- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 6, 2005

During this week’s humanitarian visit to Indonesia, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush were struck by the devastation at Aceh, the region at the northern tip of the island of Sumatra.

Indonesia is a vast southern archipelago close to the epicenter of the Dec. 26 earthquake that sent a tsunami across the Indian Ocean. The death toll in the country was 94,200, and most of the victims were in Aceh, where entire coastal towns were wiped out by the huge waves.

The disaster spotlighted the political turmoil in the province, where the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka in Indonesia’s official language, or GAM) has been battling for independence for 28 years.

GAM has grown from an initial membership of 150 Muslim rebels to nearly 3,000 Islamic fighters today. The region has been off limits to the foreign press and humanitarian groups since mid-2003.

Indonesia is made up of more than 13,500 islands, fewer than half of which are inhabited. It was a trade destination of the Portuguese during Europe’s late Middle Ages. The Portuguese were replaced by the Dutch in the 1600s, two centuries after the arrival of Islam. Indonesia was united under a single government a century ago, and its 20th-century history was tumultuous.

After the tsunami 12 days ago, government officials initially restricted access to Aceh by news organizations and aid workers. It required that these groups submit applications, wait up to two weeks for them to be processed, and register with the government in order to be monitored.

However, Jakarta and the GAM have agreed to a temporary cease-fire, and the region is open to foreign journalists and humanitarian groups. The Indonesian army has reassigned the same soldiers that recently pursued the separatists to help with Aceh relief efforts, and to bury the dead. On New Year’s Eve, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono declared 2005 the “Year of Togetherness.”

Aceh has a long history of resisting foreign occupiers, beginning with its colonization by Europeans. Britain considered the area one of its territories until 1824, when it was given to the Dutch, who at first agreed to respect its independence.

Frustrated with their lack of control, the Dutch invaded the region in 1873. Resistance was much stronger than the Dutch had anticipated, but by 1904, Aceh was fully under Dutch control with the rest of Indonesia.

Two Indonesian nationalists, Mohammed Hatta and Sukarno, agitated against Dutch colonization, and when Japan seized Indonesia at the start of World War II, it took the islands into the occupation government. After Japan’s 1945 defeat, the Dutch sought to regain their former colony but the nationalists resisted.

When Indonesia gained independence in 1949, it sent troops to annex Aceh. The soldiers encountered resistance from natives, who viewed them as yet another occupier. To placate the dissidents, the Jakarta government granted the province “special territory” status that recognized a degree of autonomy in some matters. A pro-independence movement remained.

A main point of contention has been the region’s large deposits of oil and natural gas. Although Aceh has considerable natural resources, 40 percent of its people live below the poverty level and the province is Indonesia’s poorest.

A major complaint has been that these resources are removed from the region but the wealth they bring rarely reaches its residents, going instead to the central government in Jakarta and multinational corporations. Corruption, too, is a problem that has kept the region poor.

Aceh’s division from the rest of Indonesia is exacerbated by its conservative strain of Islam. Efforts by Suharto — who resigned as president on May 21, 1998, after more than 30 years in power — to cultivate a unified “Indonesian culture” angered many in Aceh province, largely because of his emphasis on secular policies.

GAM’s push for Aceh’s independence began in 1976. Since then, human-rights groups say, about 14,000 people have been killed, mainly civilians. Fueling the unrest are reported abuses by Indonesia’s armed forces, known as the TNI. Numerous cases of kidnapping, rape, torture and mass killing by the TNI have been reported, especially from 1989 to 1998, when the region was a militarized zone. Violence escalated in 2003 after the breakdown of internationally brokered peace talks. The government declared a military emergency and sent in as many as 51,000 troops to root out an estimated 5,300 guerrillas.

The situation was downgraded to a civil emergency in May.

Malik Mahmud, GAM’s self-proclaimed prime minister in Swedish exile, has expressed hope that with international attention on Aceh province, a way might be found for an agreement with the Indonesian government.

Each side accuses the other of ignoring the truce and taking advantage of the situation to further its own political ends.

The government has sent in more troops, arguing that the increased TNI presence is necessary to prevent GAM guerrillas from infiltrating refugee camps and stealing aid. On Wednesday, it called on GAM to stop being “selfish” and to put aside its own interests.

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