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Nearly 100,000 Dead in Aceh From Tsunami, as Activists Blast Indonesian Military for Holding Up Critical Aid

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As the aftermath of the Asian Tsunami continues to devastate the region, the people of Aceh in Indonesia have paid the heaviest price with some 94,000 feared dead. But human rights activists and aid groups accuse the Indonesian military of holding up aid to the most needy because of its war against the province. We’ll talk to a human rights activist from Aceh and veteran activist and journalist Allan Nairn. [includes rush transcript]

As the confirmed death toll from the Asian Tsunami continues to rise to nearly 140,000, much of the world’s attention is focused on the Indonesian province of Aceh, where the overwhelming majority of that country’s 94,000 deaths have occured. Secretary of State General Colin Powell announced that he will visit Aceh on his tour of the devestation in the region, accompanied by Florida Governor Jeb Bush. Here is Colin Powell speaking on NBC’s Meet the Press.

  • Secretary of State Colin Powell

Despite the grave situation in Aceh, Humanitarian officials and human rights groups say the Indonesian military is actively preventing aid from being distributed. On Saturday, several aid groups and non-governmental organizations held a protest calling on control of the aid distribution to be taken out of the hands of the Indonesian military. The military took control of the airport warehouse, where goods are received from relief flights and stored until they can be distributed around Banda Aceh and other devestated towns. With its control of outgoing supplies, the military has complete power in determining where scarce trucks head with their precious cargoes. The Indonesian government”s senior disaster response coordinator, Alwi Shihab, announced Sunday that he had appointed Maj. Gen. Ambang Dharmono to take command of immediate relief efforts.

  • Aguswandi, an Acehnese activist with the human rights group Tapol
  • Allan Nairn, Journalist and Activist. To read Allan’s reports, go to:

For more information and to make donations for the grassroots relief effort:

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Colin Powell’s speaking Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press.

COLIN POWELL: We’re going to be meeting with the countries in the region and international organizations at work in the region to see what more we can do to assist with the relief effort. It one of the most massive relief efforts mounted in response to one of the worst catastrophes that the world has seen. I’ll go to Thailand, Bangkok and Phuket where a lot of life was lost and down to Jakarta, Indonesia and out to Aceh, which is the place where we have seen the greatest loss of life. I will be participating in international conference in Jakarta, Indonesia on the 6th of January with Kofi Annan and a number of other leaders. I hope to get to Sri Lanka on the way out.

AMY GOODMAN: Colin Powell, speaking on Meet the Press Sunday. Despite the grave situation in Aceh, humanitarian officials and human rights groups say the Indonesian military is actively preventing aid from being distributed. On Saturday aid groups and non-governmental organizations held a protest calling on control of the aid distribution to be taken out of the hands of the Indonesian military. The military took control of the airport warehouse where goods are received from relief flights and stored until they can be distributed. Around Banda Aceh and other devastated towns. With the control of outgoing supplies, the military has complete power in determining where scarce trucks head with their precious cargo. The Indonesian government’s senior disaster response coordinator Alwi Shihab announced Sunday he had appointed Major General Ambang Dharmono to take command of the relief efforts. We joined by two people to talk about the situation in Aceh. Allan Nairn rejoins us, award winning journalist and activist, who has just returned from the region and we’re joined by the telephone Aguswandi with the human rights group, Tapole, which means political prisoner in Indonesia. And one of the founders of a new organization in Europe called Tsunami Aceh. We welcome you both to Democracy Now! We will begin with Aguswandi. You can tell us what you understand to be happening right now in Aceh in terms of food distribution.

AGUSWANDI: Yeah. Hello. Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us.

AGUSWANDI: Yeah. Yeah. The problem is the situation on the ground is difficult because the police of the Indonesian government insists with one door policy of promising aid, through the government door, use long bureaucracy that obstructs many aid that should be delivered to many people in remote areas in Aceh who cannot go through. And I just got a report just now actually how many groups in Aceh are trying to help, but they cannot do anything. For example, the government had been citing that the problem with this actually lack of relief was not many people in Aceh was trying to help. But many human — many groups, many local NGO’s, actually, they have a lot of workers, but they don’t have a lot of foods or things that — that enable them to deliver things to many people who need it. Hello?

AMY GOODMAN: Yes. Right now, how you are getting information out of Aceh?

AGUSWANDI: I’m going to be in touch with many local groups who are dealing with the situation on the ground. We — with great difficulty, for example, I can still call some of them. But I still receive text messages through mobile phone constantly and also through email.

