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US ties and challenges to peace in Aceh

21 January 2005

Aceh, so long isolated from international view by the Indonesian government and military, is now - tragically - at the center of world attention. Members of the US Congress and their staff, United Nations officials, journalists, and humanitarian aid workers have arrived on the scene after years of blocked access. These shifts offer the administration of US President George W Bush and other actors an unprecedented opportunity for peace-building and enhancement of human security and stability in a region dominated by violent conflict for decades.

This report analyzes three key factors in responding effectively to the challenges of emergency aid and reconstruction efforts as well as long-term sustainable development and conflict resolution: 1) the role of the Indonesian military (TNI) in aid delivery and in ending the ongoing conflict; 2) the differences between Aceh's indigenous insurgents (Free Aceh Movement or GAM) and newly arriving extremist Islamic militias; and 3) the role of ExxonMobil in the province.

Shortsighted US opportunism in the face of disaster?

In the aftermath of the massive earthquake and tsunami that devastated much of Aceh, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is pushing yet again the Bush administration's frustrated desire to strengthen ties with the Indonesian military over the well-grounded objections of the US Congress, as cemented in US law. In his trademark Orwellian rhetoric, the secretary argues that such a move is essential to winning the "global war on terror". This myopic logic ignores the numerous reports documenting the Indonesian military as a de facto terrorist entity with a long track record of undermining human security in Aceh and other parts of Indonesia as well as near-daily news reports about the TNI's control-happy undermining of emergency relief efforts.

Indeed, the US State Department's 2003 Indonesia country report notes, "Security-force members murdered, tortured, raped, beat, and arbitrarily detained civilians ... Human-rights abuses were most apparent in Aceh ... however, no security-force members have been prosecuted for unlawful killings in Aceh ... Retired and active-duty military officers who were known to have committed serious human-rights violations occupy or have been promoted to senior positions in both the government and the TNI."

The TNI is also a massively corrupt institution, relying on its private business interests for an estimated two-thirds of its annual budget. The TNI's businesses include illegal logging, drug production and trafficking, and prostitution, as well as "security" payments, viewed by many as extortion, from Indonesian and US businesses. ExxonMobil reportedly pays the military about US$6 million per year for "security" at its Aceh natural-gas operations; Louisiana-based Freeport-McMoRan Copper and Gold Inc paid the Indonesian military and police at its West Papua mines $10.7 million during a recent two-year period. These relationships with the TNI have cost US multinationals and their shareholders both in terms of reputation and financial liabilities resulting from associated TNI human-rights abuses.

New legislation requires the TNI to abandon its economic activities within the next five years - a crucial yet challenging undertaking that will require consistent backing by the international community to Indonesia's civilian reformers, not the business-as-usual stance proffered by normalization of military relations.

When will policymakers grasp the common-sense wisdom "With friends like these, who needs enemies?" Attempting to build working relationships with human-rights abusers with agendas and interests of their own is a long-failed policy that costs lives rather than saves them. US support and assistance - financial and political - are best channeled to civilian-led emergency aid, good governance, and development programs.

The political landscape and the threat to aid delivery

Because of its territorial command structure, which gives it bases of operation from the village level up, the TNI would in theory be the best-placed Indonesian institution to provide disaster relief. However, the TNI cannot play an effective leadership role in disaster relief and reconstruction for numerous reasons. Its brutal reputation, gained during years of unfettered human-rights atrocities against Aceh's civilians, has hindered the TNI's effectiveness by casting grave and well-founded suspicion on the military playing any sort of unsupervised or managerial aid role.

By severely restricting the movements of aid workers and unilaterally setting an arbitrary March 26 deadline for the departure of US and other foreign troops assisting with disaster relief, the TNI has further lost credibility as an institution capable of meeting the needs and challenges confronting disaster survivors. Instead, the TNI's overriding mission of destroying the estimated few thousand GAM fighters in the region - and the TNI's interest in sustaining the conflict so as to continue to profit from the region's war economy -constitute a conflict of interest that irreparably undermines aid work.

In recent days, the international press has reported that foreign aid workers to Indonesia will be restricted to two areas: Banda Aceh and Meulaboh. The Indonesian military has claimed that it cannot guarantee the safety of foreigners in any other part of the province, alleging GAM might at any time attack foreigners in other parts of the province. The alleged GAM threat is a red herring, meant to prevent foreign aid workers, journalists, and other observers from witnessing the TNI's ongoing military offensive in Aceh's inner regions even since the disaster of December 26 or from hearing the stories of survivors of pre-disaster human-rights abuses.

