For a few moments the Indonesia government and military had an opportunity to respond moderately and reasonably after the devastation caused by the tsunami in war torn Aceh province. The had a chance to emulate the Sri Lankan example in which both sides have at least temporarily laid aside their differences in order to take care of the business at hand which is rescuing the victims and helping them return to a semblance of normal life. In this blog, I warned that if the Indonesians were true to form that soon they might revert to their old repressive, corrupt tricks regarding the tsunami relief efforts and the rebel insurgency in Sumatra. Headlines of the past two days have unfortunately proven me correct.
On January 11th, the Indonesian military commander in Aceh announced that henceforth foreign aid workers could only perform their work when escorted by the Indonesian military (Indonesia Restricts Aid Workers in Rebel Province). This would effectively constrain them from aiding rebel held outlying areas. In reality, it would restrict their work to Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, which is tightly controlled by the military. The next day, the military went farther and decreed that all foreign workers must leave Aceh by March 26th (Indonesia Orders Foreign Troops Providing Aid to Leave by March 26). The ostensible reason for these restrictions was that the military could not guarantee the security and safety of aid workers unless they worked under military supervision. As Bama Athreya pointed out on Public Radio International’s To the Point (see link below), the Indonesian military are the ones guilty of unremitting acts of violence and terror on Aceh. GAM has not harmed or threatened aid workers and on the contrary has welcomed them. If anyone might harm these people it would be the military and not GAM.
The new decrees serve several purposes: first, they would centralize control of aid efforts under the auspices of the military instead of the diverse network on international agencies now on the ground there. This in turn would enable the military to return to its corrupt ways by siphoning off significant portions of the aid for its own purposes (Corruption in Indonesia Is Worrying Aid Groups). On To the Point (one of the best public affairs shows on radio today), Warren Olney interviewed International Labor Rights Fund’s Bama Athreya, who spent three years working in Indonesia with the country’s human rights community. She paints a fuller picture of the Indonesia military noting that it receives only a portion of its budget from the government (hear the segment here). Like the militaries of other nations (including China), it supports itself through a murky network of business ventures some legal and others not. She alleges that the military sponsors ventures that involve prostitution, drug dealing and illegal logging of endangered Sumatran hardwoods. So it is no small wonder that the military wants tighter control of tsunami relief.
The other significant reason for clamping down on relief efforts is that the government wants to ensure that rebel held areas are not benefited from such aid. And if they are, it wants to be sure that the Acehnese know where the help came from. They want to ensure that the rebel group, GAM, can claim no credit for the aid efforts.
Yesterday, GAM made a clever tactical move when it offered the government unconditional negotiations to resolve the conflict. A smart move because there were two possible responses: the military would reject the offer out of hand and thus reveal themselves as the brutal, unreasonable power that they are; or the government would accept the offer and serious negotiations might ensue. The government released a tentative, but positive response to the GAM offer (this from the New York Times story):
Indonesia’s vice president welcomed a cease-fire offer by Aceh’s rebel movement, saying Thursday that Jakarta would “make efforts” toward keeping the peace as it seeks to rebuild the tsunami-battered region.
Vice President Jusuf Kalla’s comments marked the strongest indication since the Dec. 26 disaster of a government will to put the long-running separatist conflict on hold to assure the safety of foreign aid workers.
“Of course we welcome it,” Kalla said. “Indonesia will also make efforts toward it.”
Kalla did not mention details of steps taken toward the government’s truce, saying only, “We are working on it. We will talk about it when the right time comes.”
Terribly vague and noncommittal and worth about the cost of the paper the press release was written on. We’ll have to see how this proceeds.