A compilation of coverage as part of series ‘Crisis in Aceh.’ The highlight was mine.
Source: The Jakarta Post
Date: 14 Jan 2005
Caught between tragedy and propaganda
By Emmy Fitri, Jakarta
What is the role of the media in the devastation in Aceh? There is no doubt that the media has shown us the dramatic realities of the tragedy, prompting a global relief effort unseen since World War II.
But when interests shift from humanitarian relief to politics, the media becomes an ideal vehicle for political-laden propaganda, such as the sort of items that are even now thrust before us. No longer is the media a conduit to mirror suffering, it has transformed itself into an agent of dogma.
Headlines in local media would take a different tone altogether if the tragedy hit — God forbid — the coast of Java.
Aceh has been in a state of siege since 1976, when the Indonesian Military (TNI) launched military operations to combat separatist (known as GAM) sentiments.
Less than a fortnight after the Dec. 26 tsunami, local headlines were already moving away from human-interest features to political discourses about rebels and the state of emergency in the province. It may have been caused by a glut of sob stories and the simple demand for something “new”, but the scent of news manipulation has also been detectable.
Learning from the media in Iraq, Jakarta radio stations are already reading verbatim press releases of separatist incursions and how soldiers have had to engage rebels blocking off aid workers.
Press releases are dubious by nature — especially those from the TNI — and
journalistic ethics requires double-checking. But the magnitude of the tsunami may have prompted some media to move ahead with news items based on “the benefit of the doubt”, or perhaps “the benefit of fear”.
At a time when the focus must be on aid, it is sad that the TNI — negating its own good work in relief operations in Aceh — has emphasized the need for continued offensive operations by patrolling high-ground rebel areas untouched by the tsunami.
Looting, the interdiction of aid convoys and the dangers faced by civilian volunteers have been cited by the TNI. All, “surprisingly”, have rarely been corroborated by returning independent volunteers.
Amid the hardships suffered by people in Aceh, an Army general even claimed that at least 34 skirmishes with rebel forces had taken place since the tsunami struck.
Indonesia’s most popular news portal Detik.com on Jan. 11 quoted that general as saying that operations should continue since separatists were intent on ambushing aid convoys and infiltrating refugee shelters.
Maybe Internet journalism does not conform to the same standards as other media — not that print journalism has been a glowing example of good reporting either during this period — but the failure to verify these statements as fact and the ambitious move to print such items as truth is astounding.
Strong investigative journalism could well prove many of the claims made by the TNI so far as less than accurate. Nevertheless we hear little of this, defiance is limited to internet blogs and private mail lists.
Such is the pervading sentiment of the GAM threat that even Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, as reported by AFP, expressed the fear that Australian aid workers could get caught in a crossfire between the TNI and rebels.
This is a critical period when people hope not only for “good news” from Aceh, but expect “good reporting”. Getting aid to the tsunami victims is hard enough, it should not be bogged down further by a political agenda.
While it should take responsibility, the media is not solely to blame for the angling of Aceh from a stage of humanitarian crisis to an arena of conflict.
The TNI may well feel increasingly insecure about the incomparable effective works of foreign troops in Aceh compared to its own shadowy past in the province.
While the attitude of the TNI or the government cannot immediately be rectified, the “independent” media must firmly adhere to professional principles and remain neutral.
Something is wrong with our understanding of humanity when we — the media, the TNI, the government and the general public — accept the exploitation of ahumanitarian crisis for political interests.
In the age of dogma and despot, it was “patriotic” to swallow propaganda whole. But, in the new republic, the public’s — especially the media’s — paramount loyalty is to the truth.
To swerve from that allegiance would surely mean the sword has become mightier than the pen.
Source: The Wall Street Journal
Date: 14 Jan 2005
Indonesia’s Aceh Mistake – Editorial
As if the people of Aceh, where at least 108,000 died in the tsunami, didn’t have enough problems already. Now the Indonesian government — and especially its military — is putting obstacles in the way of international efforts to aid survivors in the devastated province.
