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Aceh: Indonesian independence day.

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Monday 19 August 2002

Damien Kingsbury, Senior Lecturer, International Development Studies, Deakin University


Aceh - Indonesian Independence Day  


In the United States, 11 villagers from Indonesia’s province of Aceh are in court, seeking to sue the giant oil company Exxon-Mobil.  


Under US law, it’s illegal for an American company to sponsor human riots violations in another country.  


But the US State Department has tried to intervene in the case, arguing that if the court upholds the villagers’ claim it damage US foreign interests.  


This appeal to ‘national interest’ over law has so far fallen on deaf judicial ears. 


Exxon-Mobil operates the giant Arun liquid natural gas plant on Aceh’s east coast, and there is considerable evidence that the company pays the local Indonesian army or TNI battalions for protection.  


This protection is against guerrillas from the Free Aceh Movement (Gerekan Aceh Merdeka), or GAM.  


GAM also claims that Exxon-Mobil encourages the army to use its premises for the interrogation, torture and murder of Acehnese civilians.  


A mass grave was recently found only metres from a military post at the giant refinery.  


The U.S State Department however, is effectively arguing that the facts of the case are not important.  


What is important is the ability of Exxon-Mobil to continue to contribute to the Indonesian economy, to show that Indonesia is a safe place to invest and, most importantly, to prop up the military backed government of President Megawati Sukarnoputri. 


This is all in return for Indonesia’s support of the US-led war on terrorism. As the world’s largest Islamic state, and situated at a strategically vital global cross-roads, Indonesia is seen as vital to US strategy.  


So important has Aceh become to Indonesia that the US peace negotiator General Anthony Zinni just recently (to air next week???) arrived in the province to try to broker a peace deal between the separatists and the government.  


He said that both sides willingness to talk augured well for a peaceful outcome. 


Yet talks have been underway between the Indonesian government and GAM - the Free Aceh Movement - for more than a year.  


And during that time GAM negotiators have been arrested, and violence has escalated.  


In May this year, peace talks in Europe went hand in hand with the TNI’s killing of the GAM military leader, Abdullah Syafei.  


Syafei was sent a letter inviting him to peace talks in the local capital Banda Aceh. 


The path of the letter was used to track and kill him and his pregnant wife.  


The problem is with talks is that the positions of the two parties are irreconcilable.  


The Indonesian government insists that Aceh will remain a part of Indonesia, and has granted the province some autonomy.  


GAM on the other hand, has rejected the autonomy package as imposed and designed to consolidate Javanese control. 


They insist on an independence referendum which they believe they will comfortably win.  


In the interim, a state of emergency has been declared and Aceh has become a war zone.  


The TNI has been pouring thousands of troops into the area - at least 22,000 Indonesian soldiers in Aceh, along with around 18,000 paramilitary police. And no Indonesian conflict would be complete without militias.  


There are about 10,000 predominantly Javanese militia operating in Central Aceh, trained and led by the Army’s Special Forces, who also trained and led the militias in East Timor.  


No-one knows exactly how many have died so far in Aceh’s war for independence. 


The Free Aceh Movement claims some 6,000 were killed last year, and proportionately the same number in 2002.  


Guests on this program:


Damien Kingsbury  

Senior Lecturer 

International Development Studies 

Deakin University  




Indonesia: The Uncertain Transition  


Crawford House