On March 9, the ExxonMobil oil corporation suspended operations in Aceh citing “security concerns”. On March 13, Indonesian foreign minister Alwi Shihab visited the United States to lobby the administration of US President George W. Bush to resume full military ties.
Indonesian security minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on March 17 announced that three battalions (with 650 personnel each) and a cavalry unit had been deployed to protect “vital installations” operated by ExxonMobil.
ExxonMobil is Indonesia’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Japan and South Korea. It sells the oil it extracts to Indonesia’s state-owned oil company, Pertamina. ExxonMobil operations account for 30% of Indonesia’s foreign exchange earnings in the oil and gas sector. The suspension of LNG exports is a serious setback for the Indonesian economy.
the Indonesia Human Rights Campaign, observed in a statement that the
Indonesian military (TNI) “have been able to use this opportunity [created
by the suspension of ExxonMobil operations] to re-establish its leading
role in security operations in Aceh which, since 2000, has been under the
overall command of the Indonesian police force”. It said the decision by
ExxonMobil gave the military “a powerful argument in favour of launching
these operations, reversing the policy favoured by President Abdurrahman
Wahid to solve the conflict in Aceh by means of negotiations with GAM”.
We must force the Australian government to end all military ties with Indonesia. While the training of Indonesian special forces by the Australian military was put on hold following the rampage by the TNI and its militia groups in East Timor after the 1999 independence referendum, Canberra continues to train members of Indonesia’s regular army in Australia. It is likely that the Australian government will offer increased military cooperation as a “goodwill” gesture when Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid visits Australia in April.
While the TNI continues to act with impunity as ExxonMobil’s private security guards—a recent investigation by human rights organisation Kontras-Aceh estimated that the company pays US$500,000 a month for the service—the Australian government has a moral responsibility to end all ties to Indonesia.
Of course, the Australian government’s
foreign policy is based on putting profits before human need. But we know
from the success of the solidarity movement in forcing Canberra to reverse
its policy of opposing independence for East Timor that governments can
be forced, through mass pressure, to change policy.
The March 1 congress of FPDRA received greetings from the Indonesian People’s Democratic Party, the only political party in Indonesia to actively support the Acehnese people’s struggle for self-determination, the National Students League for Democracy, National Front for Workers Struggle, the National Peasants Union and from GAM.
In January, Kautsar urged Australians to assist the Acehnese people by applying pressure on the Australian government to end military ties with Indonesia.
Syadiah Marhaban from the Aceh Referendum Information Centre has also emphasised the need for greater international support for her people’s struggle. Internationalism, these activists say, is key to them winning their struggle. We have no better example to look to than that of East Timor. For 25 years, Australian governments—Labor and Coalition—turned a blind eye to the East Timorese people’s suffering. Canberra became Suharto’s closest international ally. However, these politicians found themselves totally isolated by the groundswell of the Australian people’s solidarity for the East Timorese.
Yet, back in 1975 not a lot was known in Australia about East Timor. The brutal Indonesian suppression of the Timorese independence movement was presented by the Australian government as irreversible. The “national interest” argument was peddled every time someone dared query the wisdom or humanity of Australia’s opportunist foreign policy.
The early movement in solidarity with East
Timor shrunk to small circles—until 1991 and the Dili massacre. The rebirth
of the East Timor solidarity movement took place throughout the 1990s,
and Action in Solidarity with Indonesia and East
Timor (ASIET), alongside other groups, is proud to have played a key
part in this.
The first was to force Indonesia to leave East Timor. The possibility for this happening was created by the Indonesian democracy movement which in 1998 scored a massive victory by toppling Suharto and putting the TNI and the political elite on the defensive. This was a significant factor in forcing the Indonesian government to allow a referendum in East Timor.
The second impossible task seemed to be that of forcing the Australian government to abandon the two major parties’ profits-at-all-costs foreign policy as it related to East Timor.
Prime Minister John Howard’s government was forced by mass pressure to do a 180% policy turn on Timor after 50,000 people in Sydney and the same number in Melbourne turned out in early September 1999 to demand that Canberra lead an international armed force to protect the East Timorese people from the TNI and the militia.
ASIET has vowed that it will ensure that no Australian government will ever forget the “East Timor syndrome” and that no government again be allowed to get away with that sort of inhumane foreign policy.
Canberra has been at pains to reassure Jakarta that it supports the its national oppression in Aceh. A separate state in Aceh or in West Papua, foreign minister Alexander Downer claims, would not be sustainable. Why not?
Australian capitalist governments don’t want to run the risk of further souring an already strained relationship with the ruling elite of Indonesia. After all, 210 million people make up a huge market for Australian corporations.
US Congress is currently debating whether to restore full military ties with Indonesia. The Indonesian government has not met most of the US Congress’ requirements—in particular bringing to justice the TNI and militia members accused of human rights abuses, and allowing displaced East Timorese to return home from West Timor—before US weapons shipments and military training of Indonesian soldiers can resume.
However, Washington has already carried out joint exercises with the TNI and its special forces and it is training Indonesian police. The fact that the US is doing this just as Jakarta has just declared a “limited” military offensive in Aceh is not surprising. After all, the US does have certain interests to protect—not least those of ExxonMobil.
Canberra—as signalled by last year’s defence White Paper— will no doubt attempt to follow suit and increase military ties with Jakarta. We must not let that happen. We must make the “East Timor syndrome” live on.
We need to step up the pressure to end all Australian military ties with Indonesia.
We must force the Australian government to pressure the Indonesian government to try in an international court those responsible for human rights abuses in Aceh, East Timor, West Papua and across Indonesia.
Achieving these goals may seem difficult—even unlikely—at present, but, as in the case of East Timor, things can change quickly. The “East Timor syndrome” means that Australians are now much more conscious of the plight of our neighbouring peoples. Yes, we do have a job explaining the history of the struggle in Aceh and why the Acehnese need our support, but it’s clear from the size of this forum and others held recently that there is a growing awareness about the need for solidarity with the people of Aceh.
[This article is based on a talk delivered to 200 people at a Sydney public meeting on March 17 organised by ASIET and the Aceh Australia Association. Pip Hinman is ASIET’s national secretary.]
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