ON MONDAY, 27 DECEMBER 2004, about 24 hours after the tsunami devastated hundreds of villages and killed more than 150,000 people in Acheh on the northern tip of Sumatra, Nasruddin Abubakar, an Achehnese activist in Jakarta, received an email from Stockholm. It was signed by Malik Mahmud, a top leader of the Stockholm-based Acheh Sumatra National Liberation Front.
Mahmud wrote in his 160-word public statement that all Achenese guerillas are to help “the processes of aiding, evacuating and rehabilitating the victims.” He also called on his nemesis, the Indonesian government, to open up Acheh to humanitarian assistance and international relief organizations. “All field commanders (are) to restraint their troops,” he said, in a bid to avoid the tsunami victims to feel being “trapped and panic.”
Half the world away, in a remote tropical jungle in Acheh, Sofyan Daud, a spokesman for the guerillas, made satellite phone calls to some journalists in the provincial capital, Banda Aceh, repeating Mahmud’s instruction. Sofyan was quoted as saying, “I guarantee that GAM will not make any civil disturbances anywhere in Acheh during this period.”
GAM is the acronym of the Gerakan Acheh Merdeka or the Free Acheh Movement –the nickname of Mahmud’s Acheh Sumatra National Liberation Front. In the Acheh language, the word “gam” literary means, “boy.” It was set up on 4 December 1976 in the hinterland of Acheh by Hasan di Tiro, an Achenese aristocrat, who left his trading business in New York to lead an independence struggle against what he claimed to be Acheh’s colonialization by the Javanese --the dominant ethnic group in Indonesia.
Nasruddin recalled those hectic hours to let me know that the guerillas were making a ceasefire when the Indonesian government was confused in the first week after the tsunami. Most international media covered tourist areas like Phuket in Thailand or Galle in Sri Lanka. Acheh was practically under covered due to the banning of international media to visit Acheh. Only on the third or forth day after the tsunami, some international media began to realize that the hardest hit area was in fact in Acheh.
“Two days after the tsunami, Jusuf Kalla (Indonesian vice president) was still saying about difficulties to get the information from the field,” said Nasruddin. Kalla only announced that “foreigners” –journalists, diplomats, troops, doctors, engineers and aid workers-- were allowed to enter Acheh and to get visas on arrival four days after the tsunami.
“How many survivors could be saved if the government moved quicker?” asked Nasruddin.
Nasruddin is a 28-year-old activist, cleanly shaved with wavy hair. He lives in Jakarta to organize international networking for the Banda Aceh-based Information Center on Acheh Referendum or locally known as SIRA. It is a coalition of student groups, whose aim is to advocate self-determination in Acheh.
“Everyone was then trying to find out about their love ones. I also tried to find out my relatives. My pakcik (uncle) and his two sons were missing in Lamno,” he said, referring to a small town south of Banda Aceh. Altogether, he told me, he had lost 20 relatives in the tsunami.
In Acheh, the Kalla statement immediately opened up the gate to thousands of aid workers, journalists, soldiers and even Christian evangelists, flying from places as far as Norway, Sweden, Japan, China, Afghanistan, Spain, Turkey, Germany, Singapore, Malaysia and many other countries. It was a heart breaking international solidarity. They swarmed into the once isolated Acheh to help the victims.
The Russians set up a field hospital in Banda Aceh. “The hospital provision was ordered by President Vladimir Putin to help the Achehnese,” said Col. Vitaly Geraschenko, the head of the Russian delegation. They used twelve flights of Il-76 heavy transport aircraft to bring a total of 380 tons of hospital equipment including trucks and tents.
The Americans anchored the USS Lincoln off the Acheh coast, deploying 17 Black Hawk, six Chinook and two Super Puma helicopters to deliver emergency relief supplies inland. Four Hercules transport aircraft backed up these helicopters. It was indeed a much needed help for the Indonesian military that operated only two helicopters and three Hercules. From the Australian side, four Hercules transport carriers and four helicopters are in action. In total, there are more than 50 helicopters and 20 cargo planes used by international troops in the Acheh relief effort. The Australian government also agreed to help US$750 million to help reconstruct Acheh. Many nongovernmental organizations also helped Acheh. Hong Kong movie star Jacky Cheung to German Formula I car racer Michael Schumacher organized fund raising for Acheh.
The tsunami flooded not only the Achenese but also Indonesian soldiers. At least 61 soldiers stationed in Aceh were killed and 290 others were missing. Forty-six wives of troops died and 265 others are missing, while 107 children have been reported killed while the fate of 542 others remains unknown, according to the Indonesian military.
