Post-Tsunami Indonesia: As Armed Rebels Disband, Military Still Controls Aceh

StoryDecember 28, 2005
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The Aceh region of Indonesia was ground zero for the tsunami. The death toll there has been estimated at up to 200,000 people. We speak with Ed McWilliams, a former State Department official in Jakarta about the humanitarian disaster and political fallout between the armed GAM rebels and the Indonesian government. [includes rush transcript]

We turn now to look at Indonesia–the hardest hit country by last year’s tsunami. On Monday hundreds gathered in Aceh to mark the anniversary of the tsunami. At 8:16 a.m. sirens from the region’s new early warning system were sounded to mark the exact time the tsunami hit the coast. A minute of silence was then observed.

Hundreds of white-clad Acehnese held a morning memorial at the Grand Mosque which was one of the area’s only structures to remain standing after the tsunami. The death toll in Aceh is staggering. It is estimated between 170,000 and 200,000 people died in the region alone.

Following the tsunami, humanitarian officials and human rights groups said the Indonesian military actively prevented aid from being distributed to Aceh. For years the Indonesian military had operated in Aceh in an attempt to quell an independence movement led by the Free Aceh Movement or the GAM. The military reportedly killed upwards of 10,000 in Aceh but exact figures have never been known because Indonesia closed off Aceh from outside observers and put it under martial law. Following the tsunami, both sides entered talks to discuss how to end the 29-year pro-independence uprising. On Tuesday the leaders of GAM officially announced the disarmament of their military wing.

  • Irwandi Yusuf, Free Aceh Movement

The agreement has been criticized by some because it will leave close to 25,000 Indonesian soldiers and police in Aceh. Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has said he is opimistic about the outcome of the agreement.

  • Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, president of Indonesia

Relief efforts in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami were hindered by the politics of the region. Journalist and activist Allan Nairn spent a good deal of time in the devastated region of Aceh.

  • Allan Nairn, speaking on Democracy Now! after he returned from Aceh just after the tsunami.
  • Ed McWilliams, former State Department official who headed the political section of the U.S. embassy in Jakarta from 1996 to 1999.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Irwandi Yusuf of the Free Aceh Movement.

IRWANDI YUSUF: On behalf of GAM combatants, I have the honor to announce that the Aceh National Armed Forces, TNA, all GAM fighters are now demobilized and decommissioned. We have now handed over all of GAM’s in compliance to the agreement of the memorandum of understanding signed between the government of Indonesia and the Free Aceh Movement in Helsinki on August 15, 2005.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Irwandi Yusuf of the Free Aceh Movement. The agreement, however, has been criticized by some because it will leave close to 25,000 Indonesian soldiers and police in Aceh. Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has said he is optimistic about the outcome of the agreement.

SUSILO BAMBANG YUDHOYONO: I’m urging all Acehnese to make the peace process a success. Let us maintain the end of this conflict. Let us nurture, let us make strong and everlasting our sense of brotherhood.

AMY GOODMAN: Indonesian President Yudhoyono. We turn now to an excerpt from an interview we did a year ago, just after the tsunami hit, with journalist and activist, Allan Nairn. Allan had just recently returned from Aceh, spent a good deal of time in the devastated region of Aceh. This is what he had to say about the tsunami and the political situation that was affecting the relief efforts in the area.

ALLAN NAIRN: The military, until about 24 hours ago was impeding international aid agencies from coming in. There was a team from — a medical team from Japan that flew in and turned around in frustration, because the military wasn’t letting them enter. This has undoubtedly caused thousands of extra deaths. The reason the military won’t let them in is that Aceh has been under semi-totalitarian de facto occupation by the Indonesian military.

On TV, people may have seen footage of the Grand Mosque of Banda Aceh, one of the few big structures left standing, and in the yard in front of the mosque, it’s litters with bloated bodies and dead animals and debris, and the building itself is cracked. It’s now a scene of devastation. But just five years ago, the yard in front of that mosque was filled with anywhere from 400,000 to a million Acehnese, who were carrying out a peaceful demonstration calling for referendum, a vote, a free vote, in which they could choose whether they wanted to become independent of Indonesia.