In recent days, Indonesia has banned foreign aid workers from traveling to most parts of Aceh without prior approval or military escorts and insisted that the U.S. and other foreign troops, who have rushed to aid the relief effort, leave before the end of March: “Three months are enough I think. The sooner, the better,” said Vice President Jusuf Kalla.
The official reason for these restrictions is the same one that kept Aceh closed to outsiders until the urgent need for tsunami relief pried open its doors two weeks ago — a separatist insurgency that means the military can’t guarantee their safety.
It’s true there have been isolated reports of sporadic clashes between the army and rebels in recent days, despite the pro-independence movement’s official declaration of a cease-fire in the wake of the Dec. 26 tragedy.
But that hardly explains the decision to order the foreign troops to go home, or insist they can’t carry weapons while in Indonesia. Already the restrictions are having a negative effect. U.S. marines have scaled back plans to send hundreds of troops ashore to build roads and clear rubble while the USS Abraham Lincoln has been diverted to international waters, further away from the Aceh coast. And as Norbert Vollertsen writes nearby, the travel restrictions imposed on aid workers mean that stockpiles of aid are piling up in the provincial capital of Banda Aceh, while the military pursues its campaign against the rebels.
It’s scarcely surprising that the Indonesian military, which has profited from lucrative business opportunities in Aceh for many years while its closed status prevented outside scrutiny, should feel uneasy about this sudden influx of outsiders. The presence of Australian troops, in particular, ruffles the feathers of Indonesian nationalists by reminding them of the loss of that other rebellious province, East Timor.
But if they care about the welfare of their people, the priority should be to do what’s best for the survivors. That means welcoming all offers of assistance, rather than adopting a grudging attitude that risks undermining the effectiveness of their efforts.
Rather than exaggerating the danger posed by a rag-tag band of rebels engaged in a decades-old nationalist insurgency, Indonesian leaders should focus on the far more grave threat posed by Islamic radicals who have flocked to Aceh under the cloak of the relief effort.
According to the New York Times, these include members of Laskar Mujahedeen, a paramilitary group with links to al Qaeda, some of whom arrived on a flight organized by Mr. Kalla.
Mr. Kalla has made most of the public pronouncements on the tsunami crisis so far, while Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has remained largely silent. But Mr. Yudhoyono, a retired general, has a track record of advocating conciliation as the only way to end the Aceh conflict. And if he can step forward and take the reins on this issue, Indonesia may yet be able to overcome the missteps of the past few days.
Source: The Jakarta Post
Date: 14 Jan 2005
TNI allegedly collects ‘border fees’ from foreign volunteers
JAKARTA (Antara): A number of foreign volunteers working in Aceh relief programs have expressed concern over fees collected by Indonesian Military (TNI) personnel along the border between Medan, North Sumatra, and Banda Aceh.
Adian, chairman of the Independent Volunteers’ Commission, said on Friday that complaints had been raised by volunteers from various countries, including Australia and Japan.
Volunteers were reportedly asked by TNI border troops to pay Rp 1 million (US$108.10) each toward the purchase of communications equipment and for security support.
The fees had been collected over the last three days in a number of locations between Banda Aceh and Langsa in Aceh, he said.
Indonesian Navy spokesman First Adm. Abdul Malik Yusuf has denied the reports.
“It’s nonsense. No Navy personnel collects levies from the volunteers aboard the war ships to Aceh and North Sumatra,” he said.
Source: MSNBC News – Newsweek World News
Date: 17 Jan 2005 issue
Charity and Chaos
An insurgency was bleeding Aceh before the tsunami hit. Food aid can’t fix that.
By George Wehrfritz and Joe Cochrane
The American Seahawk chopper descends toward a one-lane road near the ruined village of Lam No. Before the skids have even touched the pavement, a mob rushes toward the craft in hopes of grabbing food, drinks and medicine. The throng is mostly children. Navy airmen and an accompanying NEWSWEEK correspondent aboard the chopper offload bundles of wheat, protein biscuits and strawberry yogurt as rotor blades whirl overhead. In less than two minutes, the helicopter is again aloft. “They’re all so hungry,” shouts 22-year-old Nathan Minear, an aviation warfare systems operator from Washington state, as the chopper roars away.
