The people of Aceh, on the north-western tip of Sumatra, have been the victims of a long-drawn-out campaign of repression – one that started during the despotic rule of former Indonesian president General Suharto and which has continued without respite under Megawati. Aceh’s natural gas has been exploited for years by US oil firm ExxonMobil. Typically, the ExxonMobil revenues have flowed to Jakarta. The US company depends on the Indonesian army to protect its vast holdings.
Gam challenged Indonesia’s control of the territory in the mid-1970s. Although Gam’s armed forces were quickly put down, the Indonesian military conducted a massive campaign of repression in Aceh throughout the 1990s. The civilian population suffered severely.
After the fall of Suharto in May 1998 people began to speak out about widespread killings, torture centres, rapes and the relentless destruction of people’s homes and schools. Among those who spoke out most vehemently were Acehnese women, many of whom had lost husbands and sons and been raped by Indonesian soldiers.
The outcry compelled the military to promise an end to the repression, but conditions did not improve. An Indonesian parliamentary investigation in Aceh in late 1999 gathered information about no fewer than 7,000 human rights violations and called for the perpetrators to be brought to justice. But justice for members of the Indonesian armed forces is as remote today as it was under Suharto.
After its reversals in the 1970s, Gam was able to regroup – strengthening its position in many parts of the province. Military operations to destroy Gam resumed with even greater ferocity in 1999. There were thousands of civilian casualties. The death toll in 2002 alone was 1,300.
As soon as Jakarta announced its recent decision to impose martial law, the Indonesian army launched air attacks on alleged Gam bases. Gam has nothing in the way of air defences itself. The military says it will increase the number of its troops in Aceh to 50,000 – claiming that it needs 10 men for each Gam fighter. But Gam is only thought to have around 1,000 guerrillas. Although the renewed operations will undoubtedly kill Gam personnel, no one believes the organisation will be destroyed or that the ‘Aceh problem’ will be solved by military means.
While not all Acehnese support Gam’s declared aim of independence, the unrelenting abuses the Acehnese have suffered at the hands of the Indonesian army have meant the organisation has no difficulty recruiting fighters.
The war now underway is comparable only to the one Indonesia unleashed against East Timor in the late 1970s, and we know how that ended.
Successive British governments have ignored warnings from human rights organisations to halt the export of military equipment to Indonesia. Britain has claimed that the exports are for legitimate defence purposes. But the Indonesian army itself admits that it faces no foreign threats.
The Indonesian air force now has several squadrons of British Hawk-200 and Hawk-100 aircraft; the contracts were concluded by the Thatcher and Major governments. Scorpion tanks have also been exported. Labour has so far refused to halt this trade. Hawks and Scorpions are among the armoury now being used in Jakarta’s war against the Acehnese. Hawks were already in action on the first day of martial law, escorting Hercules aircraft transporting troops to Aceh.
Western governments must exert pressure on the Megawati government to halt this new war against Aceh. They must call for the lifting of martial law and for renewed talks to end the conflict. Otherwise, Aceh will experience a humanitarian catastrophe of unimaginable proportions. And the British government must halt all further arms exports to Indonesia and demand that all military equipment supplied by the UK be withdrawn from Aceh.
For further details:
Contact Tapol, the Indonesia Human Rights Campaign, at firstname.lastname@example.org
Or visit: http://tapol.gn.apc.org