In proportional terms, Aceh has a population — before this disaster, had a population of about four million. This means that anywhere from 10 percent to 25 percent of the entire population of Aceh turned up on the lawn of the mosque that day to call for freedom. It’s — proportionally, it’s actually one of the largest political demonstrations in recent world history. If a similar thing happened in the U.S., you’d be talking anywhere from 30 to 60 million people here, to give an idea of the enormity. Faced with that kind of civilian movement, the Indonesian military moved to crush them, assassinating, disappearing leaders, raping female activists.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Allan Nairn speaking a year ago about the situation in Aceh. We’re joined now in our D.C. studio by Ed McWilliams. He is a former State Department official, who headed the political section of the U.S. embassy in Jakarta from 1996 to 1999. Welcome to Democracy Now!

ED McWILLIAMS: Thanks, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the situation today in Indonesia, and back then, a year ago, this anniversary of the tsunami and the political developments with the GAM disbanding?

ED McWILLIAMS: Right. Well, if I could just sort of broadly — sort of a broad brush picture of what’s going on in Indonesia right now, President Yudhoyono, who took power in a democratic election in October of 2004, has a few major challenges, and then some very specific challenges facing him. He needs to, of course, work on the economy. He needs to get the military under control. No president since Suharto, the dictator, has been able to do that. He must deal with tremendous brutality by the military in the province of West Papua, and then he must also deal with human rights problems, particularly the murder of the most prominent human rights activist by poisoning on an international flight. But then, of course, his other major problem is dealing with the situation in Aceh. But these other problems relate to that. In particular, I would like to talk a little bit with you about the situation with regards to the military and its role in Aceh now and its prospective role in Aceh.

AMY GOODMAN: Yes. If you would do that. The situation now is people are talking about there’s a peace accord.

ED McWILLIAMS: Right. There has been a peace accord that was, as was mentioned earlier in your program, signed back in August, and this is really a very hopeful development. It’s one of the really few hopeful developments to come out of the tsunami. Thanks to international pressure and some effective work by ministers within Yudhoyono’s government, the military was essentially forced into accepting an agreement whereby they would accept a cease-fire and then finally a peace agreement with the resistance force that had been operating there for almost 30 years.

What’s happened over the last months since this signature back in August of that agreement is that the resistance, the armed resistance, has essentially met its obligation. As you heard earlier in your program, they have disarmed, which is a very critical step, the first time they have taken that step. Moreover, they have abandoned officially their drive for independence. However, the Indonesian military, for its part, was to withdraw half of its forces, approximately 24,000 troops from Aceh, in order for peace to move forward. The difficulty is, just in the last few days, it has become apparent that the military is trying to move back into Aceh with a strength of 15,000 troops, allegedly to perform rehabilitation and reconstruction work. This is a — would seem to be an obvious breach of the agreement and could threaten that agreement.

I would add one other thing that’s important. It was not mentioned by the GAM official, but as it stands now, GAM is supposed to be taking part, not as GAM, but as independent Acehnese civilians taking part in the elections in April, but government officials in Jakarta are saying that they may not be able to pass laws in sufficient time to make that possible, which is, again, a breach of the agreement. The Aceh rebels have disbanded and disarmed, with the expectation that they would participate in these elections in April. They may not take place, according to government officials just making announcements the last couple of days.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Ed McWilliams. He is a former State Department official, head of the political section of the U.S. embassy in Jakarta from 1996 to 1999, well known as he left the embassy for his fierce criticism both of the Indonesian regime and also of the U.S. government, particularly when it came to the Indonesian occupation of East Timor. Can you talk about — you mentioned Munir, one of the leading human rights activists of Indonesia, poisoned on his way out of the country, and the significance of the trial that took place, and whether it means anything?