AMY GOODMAN: Allan Nairn also joins us. If you can talk about the significance of the US Secretary of state, Colin Powell together with the Florida governor, and president’s brother, Jeb Bush, going to Indonesia right now, and what this means.

ALLAN NAIRN: Well, the US’s long-time sponsor of the Indonesian military, Powell can have, if he wants, tremendous leverage over the military. The Indonesian military has staged dozens of raids in north Aceh and east Aceh against villages in recent days. Even as people are desperate for food and water, they’re interrogating activists, Acehnese activists who are trying to work with the relief effort. Powell could put a stop to this by telling the Indonesian military to stop. Likewise it’s quite likely that the US Military will now use this as an excuse to press for renewed sales of helicopters, of transport planes, of logistics, of weaponry to the Indonesian armed forces. Since those helicopters and planes are now being used in the relief effort, up until a few weeks ago, they were being used to attack the Acehnese from the air, and they will be again soon if the Indonesian military has their way. Powell should also publicly reject that possibility and say that the US will sever all aid to the Indonesian military and police. As Agus mentioned, there’s a major problem with the military impeding the aid distribution. At the airport, there are reports that soldiers were stopping particular shipments saying that these shipments will not go to the people. It’s not allowed to go through. There’s a likelihood of massive theft by the military of money and supplies. In addition — international relief organizations should publicly say they won’t deal with the military. They will only channel their aid directly to the people, and also the international relief organization, which are now being swamped with donations from the public, who see these horrible images on TV, they should take some of that money and redirect it to local Acehnese and Indonesian organizations on the ground, who have been working in Aceh for years, who are very short of funds, whose people risk their live when they go into the field to work with the Indonesian military still at large. A lot of that money from the big rich NGO’s should be directed now through those groups, and who have a much better chance of reaching the Acehnese people.

AMY GOODMAN: You mention raids.

ALLAN NAIRN: The Indonesian military has been attacking villages in Aceh, more than a dozen villages. Military spokesman said explicitly, they were going to continue the raids. They were going to continue to impose the civil emergency, the state of siege, until president general of Indonesia tells them to stop, and he has not yet told them to stop.

AMY GOODMAN: How can they do this? We’re talk about and watching images on television of the most devastated areas of the entire Indian ocean right there in Aceh how can the military possibly be engaging in raids right now, and who is left?

ALLAN NAIRN: They’re doing the raids in areas that were not hit by the flood, the upland areas, but they’re doing it because they’re in charge. Aceh, they’re doing it because they can. This is a region that they have run with a semi-totalitarian occupation. They’re not about to let go. In some areas, by the coast, the military itself was hit. I talked to a friend in Banda Aceh, the other day. He described soldiers wandering around stunned like everybody else. There was dramatic footage on CNN of the CNN reporter riding a US Navy helicopter. They land in a village near the west coast of Aceh, and the helicopter is rushed by desperate men clamoring for food. What they didn’t say in the report, but what you could see was that some of the men were wearing Indonesian military t-shirts. They apparently were soldiers whose barracks had been wiped out. In some of the towns, you have the survival of the fittest situation where people are literally physically scrambling for food and water. I fear for the civilians up against the soldiers in that situation. You have the same situation duplicated on the larger national and global policy level where billions are now pouring in. The Indonesian military is getting their hands on it, and the u.s. Is now using this as a chance to boost their image politically, boost the political prospects of Jeb Bush, who prior to this only foreign policy credential was helping the Nicaraguan contras when he got started in politics as a young man. — we should put a stop to this and not tolerate this abuse of people’s goodwill, people’s mercy.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Allan Nairn, journalist and activist and Aguswandi, an Acehnese activist, speaks to us from London part of a group who set up Tsunami Aceh, a new group. We going to talk about the political context or relief efforts going on or not going on in Indonesia as Jeb Bush and Colin Powell head there in just a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guests are Allan Nairn, journalist and activist, for years covered East Timor, and the genocide there, has spent a good deal of time in Indonesia, just returned, and from Aceh as well. On the line with us from London is Aguswandi, an Acehnese human rights activist, part of Tapol, a human rights group there, which means political prisoner in the Indonesian language of Bahasa Indonesia, and started a new group called Tsunami Aceh. Can you talk about the group and what you are hoping to do with it?

AGUSWANDI: Yes. This group was set up by an organization in Europe that is trying to help the situation, and to channel a lot of aid to grassroots humanitarian organizations in Aceh. Because the problem, as I told you before, that the problem — there are local groups in access — Aceh who are doing great job there, and who don’t have a lot of support from many of us living abroad. So, we are trying to help them, and we are also trying to give a lot of pictures to the public, to the international community about what’s happening in Aceh, what’s happening even before tsunami, and how the infrastructure in Aceh is being destroyed beforehand and at the moment, and what people can do, basically, to help the situation.