GAM has issued statements declaring a unilateral ceasefire (though fighters in the field say they will return fire if the TNI strikes first) and also declaring its intent not to fire on civilian aid workers of any nationality. Adding to the credibility of these statements is the simple fact that GAM members believe that a foreign presence throughout Aceh ultimately benefits their cause. While GAM has indeed engaged in violence against Indonesian forces and, on occasion, civilians in the past, the group has no record of aggression against foreigners.

It is important for international audiences to understand that anti-foreign, violent Islamic elements do exist in Indonesia, but these forces are not GAM. There are a number of other extremist Islamic groups that operate in Indonesia, although historically these groups have had no presence in Aceh. However, within the past several weeks, the Indonesian government and military have facilitated the movement of these extremist groups into Aceh. It is crucial for the international donor community to recognize the past role of the Indonesian military in aiding and abetting such groups, and the present interest the military may have in maintaining such groups' presence in Aceh as a proxy base for its military operations against GAM.

In fact, the TNI has a documented record of using proxy militia groups to engage in violence in East Timor and elsewhere. A 2002 study for the US Naval Postgraduate School notes that the Indonesian army has become "a major facilitator of terrorism" due to "radical Muslim militias they ... organized, trained, and financed". The study adds that the military gave one terrorist group an estimated $9.3 million "embezzled from its defense budget". According to a Congressional Research Service report first released in 2002 and updated in 2004, "Radical groups such as Laskar Jihad and the Islamic Defenders Front... received assistance from elements within the Indonesian military in organizing [and] securing arms and transport to locales throughout the Indonesian archipelago."

The Islamic Defenders Front - known for its violent attacks on Jakarta nightclubs - as well as Laskar Mujahidin, the security wing of the Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia (MMI), have established a presence in Aceh reportedly to support Islamic law and tradition in the region during aid relief efforts there. MMI once was headed by Jemaah Islamiah (JI) leader Abu Bakar Ba'asyir, who is currently on trial for his alleged role in the 2002 bombing of a Bali nightclub in which 202 people were killed and a 2003 blast that killed 12 people at the JW Marriott hotel in Jakarta. JI reportedly also is responsible for a 2004 bombing at the Australian Embassy in Jakarta.

In maintaining a coherent position in promoting peace in the region, governments and other institutions providing disaster aid should not shy away from protesting the entrance into Aceh of outfits with a documented history of violence.

Corporate good citizenship: ExxonMobil in Aceh

Multinational corporations based in Indonesia, including ExxonMobil, Newmont and Unocal, have given generously to assist relief efforts in the region. However, in view of the unparalleled and, in many ways, destabilizing role that ExxonMobil has played in Aceh over the years, it is incumbent on the corporation to do more.

ExxonMobil currently faces a multimillion-dollar lawsuit, filed by the Washington, DC-based International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF) on behalf of Acehnese villagers who were tortured and murdered by the TNI on ExxonMobil's premises. Concerned about its investments, the city of New York has filed a shareholder resolution with the US Securities and Exchange Commission calling on ExxonMobil management to report on the details of the company's financial relationship with the TNI.

What did ExxonMobil do? The Arun gas field in North Sumatra is one of the world's largest sources of liquefied natural gas (LNG), and Exxon Mobil Corp (originally Mobil Oil Corp) has had a contract with the government of Indonesia since 1969 to process LNG from this site.

There have been credible reports that ExxonMobil Corp, along with its predecessor companies, hired TNI military units to provide "security" for the company's Arun project. The result has been TNI-perpetrated torture, murder, rape, and other acts of terror against the local population. In some cases, the TNI used ExxonMobil equipment or facilities to conduct the torture and to dispose of those killed. For example, one of the plaintiffs in the ILRF case was "disappeared" for a period of three months, during which time he was repeatedly beaten and tortured with electric shocks. He was then taken to an open pit where he was shown a large pile of human heads. He was told that he would be killed and his head would be added to the pile. He was eventually released, but soldiers burned down his home thereafter. Another plaintiff, who was several months pregnant, was raped and beaten by a soldier who forced his way into her home. These examples are typical of the stories of dozens of innocent civilians living around the ExxonMobil area of operations.

