Tuesday, October 12, 2004

The Things that Terrorists Do: "Kill(ing) and Maim(ing) Defenseless Men, Women and Children," in this Case, in Aceh

In Indonesia's westernmost province of Aceh, an army helicopter has just gone down, undoubtedly stirring mixed reaction among villagers in the area.

On the one hand, the crash -- reported by Jakarta's Metro TV as a shootdown -- killed officers of the hated Indonesian armed forces, TNI, the force that, in effect, occupies Aceh, a historically distinct region that wants independence. But on the other hand it is sure to bring the most terrible retribution if the TNI decides to say that rebel fire brought down the copter.

Day-to-day the TNI abuses Acehnese for fun (the rapes), for profit (the extortion and theft), and to break them (rape, torture, murder, school burning and reeducation camps), and to provide an excuse for their own existence in an Indonesia with few external enemies. But on those occasions when the outgunned Aceh rebels (GAM, the Aceh Freedom Movement) actually attack the army or police, the security forces strike back disproportionately, sometimes at the spouses and children.

Last week Amnesty International released a report on Aceh noting that "human rights abuses ... are so pervasive that there is virtually no part of life in the province
which remains untouched" ("New Military Operations, Old Patterns of Human Rights Abuses in Aceh," Amnesty International, October 7, 2004). They spoke of recent "extrajudicial executions of civilians by the military" -- local activists say hundreds of them -- including "the unlawful killing of women and children," a fact which is not surprising, given that the Indonesian army commander has said that anyone who criticizes military rule is GAM, and that the national TNI chief has said of GAM: "hunt them down and exterminate them" (Anatara, the government press agency, quoted Gen. Ryamizard Ryacudu as saying, on December 8, 2003: "People who dislike the military emergency in Aceh are GAM members. So if they have the same voice as GAM members, this will mean that they are the younger brothers of the separatist movement." Amnesty quoted Gen. Endriartono Sutarto at a May, 2003 military briefing).

Aceh is actually one of the worst cases of repression of civilians in the world, but, for various reasons the world doesn't see it even though the scale is comparable to that of, say, Palestine. The economy is based on the revenues of a vast Exxon/Mobil-run natural gas field -- or, it would be if those revenues found their way back into the hands of poor Acehnese (2001 central government statistics said 21.6% of Aceh toddlers were malnourished; a later internal World Bank estimate put the percentage twice as high).

Though Aceh is officially part of Indonesia, in May of 2003 the TNI launched a full-scale invasion of the place, explicitly modeled on the then-recent US invasion of Iraq. The invasion featured much talk from Jakarta authorities about "shock therapy," "embedded" journalists, and the political "blessing of September 11" (as the Indonesian president's main political aide, Rizal Mallarangeng, put it [Jane Perlez, "Indonesia Says it Will Press Attacks on Separatists in Sumatra," New York Times, May 23, 2003]), as well as "numerous extra-judicial executions of civilians by the Indonesian military (TNI)" ("Aceh Under Martial Law: Human Rights Under Fire," Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper, June 2003). The Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirayuda was quoted by the BBC (May 9, 2003): "Honestly, what we are doing or will do in Aceh is much less than the American power that was deployed in Iraq."

The TNI sealed the point with bombing runs from US supplied F-16s, and low-level strafing from US OV-10s, a plane that also figured prominently in Vietnam and in occupied East Timor.

But TNI has had to be sparing with those Aceh raids because they are hurting for spare parts. US military aid and sales were severely curtailed due to US grassroots activism in the '90s, but now the Bush administration is pushing to restore training and subsidized weapons sales to Indonesia and Attorney General Ashcroft wants to formally classify the Aceh GAM rebels as "terrorist."

President Bush senior once gave a good, objective definition of terrorism. In his Vice Presidential foreword to a Pentagon/State Department report on the subject, Bush the elder wrote: "terrorists deliberately target noncombatants for their own cynical purposes. They kill and main defenseless men, women and children ... Freedom fighters, in contrast, seek to adhere to international law and civilized standards of conduct. They attack military targets, not defenseless civilians."

Unfortunately, though, the Bush definition is not currently in use. If it were, US allies like the TNI would be targeted for US action rather than aid, and the old president's son would be facing trial -- or worse -- for sponsoring terrorism.