Aceh: In the Shadow of Iraq 

by Leah C. Wells

Dissident Voice

May 29, 2003


Did anyone notice the uncanny similarities between the recent U.S.-led war in Iraq and Indonesia in its crackdown of Aceh?


Last week, the peace agreement between the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and Indonesian government collapsed and Indonesia's President Megawati Sukarnoputri imposed a state of martial law in the remote province, ordering tens of thousands of troops to militarily crush the guerrilla force.


Indonesia's foreign minister Hassan Wirayuda, seems to see the connection between Aceh and Iraq, quoted by the BBC as saying "Honestly, what we are doing or will do in Aceh is much less than the American power that was deployed in Iraq."


A spokesman for Mr. Wirayuda said that "Iraq may cause some pause in criticism against us among governments who readily used force."


The United States seems not to be making the connection between its actions and the military prerogatives of other countries. U.S. State Department spokesperson Richard Boucher indicated that both sides of the conflict in Indonesia had not explored every peaceful alternative at the Tokyo negotiations, seemingly oblivious to the U.S. policy of "do as I say, not as I do."


Prior to the war in Iraq, the international community overwhelmingly supported dialogue and international weapons inspectors through the United Nations to root out any weapons of mass destruction that Iraq might have been hiding. The United States preferred military action to negotiations, and against the better judgment of the United Nations and most allies, proceeded with the invasion.


In Aceh, too, negotiations and dialogue had been underway through the Henry Dunant Center (HDC) which had brokered a peace deal that included a monitoring agency comprised of representatives from the Indonesian government, the Free Aceh Movement and the HDC. The United States and Japan had provided ample financial backing to the monitoring agency, called the Joint Security Committee, and have been invested in finding a non-military solution to the problem in Aceh.


Indonesia has complete support from every country in the world for its sovereignty over Aceh. No secession is seriously at hand and the world was actively engaged in disarming the rebels and negotiating a solution. The


Indonesian government and military, following in the footsteps of the United States, steamrolled through international pleading, trashed the peace talks and launched a military crack down of Aceh.


Besides arresting the negotiators, the military campaign started with a dramatic photo opportunity as the Indonesian military parachuted hundreds of soldiers into the Banda Aceh airport, a location they already controlled. Why didn't they just disembark out of a landed plane. This stunt rivals the grandiose rescue of Jessica Lynch in Iraq.


However, staged photo-ops are only one way to manipulate a "free media". Fifty Indonesian journalists have been embedded in the Indonesian military (TNI), a cadre of individuals whose newspapers largely support the Indonesian military action in Aceh. It appears that in Aceh, as in Iraq, mainstream media has surrendered its perspective and impartiality by becoming the public relations arm of bloodthirsty governments.


Like the USA, Indonesia also uses the label of terrorism to validate its war on Aceh. A senior advisor of President Sukarnoputri said that separatist movements, like the GAM, could now be considered terrorist groups. I wonder how she would label the United States revolutionary patriots?


A major component of the U.S.-led war on Iraq was control of Iraq's oil.


The war in Aceh also has similar subtexts. The gas-rich area of northwestern Sumatra houses a huge Exxon-Mobil gas field which is at the heart of the controversy. Acehnese universally claim that revenues from natural resources found in Aceh are distributed unequally to the benefit of the Indonesian government.


To complicate matters, the Exxon-Mobil plant is guarded by the Indonesian military which, according to human rights groups, receives upwards of $100,000 per month for security services from the corporation. In a dual role, the TNI forces is massacring civilians while protecting the interests of multi-national enterprise.


The TNI is using U.S.-made military equipment in Aceh that it acquired prior to the U.S. Congressional ban on military sales, according to Human Rights Watch. While currently not supplying the Indonesian military with weapons, last year the House and Senate Appropriations Committees voted to restart the International Military Education and Training for Indonesia akin to the training that Latin American soldiers receive at the School of the Americas at Ft. Benning, GA.


The Indonesian troops have drawn lessons from the US military doctrine of "overwhelming force" General Endriartono Sutarto told his troops to fight the rebels "until your last drop of blood," telling them that "you are trained to kill, so wipe them out."


What concerns many humanitarian groups in Aceh and the international community is that civilians, and human rights workers, are already being killed in this renewed war. An estimated 10,000 innocent people have been killed in the 26-year-old fight for independence, and according to recent UNICEF figures, 23,000 children have been displaced. Plans for massive civilian relocation camps trouble many people concerned with human rights violations in the region.


With disturbing parallels from the U.S.-led invasion Iraq, the Indonesian invasion last week could signal a dangerous trend in international affairs. Has diplomacy become a disingenuous euphemism for placating other countries' hopes for peaceful resolution of disputes and flouting the rule of international law until the military is good and ready to attack?


How many other countries will resort to force rather than dialogue?


Leah C. Wells worked in Aceh in 2002 on a peace curriculum called Program Pendidikan Damai, and has visited Iraq three times since 2001. She may be contacted at education@napf.org.  



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