by Sonny Inbaraj
(IPS) BANGKOK-- While relief workers and families are salvaging bodies in Indonesia's tsunami-stricken Aceh province, the Indonesian army is continuing its offensive against separatist rebels, critics say.
This, say international human rights groups, is hindering the delivery of badly needed humanitarian aid to survivors of the world's worst natural disaster in 40 years.
The groups are also urging the Indonesian government not to let politics override the emergency needs of the Acehnese people.
Although some reports say that a de facto ceasefire has been in place between the military and separatist rebels since the Dec. 26 disaster, there are no signs yet that the state of civil emergency, which was imposed on the province in 2004 to quell the separatist movement, will be lifted.
"Delays by the Indonesian government in allowing international access to Aceh may have needlessly cost precious lives. International and Indonesian organizations must have unrestricted access to Aceh," said the U.S.-based Non-Violence International in a statement.
As many as 100,000 people may have been killed in the Indonesian provinces of Aceh and elsewhere in North Sumatra as a result of the earthquake and tsunami that struck the region. The Indonesian government initially kept the international community at bay as it apparently debated whether to open Aceh up to foreigners.
Aceh has been almost entirely closed to any international presence due to military operations there against the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), which has been fighting for independence since 1976. More than 10,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed since then.
The government put the province under martial law on May 19, 2003 before reducing this to a state of civil emergency one year later.
"Under the civil emergency, the Indonesian military continues to play a leading role and there has been no cutback in the level of military operations in most of the territory," said Paul Barber of the Britain-based human rights group Tapol.
"Lifting the civil emergency would require the declaration of a presidential decree but Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has shown no inclination to move in this direction," he added.
On Sunday Jan Egeland, the UN's emergency relief coordinator, told reporters that relief efforts after the Asian tsunami disaster was falling behind in Indonesia. "We're able to reach out in all of the affected countries except in (Indonesia's) Sumatra and Aceh at the moment. That is where we are behind," he said.
All eyes are on whether the government can or will make use of the opportunity for reconciliation provided by the Dec. 26 disaster to open up Aceh to Indonesians and outsiders, and how its relief efforts continue will play a key factor in this.
Many also concede that the military is the institution with the best reach and logistics to help out in times of disaster.
At the same time, news reports from Jakarta said hundreds of Indonesian military troops, known by their Indonesian acronym TNI, were raiding GAM hideouts across East and North Aceh, which had been devastated by the tsunami.
Also, 15,000 extra troops are being rushed to Aceh, on top of the 40,000 already there, to help with humanitarian activities.
Lt Col D J Nachrowi told 'The Jakarta Post' on Thursday that the calamity should not be seen as a way for the military to suspend security operations against GAM.
"We are now carrying out two duties: humanitarian work and the security operation," he told the daily. "The raids to quell the secessionist movement in Aceh will continue unless the president issues a decree to lift the civil emergency and assign us to merely play a humanitarian role in Aceh."
Nachrowi's comments infuriated Nasruddin Abubakar, the president of Sentral Informasi Referendum Aceh (SIRA).
"The government is still maintaining the civil emergency and continuing on with military operations in Aceh despite the fact that the death toll now is close to 100,000. Is the government not yet satisfied with the killing?" he asked in a phone interview with IPS. "Are Acehnese not citizens of Indonesia?"
Nasruddin said his group had received news from volunteers working in the province's devastated capital Banda Aceh that the military was interrogating survivors making their way to relief centers, suspecting them of being GAM members.
"We want to draw everyone's attention to the need to save the Acehnese from death," he pleaded.
The New York-based East Timor Action Network (ETAN) urged aid organizations and agencies to work as closely as possible with local civil society groups and to resist Indonesian government and military attempts to keep non-governmental local groups out of the process.
"The high level of corruption in Indonesia, especially in Aceh, and the great distrust of Aceh's (provincial) government make it crucial that aid groups be allowed to distribute urgently needed food, medical supplies, and other assistance outside of government channels, distributing aid directly and through local NGOs," said ETAN's Karen Orenstein.
Tapol's Barber warned that natural disaster such as that which struck Aceh a week ago will only serve to reinforce the military's role under the cover of becoming involved in humanitarian activities.
"Following the imposition of martial law in May 2003, local NGOs fled from Aceh because of intimidation and the threat of violence against their activists," said Barber.
"Even now, Acehnese activists based in Jakarta and neighboring Malaysia know that they would be taking great risks if they return to their homeland to help provide succour for the stricken population," he added.
According to Stratfor Global Intelligence, a security analysis website, the tsunami disaster could prove to be a boon to Jakarta in its campaign against GAM.
"President Yudhoyono will send more troops into the province to rebuild and clean up...If GAM does not agree to settle the problem peacefully, Yudhoyono will have more troops on hand to clean them out," wrote the analysts at Stratfor.
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