Minear’s mission in the disputed Indonesian province of Aceh is purely humanitarian. But the mammoth international relief effort, including the largest American military deployment in Southeast Asia since Vietnam, entails far more complex tasks than airlifting food to displaced people. The tsunami took its worst toll in Aceh: more than 100,000 dead, more than 500,000 homeless. Yet government agencies and relief organizations answering Indonesia’s S.O.S. are also landing smack in the middle of a low-grade civil war. Will the rescue teams simply feed and treat survivors, then leave? Or will the international community become embroiled in the volatile politics of the conflict? Diplomats face similar questions in hard-hit Sri Lanka, where the tsunami wrecked areas under the control of the Tamil Tigers, regarded as a terrorist organization by the U.S. government.
One immediate challenge for aid outfits in Aceh is to keep their personnel safe. Relief workers are operating alongside radical Islamic groups and paramilitary youth gangs, as well as Acehnese rebels who hijack food convoys. Looters have been swarming the flood wreckage: in at least one instance, a scavenger was seen opening body bags and stealing jewelry off bloated corpses. Rescue teams also have to deal with the Indonesian military, which has committed gross rights abuses in Aceh, and has a well-earned reputation for corruption. “There’s clear evidence that Army and police are stealing food aid and selling it in the market,” says outraged religious leader Muslim Ibrahim, chairman of an association of Islamic clerics called the Aceh Ulama Assembly.
Secretary of State Colin Powell and other U.S. leaders are hoping the rescue missions will showcase American compassion and improve Washington’s image in the Islamic world. Among Aceh’s Muslims, that will likely prove true. But more broadly, intervention could cut many ways. “I think they’re walking into a political minefield,” says Sidney Jones, Southeast Asia project director for the International Crisis Group, which monitors conflicts. If the West nudges Jakarta to make concessions for peace in Aceh, that could aggravate a key ally in the fight against Al Qaeda’s jihadist supporters, who see Indonesia as a good recruiting ground and target for anti-Western attacks. (Aceh itself rests along the Strait of Malacca, a vital shipping lane that Washington fears is vulnerable to terrorism.) Indonesian Army officers could come to resent the presence of American soldiers.
The people of Aceh have been fighting outside forces for more than a century– first the Dutch, then the Japanese, and eventually Indonesian rule from Jakarta. Frustration with the central government spiked in the 1970s when Jakarta began extracting natural gas and oil from the province. As Indonesia grew richer from oil dollars, Aceh remained impoverished. The Free Aceh Movement, or GAM, was formed in 1976, and received support from Libya. Indonesian soldiers routinely tortured and executed civilians, and raped thousands of women. GAM rebels killed suspected collaborators and military families. In the 1990s alone, an estimated 10,000 people died in the civil war. Most were civilians.
At the time the tsunami hit, Aceh had become a virtual fiefdom of the Indonesian Army. Commanders ran business empires, and oversaw smuggling, illegal logging, protection rackets and extortion schemes. GAM exported drugs, kidnapped for ransom and taxed villages under its control. “Both [the military and the rebels] are happy to keep the war going because they’re making money,” says a senior religious leader in Aceh.
The military’s initial response to the tsunami was, by many accounts, apathetic. NEWSWEEK’s first reporters in the provincial capital, Banda Aceh, saw groups of armed soldiers loafing in the shade, smoking cigarettes as relief planes lined up on the tarmac at the capital’s small airstrip. Their commander occupied an air-conditioned VIP lounge where he waited for senior visitors from Jakarta. Rotting bodies littered the streets, yet the most pressing concern for the brass was protocol. Commanders refused to coordinate relief efforts with the first official sent by the Welfare Ministry, deeming him too junior. Minister Alwi Shihab himself flew north to do the job, but not before a critical day was lost.
Profiteering is rampant. On a New Zealand military cargo flight from Aceh to Jakarta, about half the “refugees” being carried out were well-dressed people who paid up to $80 to Indonesian military screeners to be allowed on the plane. Gas prices, rental-car fees and housing costs have spiked. When a NEWSWEEK reporter passed through Medan (the main hub into Aceh) and found all flights to Jakarta fully booked, a scalper appeared and asked, “Do you mind buying someone else’s ticket?” The correspondent paid a 30 percent premium and caught the flight traveling as John Lennon.