ED McWILLIAMS: Yes. Well, it was a very tragic event. Munir was a young man in his late 30s and was by far the most prominent human rights activitist and critic of the military, I might add, through my years when I was there in the late 1990s and then up until his murder. What happened was that he was taking a flight to the Netherlands and was given poison, arsenic, and died en route to the Netherlands. Initially, it was said it was just a normal death, but investigators in the Netherlands discovered that, in fact, he had ingested arsenic.

There was a trial, and it just concluded this past week, in which one individual, an official of the airlines, was accused and convicted of having slipped him the poison. The problem is that that one official had had extensive contact, telephone contact, just before and just after the murder with the intelligence officials called BIN. These are ex-military officials who had been in frequent confrontation with Munir.

Unfortunately, despite the assurances of President Yudhoyono that there would be justice in this case, because it was such a prominent case, the court apparently has stopped with just the conviction of this one scapegoat Garuda Airlines official. And the concern is that the people who actually planned it and directed it, most likely being members of BIN, the military intelligence, the now civilian intelligence agency, were responsible. It appears that they will not be pursuing those people for conviction.

AMY GOODMAN: You now work on West Papua. And as we wrap up the year, from the tsunami a year ago to the political developments in Aceh, to West Papua, what do you expect?

ED McWILLIAMS: Well, it looks very bad right now, because although the military does appear to be moving some of its troops back into Aceh, in violation of that agreement, as I mentioned, other troops appear to be coming out of Aceh and going into West Papua, where there’s a minuscule armed resistance, approximately 500 or 600 people, but there in West Papua there are great riches, as there are in Aceh, that the military hopes to tap into. And our concern is that, in fact, we will see increased brutality as the number of military in West Papua rise.

One thing that I should mention both in the context of Aceh and West Papua is that the military relies on non-government sources — resources, for 70% of its budget. That’s one of the reasons it’s remained a rogue institution for all of these years. The civilian government is pledged to try to gain control of it by forcing it to essentially take only government money and not to operate illegal operations, civilian trafficking, population trafficking, I should say, people trafficking, and drug running and so on. The danger is now that the military will be seeking to get non-governmental funds through illegal operations in West Papua and perhaps also draw money, including international funding, from engagement in rehabilitation and reconstruction work in Aceh.

AMY GOODMAN: Ed McWilliams, if you look at the amount of aid that poured into the region, into Indonesia, after the tsunami, and yet you look today at the reports of the number of people who are still homeless, who are living in tents, almost everyone in some kind of temporary shelter in Aceh right now, some have said, if you took that money and you gave it to the suffering people, particularly of Aceh, you would you bring them all into the middle class, but that’s not any way that the aid works and was distributed. Where did it go?

ED McWILLIAMS: Well, in one sense, it hasn’t gone anywhere, because it’s been disbursed very, very slowly. Of the approximately $500,000 people made homeless, only 24,000 homes in the provinces of Aceh and Nias, which were most affected, have actually been built. A lot of the money hasn’t been spent. I think our concern is not so much, at this point, that there’s been waste, but there’s been a dragging of feet, that things haven’t been accomplished that might have been accomplished. Unfortunately, though, this real fact is one of excuses being used by the military and the Aceh and Nias Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Agency. This is the excuse that’s being used by them to try to make a basis for bringing in the military to work on reconstruction and rehabilitation, to speed it up. In point of fact, we need to see more concerted action by international agencies, but also civilian agencies of the government.

AMY GOODMAN: And this last ten seconds we have, the U.S. lifting or giving a waiver to the Indonesian military, restoring military aid that had been cut off with the Indonesian military rampaging through Timor.

ED McWILLIAMS: Yeah, that’s really a critical point that needs to be made. The U.S. essentially has forfeited much of its leverage over the Indonesian military and over the Indonesian government to essentially address these critical problems of a possible breaking of the agreement in Aceh, human rights abuse in West Papua, justice for Munir. The U.S. now is not in a position to use the offer of military assistance to the military as leverage, because that offer now has been essentially already made. It’s already flowing.

AMY GOODMAN: Former State Department official, Ed McWilliams, joining us from Washington.

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