Mahmud obviously would like to exploit the presence of the 2,000-something international workers in Acheh and the panic among Indonesian soldiers to advance GAM’s political interest. On the other side, the Indonesian military, which practically controlled and administered Acheh since the late 1970s, would also like to see that the foreigners are under control.
Therefore, the tug of war began just days after Mahmud’s email reached Nasruddin’s electronic mailbox. Sporadic skirmishes began to appear in the first week of January. In the hills near Banda Aceh, there was a barrage of automatic gunfire, prompting survivors living in a temporary camp to run for cover. It was unclear who fired the shots.
The Indonesian military insisted that it has been forced to take action against GAM to ensure that aid is securely delivered to the worst hit areas. "In the past two weeks we were forced to kill at least 120 members of GAM and seize their weapons," said army chief General Ryamizard Ryacudu in late January.
GAM field commander Tengku Jamaica said, however, that only around 20 guerillas had been killed, while the 100 others were unarmed civilians. He denied that the rebels were targeting aid convoys, and accused the military of abandoning the informal ceasefire.
Many rights groups, which include the New York-based Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have repeatedly accused the Indonesian army of being responsible for executions, disappearances, torture and collective punishment in Acheh. Indonesian televisions also showed Indonesian soldiers, whatever they do in the tsunami area, always holding their arms.
“We asked the TNI (Indonesian military] to respect the ceasefire we offered on December 27," Sofyan Daud said. “Now we just run away when they chase us. However, if they continue to chase us, we will go on the offensive and that would be trouble for the TNI and the humanitarian mission.”
These saddened Nasruddin and his peers in Jakarta. “How could we help the tsunami survivors if battles still going on? We’re being sandwiched between GAM and TNI,” he told me.
I WAS TRAVELLING DEEP in the hinterland of Kalimantan, which is famous with its orang utan and wild orchid, when the 9.0 Richter temblor hit Aceh. I witnessed how the tsunami had created an outburst of genuine solidarity among Malay farmers, Dayak tribes people, Chinese merchants or Madurese settlers. there. On almost every main street, whether in Bengkayang or Sambas, I saw young people put out boxes to seek donation from motorists or pedestrians. Indonesian televisions showed dramatic footages from Acheh and people stared for hours.
I was afraid it was not going to be long. Many scholars believe that Indonesia is a new artificial nation lacking firm historical roots. Indonesia comprises 13,677 islands, stretching over a distance from east to west that is approximately the same as from London to Moscow.
It is the world’s largest Muslim country but has a significant Christian majority in the east. Its 200 million people speak more than 300 different languages and their common history is quite a few, which include a Dutch colonial past and a lingua franca developed from the Malay language. When Indonesia achieved independence in 1949, it was built as a federation --a political model that more or less reflected the aspirations of many ethnic groups or former sultanates, who were in various degrees against the Dutch colonialism, but also never wish to be dominated by their neighbors.
Acheh also struggled prominently against the Dutch to secure an autonomous place in the post-Dutch structure. In 1953, however, the first “rebellion” against Jakarta broke out. It took a decade to clamp it down. In 1976, a new “rebellion” broke out again, involving people like Hasan di Tiro and Malik Mahmud.
In other parts of Indonesia, ethnic and religious conflicts also appeared in every major island. More than four million people were killed in these communal violence since 1950. The first two Indonesian presidents, Sukarno and Suharto, managed to keep Indonesia together by brutal means. When Suharto felt from power in May 1998, the institutions that he had built up also began to crumble. East Timor, actually a former Portuguese colony, became the first province to secede from Indonesia when it got a United Nations-organized referendum in 1999.
Still in Kalimantan, I spotted a news report in the Pontianak Post daily, featuring Vice President Jusuf Kalla as saying that he would include the Indonesian Council of Ulemas to help decide on the adoption of “Acehnese orphans.” ”We will help the children to keep their faith. No adoption could be done without the ulemas' (Islamic clergymen's) supervision,”' he said.
Reading between the lines, I immediately realized that Kalla was talking about the sectarian Christian-versus-Muslim issue. Aceh has an immense symbolic importance for Muslims who constitute 88.3 per cent of Indonesia's 201 million citizens. Acheh was the seat of the first Islamic kingdom in the archipelago in the 13th century, when its neighbors were under Hindu or Buddhist rulers. The adoption issue, however imaginary, worries many Islamic activists, including Kalla -- himself a Muslim. I sensed in Pontianak that the solidarity was beginning to crack!
