have needlessly cost precious lives.”
Tapol, the Indonesia Human Rights Campaign, attacked the Indonesian government’s response as slow, lacking coherence and showing a reluctance to involve international agencies because of the conflict in Aceh.
It said, “Currently just two helicopters have been deployed to assist with the immense relief operation. The government has severely restricted access to Aceh by international humanitarian organisations since the imposition of martial law in May 2003.”
Tapol also warned that intimidation and violence by the security forces against local NGOs have made it harder for them to respond to the crisis, even though their role is crucial because people in Aceh fear the corrupt and violent regime.
Activists also believe that Indonesian military operations are continuing, despite a ceasefire agreed with Acehnese rebels from the Free Aceh Movement in the wake of the humanitarian catastrophe.
“We are gravely concerned about reports of ceasefire violations by the Indonesian military, who are allegedly attacking Acehnese guerillas instead of focusing on the humanitarian disaster,” says Bama Athreya of the US-based International Labor Rights Fund.
Allan Nairn explained the background to the Indonesian military crackdown in Aceh: “The military wants to crush the civilian movement in Aceh because they know they can’t win a political battle.
“And the fighting in Aceh gives the Indonesian military and police a gold mine of corruption. There is a system of police and army extortion of the poor and small businesspeople.
“People are not free to move within Aceh. It’s one of the worst situations of repression in the world, and the Indonesian military wants it to continue that way.”
He added, “The military just announced they’re sending in 15,000 additional troops into Aceh. They will undoubtedly use the new situation where Acehnese people, many of whom are in exile, will try to come home to search for the dead, bury the dead, see what remains of their houses.
“It’s likely that Indonesian military intelligence will be using that to target people. Just two days before the quake, the military announced that they were sending 400 to 500 additional military intelligence people into Aceh. The Indonesian military intelligence is now funded by the American CIA.”
Aceh is not only a region of devastation and poverty. It is also the site of the largest natural gas fields run by Exxon Mobil.
But the revenues from these natural resources go to Exxon Mobil and the central Indonesian government in Jakarta, and almost none finds its way back to the people of Aceh.
Allan Nairn added: “As awesome as this act of nature is, let’s say it kills 50,000, 60,000 in Aceh, that’s still far less than the death toll over just a couple of years due to hunger and poor nutrition, mainly among children who live in poverty in Aceh.
“It’s also dwarfed by the military massacres carried out by the Indonesian military in various places. They killed 200,000 in Timor. They killed anywhere from 400,000 to a million in Indonesia itself when they consolidated power in 1965-7.
“So the concern that the world has now for this disaster is appropriate, but we should have that concern all the time.”
Allan Nairn’s comments are taken from an edited extract of an interview with Amy Goodman of the Democracy Now! TV station, based in the US.