Aceh, Indonesia’s westernmost province, was the area most devastated by the Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunami. However, Aceh’s agony predates the tsunami. The resource-rich province supplies much of the natural gas for South Korea and Japan, but the revenues go straight to ExxonMobil and the Indonesian government. In recent years, the Indonesian military has violently suppressed Aceh’s grassroots independence movement. Investigative journalist Allan Nairn visited Acehnese refugee camps before the tsunami. Nairn, who has reported for over two decades on U.S.-sponsored state terrorism in Central America, Haiti and East Timor, recently spoke about Aceh with Derrick O’Keefe of Seven Oaks Magazine.
A number of activist groups in the United States have concerns that the Indonesian government will hamper disaster relief efforts, and also that they will exploit the situation to further repress Acehnese political activists.
Well, the Indonesian military is continuing to attack villages, more than a dozen villages in East Aceh and North Aceh away from the coast, even though General Susilo, the president of Indonesia, announced that they would be lifting the state of siege. The military is also impeding the flow of aid. They’ve commandeered a hanger at the Banda Aceh airport, where they are taking control of internationally shipped-in supplies.
What is the background to the political conflict in Aceh?
Really the second wave of devastation to hit Aceh was the Indonesian military. Aceh is one of the most repressive places in the world. They have been under de facto martial law for years. Now, international relief workers and foreign journalists are pouring in, but, until the tsunami, they were banned by the Indonesian military. The reason is that the Acehnese want a free vote; they want a referendum which would give them the option of choosing independence from the central government and Indonesia.
In 1999, there was a demonstration in front of the Grand Mosque in Banda Aceh which drew anywhere from 400,000 to a million people. That’s anywhere from 10 percent to a quarter of the entire Acehnese population of 4 million. In proportional terms, that makes it one of the largest political demonstrations in recent world history. The military responded to this demonstration by crushing the civilian political movement that was calling for referendum – assassinating, disappearing, raping activists, and continuing with the massacres that had already dotted Aceh with mass graves before the tsunami created new mass graves.
What are some of the connections between U.S. corporate interests and the Indonesian military repression in Aceh?
There’s one main connection, and that’s ExxonMobil. Their natural gas facility dominates the Acehnese economy, by way of extraction. They also have Indonesian troops garrisoned on their property. The Exxon-Mobil company pays protection money to the Indonesian military and the military buries bodies of its victims on Exxon-Mobil lands.
As someone who operates in the United States, what did you think of the spectacle over the past couple of days of U.S. military helicopters delivering aid, in sharp contrast to U.S. military operations over the past couple of years in Iraq, for instance?
It’s bitterly ironic. You don’t even have to go as far a field as Iraq to get an illustration of the role the U.S. has played. The Indonesian military is a long-time client of the U.S. The U.S. supported the military as they were bringing Suharto to power, as they were carrying out a massacre of anywhere from 400,000 to a million Indonesians during 1965-67. The U.S. gave the green light to the invasion of East Timor by the Indonesian military, which wiped out a third of the Timorese population, 200 000 people.
You’ve mentioned some problems with the established NGOs working in Indonesia and Aceh. Is there a way that people can contribute to the relief effort, and to efforts to raise awareness about the situation in Aceh more generally?
Give directly to the grassroots Acehnese groups, which have been working for years with people in the refugee camps and which – even though their people are at risk – can deliver aid directly to the public because they do not have these contractual relationships with the Indonesian government and military. One such group is the People’s Crisis Center (PCC) of Aceh, which for years has been going into the “reeducation camps” working on disaster relief. Now the East Timor Action Network (ETAN) of the United States is channeling aid to the PCC and similar on the ground Acehnese groups. So if people want to donate, they can go to the ETAN U.S. website, which is etan.org.