Subject: Disaster Opens Window on Aceh Civil War [+Woes a Metaphor for State]

also: Aceh Rebel Leader Says Tsunami May Help Peace; and The Age: Disaster Opens Window on Warring State

Sydney Morning Herald Saturday, January 1, 2005

Woes of Aceh a Metaphor for State

By Louise Williams

The drab, suspicious towns of Aceh's coastal flats are unaccustomed to goodwill.

A lifetime of armed rebellion against Jakarta's oppressive authority and the familiar drone of military patrols along the narrow local roads have long nurtured hatred and fear.

In recent years hopes for peace have, briefly, flared. Repentant Indonesian politicians and officials have traipsed into Aceh's tatty town squares. Torture centres have been boarded up, their victims exhumed from unmarked graves, promises made. Then, intrasigence on both sides, and more bloodshed.

Yet when the tsunami hit the huddle of wooden buildings of waterfront Sigli, wardens at the local prison rushed to help the inmates.

Many prisoners freed were members of Movement for a Free Aceh, GAM, jailed over their grinding, violent campaign for independence. It was one very small story, amid unimaginable human suffering. The next day, when a message was put out asking prisoners to return to help, nearly all of them did.

Across Aceh tragedy has suspended one of Asia's longest-running wars.

"This is a very, very important moment," said Arbi Sanit, a political scientist at the University of Indonesia, of the prospects of building peace out of Aceh's ruins

In a single day three, perhaps four, times more people perished than in 28 years of fighting.

"We just must now see the war in a different light," said Rizal Mallerangang, a political analyst.

Dr Sanit said:"There is an enormous outpouring of sympathy and support for Aceh from ordinary Indonesians. This is the moment to invite the people of Aceh back into Indonesia.

"If the Indonesian Government can show the Acehnese people that it really can help them, then maybe they will feel they are part of this nation."

Whether the lull will last beyond the initial shock is intrinsically linked to how Indonesia's new reformist President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, manages the huge relief effort.

And Dr Yudhoyono's own political legitimacy hangs on demonstrating, very quickly, that, unlike previous leaders, he is not aloof from the suffering of ordinary Indonesians. This means nothing short of tackling the country's broader structural problems head on in Aceh; shaking the bloated, inefficient bureaucracy into action, turning military battalions into humanitarian workers and, critically, stemming the corrupt "leakage" or relief funds and goods.

"Aceh has become the focus point. People will judge whether this new government can really deliver by what happens in Aceh," said an Achenese academic, Rizal Sukma.

Dr Yudhoyono has led Indonesia for just 72 days, and popular expectations are running high. His new, reformist Democrat Party shook up national elections earlier this year, by pulling enough disillusioned, urban voters away from traditional political parties to give him a chance at the presidency. His promise was irresistibly simple: real reforms.

The collapse of the authoritarian regime of the former president Soeharto 6 years ago did, finally, usher in democracy. But, for much of the power elite it has been business as usual. Authority in government, or the military, continues to be exploited for personal profit. Such blatant self-interest, and the huge disparity in wealth it generates, under the fine banner of democracy, grates on Indonesia's dusty streets. The national economy has not recovered from the Asian economic crisis of 1997; almost half the population struggles on less than $US2 a day.

On Indonesia's western and eastern extremes bloody insurgencies have spluttered on, stoked by similar complaints of economic and social injustice.

This week Dr Yudhoyono was up to his elbows and knees in death, taking personal charge of the relief effort.

But help undoubtedly came late to Aceh, in many places too late, because of access restrictions to the conflict zone, bureaucratic incompetence and a simple lack of infrastructure, transport, and resources in a poor nation.

To Dr Ed Aspinall, an expert on Aceh at the University of Sydney, Indonesia's wider reform challenge and the potential for peace in Aceh are inseparable.

If the relief effort was effective, he said, and created a sense of solidarity within Indonesia there was potential for long-term reconciliation, or peace.

But there was also a danger. "If survivors in Aceh feel there has been a great deal of incompetence, a lack of urgency, or - even worse - the corruption of relief funds, this will further reinforce their sense of alienation.

Dr Yudhoyono's spokesman said Aceh's immediate needs were too great to look too far forward, but acknowledged the goodwill should be harnessed.

But one source, close to GAM, wanted a quicker response.

"There is now a ceasefire in place because of this terrible tragedy, after some of the worst fighting for years. Please, let's ask for international mediation now so we can get it on paper and get it signed now. Then, when relief teams eventually leave, it will be there, as a basis for new peace talks."

Louise Williams is a former Herald correspondent in Indonesia.


Aceh Rebel Leader Says Tsunami May Help Peace

By Peter Starck, Reuters

STOCKHOLM, Dec 31 (Reuters) - The tsunami that devastated gas-rich Aceh in Indonesia, killing 100,000 of its 4.5 million people, may eventually help peace prospects in the region, a separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM) leader said on Friday.

Malik Mahmud, self-styled GAM prime minister, said international focus on Aceh -- the area worst hit by the flood waves triggered by the Dec. 26 Indian Ocean earthquake -- might benefit GAM, embroiled since 1976 in an armed struggle against Indonesian rule.

