You’ve seen all the pictures. You can’t miss those video clips CNN plays over and over ad infinitum allowing you to revel in the catastrophe that has affected tens of millions of around the Indian Ocean basin. But behind the nauseatingly repetitious video clips lies a secret reality that no outlet, not even the serious and distinguished ones like the New York Times are telling you. Danny Schechter has written persuasively about this at Mediachannel.org in his Helicopter Journalism: What’s Missing from Tsunami Journalism.
A second and equally pernicious tragedy besets Sumatra. And this one (almost) no one’s talking about. Indonesia has one of the most corrupt, incompetent and repressive governments in the entire world. Life may not be too miserable for you if you live in a place like Java or Bali. But in the outlying provinces like Irian Jaya and Aceh (Sumatra), life can be a living hell. Subject to the exploitation of multinational mineral extraction companies which use the Indonesian military to bolster their overwhelming control, the local population lives in fear and poverty. Perhaps that is why there are serious insurrections in both provinces.
You remember the genocide inflicted by the Indonesian military on East Timor when it was a “province” of Indonesia? Well, thank God the Timorese overthrew their cruel masters. But at what price? A million or more killed, the island in absolute shambles, an entire people made refugees due to the terror of pro-Indonesia militias. Now extrapolate this to regions like Aceh where the military is now trying to work the same “wonders” as it did in East Timor.
Acehnese call for independence referendum (credit: BBC News)
Currently, in Aceh there is an independence movement called GAM which the army views as terrorists. Many Acehnese are calling for a referendum on the question of independence. The army believes that those who favor a referendum are no different than GAM members. The local commander has said the only thing to do with GAM members is to exterminate them. This is the Indonesian army the world has come to know and love.
Indonesian army patrol in Aceh (credit: International Viewpoint)
In the midst of the tsunami disaster, the Indonesian military continues to carry out raids on Acehnese villages. Imagine the idiocy of this. The military should be fully committed to relief work. It should be doing nothing other than this. And yet it finds the time to continue its repression.
Lest anyone believe that the situation in Aceh is the way it must be, I am heartened to read that there is another nation, equally beset with internal ethnic conflict and war, but which has managed to rise above their internecine warfare in the face of this disaster: Sri Lanka. Read David Rohde’s touching story in the New York Times: In Sri Lanka’s Time of Agony, a Moment of Peace. Here, rebels and government officials, Tamils and Sinhalese have laid aside their weapons of war and taken up the banner of healing. The disaster has moved people throughout the island nation to consider setting aside the conflict in order to embrace the chance for peace. There may be many reasons for the difference between Aceh and Sri Lanka’s response to the tsunami. But I’d bet that at least one of them is that the Indonesian government and military are more fragmented, disorganized, incompetent and corrupt than their Sri Lankan counterparts. There are probably competent, mature leaders on both sides of the Sri Lankan conflict who have the sense to know how far they can go in prosecuting their cause and when it’s appropriate to adopt a different stance (like now).
Another matter that concerns me deeply: those international relief agencies which are attempting to distribute their aid through official Indonesian government channels (including the military) run the risk of seeing much of their aid end up in the hands of rich generals who would be happy to create a lucrative black market in humanitarian relief aid. I imagine it won’t be long before bags of food with the markings of the UN, U.S., Red Cross, etc. turn up on the local black market. I hope I am proven wrong about this. But based on previous bad behavior, I’m afraid that such brigandage is eminently possible. What I want to know is what are these organizations and nations doing to ensure that this does not happen?
Banda Aceh’s mosque in better times (credit: rijaset.net)
While I encourage everyone to give whatever they can to support the relief effort, I’d also encourage donors to search out local independent Sumatran or Indonesian NGOs involved with disaster relief and donate directly to them. I was listening to Democracy Now radio news tonight which presented an eye-[or should I say “ear”] opening segment on the current situation in Aceh. I urge those who want to get behind the headlines to learn of a different reality to visit Aceh: A Victim of Tsunami & Occupation
One of the relevations of this story was the amazing human rights work of TAPOL (which means “political prisoner” in Indonesian). Its website describes its work thus: “Tapol, the Indonesia Human Rights Campaign: campaigning to expose human rights violations in Indonesia, East Timor, West Papua and Aceh.” The Indonesian government, of course, views this group as dangerous. In fact, its chairman was assassinated recently as he traveled to Holland to attend a legal seminar. While flying on a Garuda (the official Indonesian airline) flight, his food was poisoned with a massive dose of arsenic (according to an authopsy performed in Holland).
TAPOL is coordinating its own local relief effort in Aceh. To my mind, it would be a perfect locally-based Indonesian NGO to support with our contributions. You can do so through a Paypal account they maintain. Visit this site and click on the Donate Now button. An alternative is a Bali-based group which is sponsoring relief work as well in Aceh: the IDEP Foundation. IDEP is engaged in projects throughout Indonesia that empower local communities through micro-credit cooperatives, sustainable living solutions and environmental education. To contribute to tsunami relief for Aceh through IDEP (using Paypal), click the Donate Now button using the IDEP hyperlink above.