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Tsunami Crisis Offers Chance To End Aceh Civil War Stalemate

by Joseph Nevins

Despite Disaster, Indonesia Continues Fight Against Rebels

While the international spotlight focuses on the tsunami-related devastation in Indonesia's Aceh region, a deeper crisis -- involving a brutal war -- impacts Aceh's people while undermining the current humanitarian relief. Failure to link a just resolution of the conflict to the relief effort would severely limit attempts to redress the region's plight. The United States can and should play a key role in ensuring that such a linkage takes place.

Aceh has suffered about 60 percent of the total deaths related to the tsunami. An estimated 100,000 people of a population of 4.2 million have perished. Much of its capital city of Banda Aceh and most of the province's coastal towns and villages are in ruins, with about 500,000 people homeless.

The TNI, Indonesia's military, is playing the lead role in providing aid to the afflicted population.

But it is exploiting the crisis and undercutting the delivery of humanitarian assistance by refusing to allow local non-governmental organizations to distribute aid channeled through the Indonesian government. In addition, the TNI continues to target the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and its civilian supporters despite the GAM's post-tsunami declaration of a unilateral cease-fire.

The GAM first emerged in the oil-rich province of North Sumatra in the mid-1970s. While the TNI quickly crushed the initial rebellion, the GAM re-emerged in 1989. Since then, the TNI has generally ruled the province under various forms of martial law and waged a bloody counterinsurgency, resulting in the deaths of more than 10,000 civilians.

Internationally brokered peace efforts resulted in a cease-fire in December 2002. But the truce soon ended due to violations by both sides when the Indonesian government reimposed martial law in May 2003. A year later, the province's status shifted to one of a civil emergency, but the TNI continues to play a decisive role in governing Aceh while maintaining a high level of military operations that have resulted in widespread atrocities.

An October report by Amnesty International writes of "evidence of a disturbing pattern of grave abuses of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights" in Aceh for which Indonesian security forces bear "primary responsibility."

The human rights violations -- including extrajudicial executions, torture and the rape of women and girls -- have taken place at a scale "so pervasive that there is virtually no part of life in the province which remains untouched," the Amnesty report says.

Aceh's pro-independence movement enjoys widespread support among the local population. But Jakarta refuses to allow those who support independence to organize as a political party. Instead, Indonesian authorities tout a highly limited form of autonomy while criminalizing peaceful protest and continuing to pursue a heavy-handed military strategy. Such an approach is bound to fail and will only lead to more war and suffering. Only a cease-fire and negotiations can bring an end to the conflict.

The humanitarian relief and reconstruction efforts in the aftermath of the deadly tsunami present profound challenges. But as in all crises, Aceh's devastation provides opportunities as well.

Various human rights groups and organizations of U.S.-based Acehnese refugees have written to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell calling on him to urge the Indonesian government to allow aid organizations and the media unimpeded access to Aceh, to lift the "civil emergency" status and end all offensive military operations and not to involve the TNI directly in aid distribution.

At the same time, the Bush administration should champion a negotiated settlement to Aceh's war while Congress should resist efforts to strengthen U.S. ties with the TNI. In the past, such ties have facilitated death and destruction -- from the massacre of hundreds of thousands during the Indonesian military's seizure of power in 1965 and 1966 to its brutal 1975 invasion and 24-year occupation of East Timor, during which more than 200,000 East Timorese died.

By pursuing a very different approach from materially backing the TNI, Washington can support peace and human rights and help to bring long-needed relief to the people of Aceh.

Joseph Nevins, an assistant professor of geography at Vassar College, is author of the forthcoming 'A Not-so-distant Horror: Mass Violence in East Timor
Reprinted by permission
This commentary originally appeared in The Baltimore Sun

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Albion Monitor January 12, 2005 (

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