Rescue workers from a dozen countries, and the media, have descended upon the province on the north tip of Indonesia's Sumatra island 1,700 km (1,060 miles) west of Jakarta.

Mahmud, who lives in exile in Sweden, said Jakarta had tried to prevent the outside world from knowing about Aceh's independence struggle. "But now people (abroad) know where is Aceh, what is Aceh.

"While we talk about the natural disaster in Aceh, human tragedies, things like that, we also talk about the political aspects of Aceh and the problem that we have with the Indonesian government ... this is an opportunity," he told Reuters.

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, speaking at a news conference with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, said he hoped the disaster would bring something good with it as protagonists were now working together to help those in need.

"And I hope that collaboration is not going to end with the crisis and that they will be able to build on that and use these new dynamics to resolve their own differences and we will be encouraging that," he said.

But in the devastated province capital Banda Aceh, a Reuters eyewitness saw rice sacks stacked along the walls of a house guarded by a dozen armed Indonesian soldiers. Residents complained that troops were in some cases refusing to distribute the rice and keeping it for their families.

Mahmud said although GAM was still waiting for a reply from Jakarta to its unilateral ceasefire offer on Dec. 27 in the interest of undivided attention on rescue work, he remained hopeful that peace stood a chance.

"We will survive, and especially with the help of the international community ... whatever aid or attention we get from the international community will help Aceh to survive," he said.

Before the tsunami, behind-the-scenes efforts by GAM to engage in peace talks with the Indonesian government had been going on despite martial law imposed in May 2003 and lifted a year later to be replaced by civil emergency status, Mahmud said.

It might now take between one and two months before peace talk attempts might resume, he said.

The tsunami earthquake's epicentre was 150 km (90 miles) from the town of Meulaboh on Aceh's west coast, which Mahmud said was mostly flat for several kilometres (miles) inland.

He said according to information he had received from GAM loyalists in the province, at least 70 percent of the approximately 100,000 people who lived in Meulaboh and nearby villages had died.

Tens of thousands were killed in the provincial capital Banda Aceh, which he said was "almost totally destroyed, I think more than 50 percent of the city is gone."

In Aceh, government officials said the provincial death toll may rise to 100,000, while Jan Egeland, the U.N. emergency relief coordinator, said the toll was approaching 150,000.


The Age (Melbourne) Saturday, January 1, 2005

Disaster Opens Window on Warring State

By Lindsay Murdoch


Until the earth cracked open and huge waves smashed ashore during 25 minutes of terror last Sunday, Aceh was closed to the outside world.

The Indonesian Government had for years enforced strict bans on foreigners, including aid workers, entering the rebellious province at the tip of Sumatra.

Particularly after losing East Timor in 1999, Jakarta's military and political elite feared the presence of foreigners would encourage rebels fighting for independence.

The military also did not want foreign witnesses to its brutal crackdown on the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), which has been waging an equally brutal guerilla war against its presence in the province for decades.

Yesterday, scores of planes carrying emergency relief supplies from around the world, including Australia, and hundreds of international aid workers were arriving in Banda Aceh, the capital of Aceh, a city of 70,000 that has been almost totally destroyed. Possibly one in four people is dead.

The Indonesian Health Ministry estimates just under 80,000 are dead across the province - a catastrophe beyond its ability to cope with or its resources.

As the scale of the death and destruction became clear, officials close to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono gave the go-ahead for foreign aid workers and foreign journalists to enter the province.

The military, long opposed to the presence of international journalists, even put small groups of them on the first military cargo planes that flew emergency supplies into Banda Aceh.

The military itself has been hard-hit, with hundreds of its soldiers killed and battalions effectively wiped out.

With hundreds of thousands of survivors in shock, struggling just to stay alive without food, water, medicines or shelter, soldiers have been left the grisly job of picking up and burying the bodies, which by yesterday were falling apart in Aceh's steamy heat.

The job is overwhelming.

Already, people are falling ill amid rotting corpses.

It will take many more days, if not weeks, for all the bodies to be buried, particularly those in the worst-hit towns that hug Sumatra's west coast that are closest to the epicentre of Sunday's earthquake.

The military knows it cannot cope alone. "Where is the United Nations?" a soldier driving a truck picking up bodies pleaded on Thursday.

"Please tell the United Nations to come."

A soldier in Meulaboh, possibly the worst-hit town, where half the population could be dead, said that maybe now people in Aceh who had been fighting for independence will realise the military is there to help them.

But the military's inability to quickly get aid to devastated areas has also fuelled some animosity towards them.

Some community leaders in Banda Aceh have accused soldiers, perhaps unfairly, of taking the first of the emergency supplies for themselves.

Aceh's fate changed forever after the 25 minutes of terror last Sunday.

Enemies in a long, bloody civil war suddenly found themselves side by side looking desperately for family members, struggling to stay alive amid indescribable devastation and carnage.

Everybody in Aceh will need as much outside help as they can get for a long time to come.

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