In Banda Aceh, activists of the Muslim-based Prosperous and Justice Party put up posters in public spaces with this warning: “Don't let Acehnese orphans be taken away by Christians and their missionaries.” The party also printed their telephone numbers, encouraging town folks to hand over orphans to Muslim child-care centers instead.The United Nations children's agency, UNICEF, puts the number of affected children, including those who have been orphaned, injured or traumatized by the disaster at close to 1.5 million across South and Southeast Asia.
In Aceh alone, some 35,000 children were estimated to have been affected. Hence, it is only natural for one to be moved by the plight of these destitute children. Kristiani Herrawati, who visited Aceh with her husband, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, also took the initiative to show compassion and wanted to adopt a 13-year- old Acehnese boy, Muhammad Dede Nirwanda.
The media of Palmerah, a Jakarta neighborhood where top newspapers and TV channels are headquartered, however, played up Kalla's statement. But not a single media outlet could quite explain what prompted the vice-president and Muslim activists to focus on religion when the bulk of attention was on how to get emergency aid fast to the tsunami survivors.In Kalla's statement, the innuendo was palpable: relief services had been motivated by religious considerations. Perhaps such worries had been sparked because international relief organizations -- whose workers are mostly westerners and presumably Christians -- were among the first to rush to Aceh. They included American evangelists who spoke about “the love of Jesus Christ” among the victims.
Still the Kalla statement seems more a case of paranoia: there is nothing to suggest that international relief workers are keen to take away Acehnese children and neither have Indonesian churches demonstrated such altruism. Indonesian churches also issued a joint statement, saying that it is not ethical to preach in a disaster area like Acheh. Meanwhile, the mainstream press is fanning suspicions that the U.S. troops helping out in the relief efforts could be providing assistance to GAM guerillas or looking for other interests.
"Of course, the United States government has its interests and it will use this opportunity to closely monitor the geographic conditions of Aceh and the Strait of Malacca," Syamsir Siregar, the head of Indonesia’s intelligence service, told a parliamentarian hearing.
Other politicians talked about “Indonesia’s sovereignty” in Acheh, saying that the government should limit the movements of the international workers there. Hidayat Nur Wahid of the Justice and Prosperous Party suggested that the foreign troops to move out from Acheh in a month!
Jusuf Kalla finally decided that foreigners should get out of Acheh as soon as possible. “Three months are enough. The sooner (they leave), the better,” he said, adding that Indonesians, not foreign troops, should take charge of caring for the 400,000 or so people who lost their homes to the tsunami.
When asked about long-term relief efforts, he said, “We don't need foreign troops.”
In Acheh, the Achenese generally prefer to seek help from international relief workers than their Indonesian counterparts. “I am very, very grateful for them,” said Ibrahim, a security guard whose village vanished in the disaster, told Reuters when asked about the huge influx of foreign soldiers and aid workers into his village. “I hope they stay longer," said Ibrahim.
“We are considering working in Sri Lanka ... but it is very difficult to do so in Indonesia,” said Masakiyo Murai, director of Citizens Toward Overseas Disaster Emergency in Kobe. ”Political interference is a big concern,” said Murai, whose Japanese group has sent members to more than 30 countries hit by national disasters including Turkey, Taiwan and Papua New Guinea.
But President Yudhoyono was trying to put a stop to this narrow-minded nationalism in Jakarta. “The presence of foreign servicemen here is apolitical; they are conducting a humanitarian operation. After some time we will take over the operation, but for now we are grateful for their presence,” he said. Yudhoyono's admissions, as well as his aides’ remarks, show very well that sectarianism and narrow-minded nationalism are the Indonesian agendas in Aceh's relief operation. My Kalimantan’s fear is coming true. Solidarity is slowly changing into xenophobia.
THEY GATHERED OUTSIDE THE UNITED NATIONS office in Jakarta, chanting, waving banners and having speeches in three different languages: English, Indonesian and Achehnese. I did not fully understand the Achehnese speeches, as I do not speak that language, but still their message was clear: Keep the foreign troops and international workers in Acheh. Let the UN help solve the conflict in Acheh.
Just read their banners:
- Acheh problem is a political problem, its solution should go through political channel
- The UN should allow the Achehnese to self-determination
- US Army – My Family – No out from Aceh – We love the peace
- Acheh people welcome international community in Acheh
- Save Acheh now
I met Nasruddin Abubakar the first time here –exactly one month after the tsunami. He shook my hands while looking at the 200-something protesters who rallied in the main avenue in Jakarta.