The ExxonMobil facilities were not significantly damaged by the tsunami, thanks to concrete barriers that had been erected long ago to protect the site. The company's gas-extraction operations are ongoing, and ExxonMobil personnel reportedly are continuing to work in the area without problems. However, despite the announcement of a $5 million donation to relief efforts, the company has been silent regarding its own role in facilitating relief operations in the Lhoksumawe area. The Indonesian military has denied access to Lhoksumawe to foreign relief workers, supposedly on the grounds that the TNI cannot protect foreigners' safety in that area, but no such restrictions have been placed on ExxonMobil employees. ExxonMobil owns its own airstrip at the site, but it is unclear whether the company has offered to make it available to facilitate aid delivery by humanitarian workers or whether ExxonMobil intends to provide meaningful assistance to reconstruction efforts.

The company owes far more to the people of Aceh than a mere $5 million donation. ExxonMobil reportedly has extracted some $40 billion from its Arun gas operations during the past decade alone, including earnings of an estimated $2 billion annually in recent years. ExxonMobil's role as a major player not only in Aceh, but also in terms of Indonesia's national economy and the other US-based multinationals operating there, makes the company a stakeholder with unmatched clout. (ExxonMobil executive Robert Haines serves as chairperson of the US-ASEAN Business Council's Indonesia subgroup and led a high-level delegation to Jakarta early last month to meet with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and other top-ranking government officials.) The company should use its resources and influence to advocate that foreign aid workers be given access to the area, facilitate their transport and delivery of aid and, on a broader scale, encourage the Indonesian government to move toward a ceasefire and resumption of peace talks with GAM as an absolutely vital condition to aid delivery and long-term security throughout the province.

Conclusion and recommendations

To ensure that the response to the tsunami contributes to both short-term relief and long-term peace and security for the people of Aceh, the Bush administration must support Indonesian efforts at strengthening the country's civilian democratic governance and military reform. Above all else, this means ensuring that in the immediate and near term, the TNI plays a limited, non-managerial role in relief efforts. For example, Indonesian military personnel could usefully employ the TNI's logistical infrastructure to provide transport of aid under the direction of local civilian government and Indonesian and international humanitarian organizations.

The Bush administration should support efforts by the UN as well as international and local humanitarian organizations to provide long-term reconstruction assistance in Aceh. For recovery and reconstruction to be effective, fighting in the region must end. The task of building peace in Aceh is complex but, at a minimum, the US and other members of the international community must prioritize a ceasefire between the TNI and GAM, insist on demilitarization of the province, and once again vigorously support peace talks. Indeed, Germany has explicitly linked its massive aid pledge to President Yudhoyono's stated commitment to pursue a peaceful solution to the conflict in Aceh.

As the largest debtor among the countries hit by the tsunami, Indonesia puts roughly 25% of its annual revenues toward debt repayment to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and wealthy countries such as the United States and Japan. The Bush administration should support an immediate, interest-free debt moratorium and the convening of an International Debt Conference. A moratorium will enable the Indonesian government to undertake emergency aid and reconstruction planning; a conference is needed to develop an effective and comprehensive approach to Indonesia's massive $132 billion external debt burden, much of it accrued during the corrupt, 32-year regime of ousted military dictator Suharto. Coordinated by an independent institution such as the UN Development Program, and based on independent research, the conference would assess the sustainability of current debt repayments with respect to immediate disaster relief as well as the country's overall poverty reduction and development goals. These measures should enable the Indonesian government to meet the new challenges of effective emergency aid and reconstruction without having to enter into more debt slavery or by escalating exploitation of Indonesia's unique and sensitive natural environment.

To combat terrorism effectively, the US arguably needs the friendship of Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation. Aceh's natural disaster offers an unprecedented opportunity for enhanced long-term human security. The way to achieve these goals is not by building ties with the very elements that engage in destructive violence there. It is by demonstrating that the United States is ready to contribute materially to peace-building, sustainable development and democratic reform.

Abigail Abrash Walton and Bama Athreya

Abigail Abrash Walton is on the faculty at Antioch New England Graduate School and has monitored conditions in Indonesia since 1993. Bama Athreya is deputy director of the International Labor Rights Fund. Both are regular contributors to Foreign Policy In Focus.

Asia Times

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