AMY GOODMAN: Allan Nairn, let’s talk about what the context is, the political context referred to by both you and Aguswandi, talking about a repressive Indonesian military. For most people in the last week it may be the first time they heard the word Aceh and Banda Aceh, can you tell us what’s been happening there.

ALLAN NAIRN: It’s been under martial law, official martial law and de facto martial law. The military has massacred thousands in recent years. Aceh is dotted with mass graves. People are not free to move. The military systematically conducts what they call sweeping where they stop cars on the road they pull people out. If you don’t have the proper police issued I.D. you’re taken away. If you are on a list provided by military intelligence, you’re taken away. There’s systematic torture, systematic political rape. It’s one of the worst situations of repression in the world. General Cecilo, who is now the president of Indonesia, last year said that to demand a referendum is considered a crime against the state. A referendum being the basic political demand of most people in Aceh, asking for a chance to vote for independence. He says that’s a crime against the state, just to call for one. The national army commander in Indonesia, said people who dislike the military emergency in Aceh are GAM members, the armed independence group. The overall commander of the Indonesian military said what should be done with GAM members is we should hunt them down and exterminate them. You have the very top military and political officials in Indonesia making clear that speech against the army and for vote for referendum in Aceh is a crime against the state and something that can get you killed. This is what the people have of Aceh have been living under.

AMY GOODMAN: The death toll before the tsunami in Aceh?

ALLAN NAIRN: It’s not clear because Aceh was so closed, especially in the past three years. It’s not really known. Sometimes the military itself would have put out press releases almost every day saying five to ten rebels were killed. GAM members were killed. Often in the same releases, they would say we killed 10 rebels today, and we captured three weapons. That certainly is a suggestion that a good number of those that were being killed were civilians. Its many thousands, clearly in excess of 10,000 in recent years. Agus might have a better idea, but the point is that Aceh has been so sealed that you cannot even know.

AMY GOODMAN: Aguswandi, what about you yourself. Why do you live in London as opposed to Aceh?

AGUSWANDI: Yeah. I think — first, I’m working with Tapol, trying to do what you said before, nobody — people hardly knew the word of Aceh before this disaster, and it is very, very accurate subject because not everybody knows about Aceh. Everybody hears about Aceh after the awful disaster, horrific disaster happening there. But — and we have been trying — I have been trying really hard working from London and visiting the United States several times trying to build awareness about what’s happening in Aceh. What people can do to help. What international community can do. So, I’m basically living in London, and, what, trying to do whatever I can to improve the situation in Aceh, to build a peaceful Aceh and more democratic Aceh.

AMY GOODMAN: You yourself — you yourself, you left Aceh, why?

AGUSWANDI: Yeah. I was targeted before by — because of my work with a national group called Contrast. Contrast is one of a prominent N.G.O. in Indonesia that determined the first — the first chairman was actually assassinated on the way to Holland a few months ago. He was poisoned on the plane to Holland. So, I was part of this group, and we have been — we had been doing a lot of work to export human rights violations in Aceh. One of the recent, after I went to Geneva to speak at the U.N. meeting on human rights, then, what, I came to London, and continued to work from London.

AMY GOODMAN: Allan Nairn, the poisoning that Aguswandi is referring to. You can explain what happened to Munir, the leader who was killed on the way out of the country?

ALLAN NAIRN: Yes. First I want to say that Aguswandi was one of the principle organizers of the massive civilian peaceful demonstration that took place at the Grand Mosque in Banda, Aceh where in excess of 10% of the entire population of Aceh more than 400,000 people turned out to call for referendum. He has now been driven into exile. Mohammad Nasser, one of the main civilian organizers there is in jail in Java for the crime of speech. He gave a speech in a village calling for referendum. Munir, who was Javanese, not Acehnese, was the best known human rights activist and critic of the military in all of Indonesia. He was a nationally known figure. In September, he boarded a plane to Amsterdam, and was going to study law briefly at a university in the Netherlands, and he never made it. He arrived at a corpse because on the plane, a — apparently an Indonesian flight, the airline, he was slipped a massive dose of arsenic. A spectacular political assassination, apparently intended to send a message to other activists, who speak against the military.

AMY GOODMAN: This airline is controlled by the Indonesian government?


AMY GOODMAN: How do you know it was arsenic?

ALLAN NAIRN: Well, that’s what the autopsy in the Netherlands found, a massive dose. It’s actually ironically similar to the case in the Ukraine, only this one has not gotten the — has not gotten the world attention.