“Idup bangsa Acheh! Idup bangsa Acheh!” they shouted. “Idup” means “long live” and “bangsa” means “nation.” They used a small white truck to bring water for the protesters. Two Achehnese women in a four-wheel drive sold karee rice and hot chili sambal to the protesters. Slowly they marched toward the American Embassy in the Merdeka Square, creating quite a traffic jam on Thamrin Street.
Nasruddin sent me an email the previous night, asking me to come and to see the protest. Interestingly, I did not see many Palmerah journalists covering this rally, which is an irony, when the previous weeks they bombarded their audiences with anti-foreign statements everyday.
Talking about Acheh among Indonesians is a delicate matter. They mostly believe that Acheh is a legitimate province of Indonesia. They might admit that East Timor was taken by force in 1975. Aceh, in comparison, was at the forefront of Indonesia's struggle for independence from the Dutch in 1945-49. Aceh was an integral part of the new Indonesian Republic. It was only later that Acheh became disillusioned, giving rise first to the Darul Islam (Abode of Islam) rebellion in 1953 and then the GAM insurgency in 1976.
But what is not political in Aceh now? Even the spelling is dilemmatic. The Bahasa Indonesia regime uses the word “Aceh” and most Indonesian school teachers use it that way, but most independent Acheh citizen groups prefer the spelling “Acheh.” Listen to Fauzia Zakaria of the Acheh Women for Justice: “Acheh is the spelling that our forefathers told us to use. We don’t use Aceh because it is not the spelling that our parents use.”
Razidin Marhaban Ahmad, an Achehnese artist, told me, “The Indonesians do not need the Achehnese people. They just need the Acheh land. They just need our oil, our gas and our belonging.”
I asked Nasruddin what made him critical about Indonesia. He said it began in his childhood in his hometown Idi Rayeuk. One day in either 1992 or 1993, he did not remember clearly, the Indonesian military barrack in Idi Rayeuk was burned. Just like most other kids, Nasruddin came to see the burning.
“Suddenly a soldier came to me, kicking and hitting me, without reason,” he said.
It humiliated him. He told me that until today he still remembers the soldier’s name, which is Jumadin. “I still remember his cruel face.”
“GAM was then pretty small. Maybe only 10 people in Idi Rayeuk. But I began to sometimes hear that corpses were found on the streets. They were killed by Indonesian soldiers.”
In 1996, Nasruddin entered Ar Raniry Islamic Institute in Banda Aceh, joining a student organization. He began to read some books written by Hasan di Tiro as well as other history books on Acheh. “My eyes were opened. It was different from the history lessons that I learned from schools. I was only told the histories of (ancient Javanese kingdoms) Majapahit and Mataram.”
When he first visited the Indonesian main island of Java, also in 1996, he saw that his Acheh was rather underdeveloped to be compared with Java. “I had this feeling that Acheh was being discriminated. Like it or not, Java is the most development island in Indonesia.”
He began to join student protests, along with his Java-based student activists, against the repressive Suharto regime. But after the fall of Suharto in May 1998, Nasruddin decided to concentrate his energy on SIRA. His goal is a UN-sponsored referendum in Acheh.
In December 2002, the post-Suharto government signed a truce with Malik Mahmud’s GAM that lasted until May 2003, when the Indonesian military expelled foreign monitors and resumed combat operations against the guerillas.Now efforts are being made in Helsinki so that a ceasefire might be implemented and the two sides sit down together again. President Yudhoyono again offers for wide-ranging autonomy for the Achehnese andthat they give up demands for an internationally supervised referendum like in East Timor in 1999.
Malik Mahmud camp, however, insist that the Achehnese have been cheated with the autonomy offer since the 1950s. They want to internationalize the freedom cause and to ask for a referendum.
When I left the rallies that Nasruddin organized, I remember what Simon Winchester writes in his book “Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded - August 27, 1883.” That catastrophic eruption on the southern tip of Sumatra changed the world. The explosion was followed by an immense tsunami that killed nearly 40,000 people in Sumatra and Java. The effects of the waves were felt as far away as France. Bodies were washed up in Zanzibar. Most significant of all –in today’s new political climate— the eruption helped to trigger in Java a wave of murderous anti-Dutch militancy among the Javanese Muslims.
What will be the political impact of today’s Acheh tsunami? Maybe it is too early to know who will be the target of the anger: the Indonesians who colonize their Aceh or the westerners who dominate Indonesia?
Andreas Harsono is a Jakarta-based journalist, writing mostly for the Inter Press Service. He is currently working on his book on ethnic and religious violence in Indonesia and East Timor. This story appeared in the Stockholm-based Ordfront magazine issue 03/2005 in Swedish. I wrote in English and they translated into Swedish. This is the English version. For the Swedish version clink Ordfront.