Other black-market traders are more predatory. At least two people have been arrested and another is being questioned for allegedly stealing children, according to the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF. The problem is so serious that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (popularly known as SBY) issued a decree banning refugees under the age of 16 from leaving the province. “There are children that are being moved, and because the situation up there is so chaotic they don’t know what’s going on,” says John Budd, UNICEF’s spokesman in Jakarta. “Medan is a serious and quite notorious area for child trafficking for adoption, underage labor and the sex trade.”
Until the wave hit, Aceh was closed to most relief and development outfits (and to foreign reporters). Now women’s groups, human-rights organizations and Indonesian journalists previously bullied out of the province are back. Wardah Hafidz, a prominent activist for Jakarta’s poor, says progressive groups are eager to re-enter Aceh under the banner of humanitarian relief, while downplaying their agenda to end military rule there. “We don’t want to wake the sleeping lion,” she says.
Sinister figures have also set up shop. Pemuda Panca Marga, a thuggish Jakarta-based youth group with links to the military, rode in trucks through Banda Aceh last week, making menacing gestures at people on the streets. The group gained notoriety in 2003 after it ransacked the offices of a prominent human-rights organization. The Islamic Defenders Front, famous for smashing up nightclubs in Jakarta as affronts to Islam, rushed hundreds of volunteers to “guard Muslim society because there are so many infidels here,” one member told reporters. Hizbut Tahrir, which advocates a global Islamic state and is allegedly linked to terrorists, is doing volunteer work in Aceh.
These extremists might sound scary, but the most ominous force in Aceh remains the Indonesian military. It’s unclear whether it will surrender its lucrative fiefdom without a fight. Suspicious generals are convinced that the insurgents cynically support peace initiatives only to buy time to rebuild; they think the arrival of foreigners, naive to the intricacies of Acehnese politics, could bolster the rebels. Some rabid nationalists suspect the West harbors a secret agenda to break up Indonesia. Retired Gen. Agus Widjojo, a senior fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta, warns that even well-intentioned foreign assistance could rankle “conflicted” midcareer officers who regard themselves as the ultimate guarantors of Indonesian sovereignty. Some officers may feel envious and resentful of American capabilities. “They see foreigners doing things that they want to do but are not capable of doing,” says Widjojo.
Optimists hope that Indonesia’s rapid move toward democracy, which culminated in the country’s first-ever direct presidential election last fall, will ensure a peaceful outcome. President Yudhoyono, a retired four-star general, led peace talks as Security minister in late 2002. Those negotiations brought a brief respite to Aceh’s bloodletting before the process collapsed in May 2003. Some in Yudhoyono’s government would like Washington to get involved now. (The president himself has watched DVDs of “The West Wing” to better understand the U.S.-style cabinet system, according to aides.) Welfare Minister Shihab, Jakarta’s point man in Aceh, told NEWSWEEK that “international pressure” is now needed to bring rebels to the negotiating table, and that a peace deal should be a top priority for foreigners who want “Aceh rebuilt in a prosperous way.”
American officials insist that they’re focused on relief, but they don’t rule out a peace effort. “Our people, both military and humanitarian, will be looking for opportunities to help the political crises [in Aceh and Sri Lanka],” says a senior administration official managing the U.S. response to the tsunami, adding: “I’d describe it more as openness, not really an agenda.” A senior State Department official says that “if things fall into place, there may be some way to solve political crises, but there is no reason to assume they will.”
Is it possible to start fixing a place, then just leave? By the State Department’s own reckoning, Aceh is plagued by “unlawful killings, beatings and torture by soldiers, police and rebels.” “If peace does not come to Aceh within one or two years, I’m afraid we will be destroyed worse than by the tsunami,” says Rufriadi, a prominent Acehnese human-rights attorney whose home was ruined in the flooding. “Everything here begins with peace.”
With Eve Conant in Washington and Paul Dillon and Eric Unmacht in Banda Aceh