International notes: Aceh

Submitted by AWL on 9 April, 2004 - 9:59

By Bryan Sketchley

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has proclaimed that the Australian government fully supports the Indonesian military launching a war on the people of Aceh.
After a week of incursions into the province, reports started reaching Australia that unarmed villagers were being detained, tortured and shot, whole villages have been emptied and the general population is living in fear.

In many ways, recent events in Aceh show the Indonesian military (TNI) acting in a similar fashion to that which landed some Indonesian brass in court on human rights violations in East Timor. Indeed, some of the same discredited army chiefs are involved in terrorizing the civilian population in Aceh, applying lessons learnt in East Timor.

Indonesian unity

Indonesia has experienced protracted independence struggles in a number of its provinces over the years, from East Timor, the secessionist movement in Irian Jaya and the Free Aceh movement, which dates back to the 1950's. In the 1950's, after an Islamic uprising was crushed on the major island of Java, the Indonesian government granted Aceh 'special territory' status. The status meant nothing tangible for the poor Acehnese. But the hope of an independent Islamic state continued and in the mid 1970's an armed resistance group was formed. They recruited young Acehnese to their ranks by blaming the central Indonesian government for the abysmal state that most folks lived in. Aceh has large gas and petroleum supplies, accounting for nearly 15% of Indonesia's export income, yet very little of that money found its way into Acehnese hands or local communities. Creating further discontent, was Jakarta's 'transmigration' policies, where the government helps moved people from overcrowded Java to outlying islands. Javanese took much of the works generated in the large industrial zones in coastal regions of the province. In addition, Acehnese consider themselves culturally different from Indonesia, adhering more strictly to Islam than the rest of Indonesia, which is more accurately described as being a 'secular Islamic state'.

In essence, the basis of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) is one of national liberation. A movement that is seeking a national freedom from a dominating occupier. What has united a large proportion of the Aceh population behind GAM hasn't been the GAM's vision of a new and independent Aceh, that is free to economically and politically decide it's own destiny, but rather the Indonesian government's brutal response to the very existence of an independence movement. Summary executions, detentions, beatings have been the tools of terrorising the local population since the late 1970's. Between 1989 and 1992 about 2,000 people were killed by military operations. Countless thousands have been displaced. Many leading personnel in these TNI operations were trained on Australian soil, sold Australian hardware and been fed intelligence assessed by the Australian Defense forces.

The Indonesian ruling class is terrified of the possibility of a disintegrating country. All the more so after East Timor won its long and bloody battle for independence. The Australian ruling class fears it too. If Aceh were to win its freedom, gas and oil extraction industries would be forced to renegotiate agreements, and may find 'harsh' conditions being put on their business. Environmental and community concerns in Aceh may well be of bigger concern to the Acehnese than the Indonesian government when access is being given to natural resources. More than anything, both the Australian and Indonesian governments fear an 'outbreak of East Timors' happening. If Aceh was to win independence then Irian Jaya may be next. And who knows, the French may then have to contend with allowing the people of Vanuatu to decide their own fate, rather than have it done for them in Paris.

The Australian trade union movement needs to seriously consider the type of practical assistance it can render the people of Aceh. And as unionists and activists, we need do our utmost to ensure our own grubby little government provides no support whatsoever to the band of murderous TNI thugs in Jakarta.

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