Thousands missing, refugee camps lacking food and water, mass graves: in the aftermath of the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami that hit the Indian Ocean basin on December 26, 2004, these images have come to identify Aceh in the world’s eyes. As of this writing, more than 80,000 Acehnese are reported killed by the disaster; hundreds of thousands are displaced, facing disease and starvation. Data from Aceh’s southwestern coast, nearest the epicenter, is only beginning to emerge due to destruction of already poor infrastructure in those isolated communities.
As the area suffering the most direct hit from the great quake and the colossal waves, Aceh was strangely missing from early reports of the catastrophe, although we quickly learned that Exxon’s liquefied natural gas (LNG) plants were safe. Only part of this can be blamed on the international media penchant to zoom in on English-speaking tourists and celebrities at exclusive resorts, for the province has been virtually closed to international press and humanitarian agencies since the Indonesian military occupation of the region began.
The 1971 discovery of LNG in Aceh yielded large revenues, virtually all going to the central government in Jakarta and multinational corporations. People living near LNG facilities suffered land expropriations, serious environmental devastation and atrocities at the hands of the Indonesian military (TNI).
Resentment over TNI brutality and scanty local compensation for resource extraction contributed to the October 1976 formation of the armed Free Aceh Movement (GAM), known formally as the Aceh/Sumatra National Liberation Front. GAM, whose platform was predominantly secular, declared Aceh’s independence. From 1989 to 1998, Aceh was declared a Military Operations Area, and police and military targeted the civilian population as a means of destroying GAM.
After the pro-democracy movement drove the dictator Suharto from office in 1998, political space opened across the archipelago. This allowed a growing nonviolent political movement to develop in Aceh, and in 1999 more than one million people (almost a quarter of the province’s population) peacefully demonstrated in Banda Aceh, the capital, to demand a referendum on the region’s political future. The TNI subsequently once again targeted political activists, human rights defenders, teachers and other civilians for imprisonment, kidnappings and murder.
An official “military emergency” was replaced by a “state of civil emergency” (darurat sipil) on May 18, 2004. The main change this entailed was an ostensible shift from military to police authority. Unfortunately for the people of Aceh, police independence from TNI has been minimal, with one of the most notorious police units, the Mobile Brigade (Brimob), remaining highly militarized. At this point, it remains unclear whether the “civil emergency” has been lifted to enable free movement of aid workers, emergency supplies and funds into the area.
On December 29, Coordinating Minister for Politics, Law and Security, Widodo explained that the government would pursue “efforts to alleviate the catastrophe without abandoning the state of alert in order to ensure the security and order of the society.” Reports from NGOs and local activists indicate that bureaucratic barriers continue to hamper aid efforts. Human Rights Watch/Asia notes that the Indonesian government is only granting two-week visas for aid workers. While a few national and international aid workers have been able to enter, most rescue supplies and volunteers remain stranded in airports outside Aceh.
For the crucial first two to three days after the tsunami hit, the Indonesian government did little beyond making prerequisite television appearances to provide relief to the hard-hit population. As previously barred, scrappy grassroots activists travel to Aceh to provide help in the fight against hunger and disease, well paid functionaries in Jakarta continue to waste valuable time in high-profile but less than productive meetings and telegenic press conferences.
Refugee camps, missing loved ones, and mass graves have become part of a dreadful yet familiar pattern for many Acehnese. While nature wreaked almost unimaginable havoc in a matter of hours, it did so on a terrain already scarred by acts of violence only the human mind can concoct and enact in the name of security and order — and business interests. What Amy Goodman called a “man-made catastrophe” on Democracy Now (Dec. 29, 2004) has involved systematic application of torture, rape, and abduction on unarmed civilians and human rights workers.
While the earthquake destroyed many buildings, military and paramilitary violence chose its sites and, in a particularly warped strategy, singled out schools for destruction. The impact of such attacks on Aceh’s future cannot be underestimated. Many aid specialists appearing on television this week spoke of the importance of efforts to return children to a state of normalcy to work through trauma. But for innumerable Acehnese children, the trauma of terror, loss of parents, dislocation and deprivation has been the “normal” state for over two decades.
Nature’s immense destructive force has also dismantled some structural elements of the administration of state terror, including tracking of special identity cards the military imposed upon Acehnese in classic counter-insurgency techniques of discrimination and intimidation. And the central government in Jakarta has been forced to take over direct responsibility for Aceh. Civil society throughout Indonesia has responded with strong solidarity action, gathering funds and volunteers for Aceh. It has taken the irresistible power of nature to finally open this battle-weary region of northern Sumatra to national and international attention and assistance. It may well be the opening required to take the people of Aceh — and Indonesia — out of the clutches of the violent zero-sum game of armed conflict and military repression.
Sylvia Tiwon is an Associate Professor in the South and Southeast Asian Studies Department at UC Berkeley.
Ben Terrall is a writer and activist based in San Francisco.
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