AMY GOODMAN: So, right now, with the world’s attention on Aceh, Aguswandi, if you could talk about what you are calling for, not only the world attention, because of the tsunami and now with the U.S. press following Colin Powell there as well as Jeb Bush and there’s going to be major international donor’s conference to talk about, how to support Indonesia right now.

AGUSWANDI: Yeah, I think like in the context of Aceh, there’s two things that need to be done immediately. One is related to humanitarian assistance. Because, what, the devastation is so bad and millions of people are homeless. I got a figure today that 270,000 people are living in refugee camps throughout Aceh at the moment, affected by this. So, a great number of support from international communities to help humanitarian needs for Aceh is very, what — people really need it. And that is in the context of humanitarian assistance. But also in the context of policy that there should be strong pressure toward Jakarta, related — related policy in Aceh, because, for example, until now, the [inaudible] law has not been lifted in Aceh. This is what, a problem for long term hope achieve a more peaceful Aceh and actually help a lot of victims, millions of people who are homeless, and to have a long term government in Aceh. So, a less militaristic Aceh and peaceful Aceh is one of the things that the international community should put pressure on Indonesia. Because Jakarta, this new government, has a fairly big mandate, and he was elected directly, and actually, if he won, he has political will, can he do something to control the Indonesian military, for example.

AMY GOODMAN: Tomorrow, we’ll be joined by Acehnese activists in our studio. They’re coming to New York today for a noontime rally, across the street from the United Nations, deeply concerned about Indonesian military still raiding villages, stopping food supply. Allan Nairn, the discussion of what the tsunami could mean in terms of realigning geopolitics in the world, this massive global cataclysm. If you could talk about that in the context of Indonesia, if see that things might be changing in terms of the military repression in Aceh as a result of this?

ALLAN NAIRN: Well, a lot of pundits in Washington now are saying that the U.S. should seize this opportunity to boost its world image, especially its image among Muslims. The idea being that if people see U.S. Naval aircraft dropping food instead of bombs, they’ll feel more affection for U.S. power. It definitely is an opportunity, but of a different kind. It’s an opportunity to right a historic wrong. The U.S.'s historic support for the Indonesian military, which devastated Aceh before the tsunami ever struck. The U.S. can end that. In terms of the hopes for Aceh, right now, it could go either way. It could actually get worse in Aceh after the initial relief, if the military is able to use the new money they're getting, the new equipment they’re getting, to further consolidate their control and make people more dependent on them. On the other hand, it could be more positive if the opening to the world, the presence of international journalists and relief people allows more Acehnese activists to return from exile, to put their heads up, to speak out, and to politically drive the Indonesian military out of Aceh, but that will be much harder if the U.S. continues to back politically and in every way it can logistically the Indonesian military. People here in the U.S. who are listening and watching can use their own power. So many people are generously giving to charities. When people give to the big mainstream charity, I think they should also contact them and urge them to say, use my donation by channeling it to a grassroots Acehnese group on the ground in Aceh. Give it to them. Secondly, people can give directly to grassroots Acehnese groups through Tapol, Agus’s organization. They have a website at or here in the U.S. through the East Timor Action Network which is channeling organization funds to the same grassroots Acehnese groups on the ground. ETAN at And more broadly, I think it can be an opportunity politically for people in the United States and in all of the rich countries on a one-shot basis, people are now saying, look, those people are dying. They’re starving. They don’t have a home. I’ll send them $100. That’s a good thing. The principle that if someone is in need, you give them something. Why not accept that in principle and not just do it once. If you can afford to do the next day, do the next day and the following and the following. If that’s a valid principle, that money should be moved from where it’s desired to where it is needed, why not say that government policy should reflect that. That corporate policy should reflect that. Why not say that redistribution of wealth is a good thing. Redistribution of wealth is a desirable thing. We are now seeing on TV why it is good and desirable, because people obviously need the wealth that we don’t really need here. It’s just on TV now. But it’s there every day. It’s there every day not just in Aceh, but in Timor, in Indonesia, in Sri Lanka, in India and Africa, and in many places here in the United States. It’s a valid principle. We should admit it’s a valid principle and accept it and make it policy.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Allan Nairn, I want to thank you for being with us and Aguswandi, with the organization in Britain called, Tapol. They have begun now, tsunami Aceh. The website is Allan Nairn a journalist covering Indonesia for many years. He survived the massacre in Indonesia when the military opened fire on thousands of defenseless Timorese. They fractured his skull. He continued to go back and got arrested quite often. He has recently returned from Indonesia, and Aceh.

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