Legal Arms for Illegal Purposes: A Note on the Acheh Militias

Defenseless men, women and children as a target

August 17, 2005  In Central Acheh, the TNI has an ethnic Javanese and Gayo militia force that is estimated to be larger than the Acheh-wide GAM. An investigator who speaks the local Gayo language puts their strength at 12,000 people and 6,000 weapons some homemade, some military issue. The Helsinki Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between Indonesia and GAM has a clause (4.9) for the "decommissioning of all illegal arms" but only those held by "illegal groups and parties," and under Indonesian law state-organized militias can be construed as legal.

rms held by the TNI - POLRI are, of course, implicitly defined as legal, a privilege which every country in the world grants to its security forces. Some theorists say that the very definition of a state is its monopoly on legitimate violence. So the state's arms are always legal, even if routinely used for illegal acts like murder and theft, or to carry out policies like illegal invasions or occupations.

Good Cop - Bad Cop Blackmail on Acheh: The Advantages of Seeming Crazy

he TNI - POLRI is now saying that they have about 35,000 men in Acheh, which, if true, would mean that under the Helsinki deal with GAM signed yesterday they will be temporarily withdrawing about 32% of their troops, not much more than a normal rotation.

It is often said that there are more TNI - POLRI bases than there are schools or mosques in Acheh, and traveling along the roads and counting suggests that in many zones that might well be true. In populated areas of the main Medan - Banda Acheh road one encounters a marked base or post every few hundred meters, not including the unmarked Intel and Kopassus bases, which are sometimes known to residents. In Langsa, plainclothes Kopassus officers can be seen smoking in their undershirts outside a run-down commercial building where local civil servants have been dragged in and had their faces mauled on suspicion of giving food to GAM.

The Kopassus men have money and are wordly; they move all over the archipelago, and their foreign trainers have included Americans, Australians, Germans, and Taiwanese. But it is the TNI's cruder street level militias -- not counted in official troop numbers -- that are now in the spotlight since people fear that if the Jakarta generals don't get enough payoff from the GAM surrender deal, they may unleash the militias in order to provoke the GAM into taking up arms again.

That scenario may be unlikely, but everyone knows from experience in Timor and elsewhere that it is not impossible, and that hanging possibility of supra-normal terror creates leverage for TNI - POLRI, both within Acheh and in their lobbying for restored aid overseas.

It is a classic good cop - bad cop con: the smooth lobbyists (like the President, Gen. Susilo, and Juwono Sudarsono, the defense minister) say to the foreigners: 'Look, these generals are crazy! You'd better buy them off with aid, or God know what they'll do. And as much as I'd like to stop them I can't be responsible for their actions. '

So on top of the continuing rule by their oppressors there's an implicit blackmail hanging over Acheh: if the generals don't get what they want -- like restored US guns and money -- they may take it out on Acheh and burn it, as they did to Timor in 1999.

How Many Weapons Did the Acheh GAM Have?: The Pathetic Pretense for Indonesian Terror

ith the release today of the final Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between Indonesia and GAM the fact has now been revealed that the GAM -- the pretense for TNI - POLRI's massive terror in Acheh -- has all of 840 weapons, barely enough to fill one big truck. At least that's the figure they declare in the document, and though the tally may not be totally honest, people familiar with GAM say that it cannot be that far from the truth.

The MOU also says that TNI - POLRI will for the moment openly keep 23,800 troops in Acheh, half or more of what they have now, and a figure roughly equivalent to their troop levels during many recent years. This gives the lie to the widely reported claim in recent weeks that TNI - POLRI would be pulling out, and heightens the question of their rationale for being there at all once the GAM has fully disarmed.

In any event, the troop numbers aren't that crucial, what matters is who's in control (the Indonesian government and TNI - POLRI) and what their policy is (no free speech, repression). As one local human rights monitor put when discussing the MOU clause that temporarily limits troop movements to one platoon (about 100 men in the TNI system): "it only takes one platoon to do a massacre or to start a riot."

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

n Indonesia's westernmost province of Acheh, 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 Acheh, 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.

More from NY Times, HRW, Wash.Post, Guardian, BBC and CNN

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  Uneven odds  
  It's mind-boggling complex  
  The woman who lost everything  
  Tsunami leaves a world of drifting 'ghosts'  
  After the tsunami, rebuilding homes and social fabric  


Day-to-day the TNI abuses Achenese 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 Acheh rebels (GAM, the Acheh 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 Acheh 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 Acheh," 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 Acheh 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).

Acheh 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 Achenese (2001 central government statistics said 21.6% of Acheh toddlers were malnourished; a later internal World Bank estimate put the percentage twice as high).

Though Acheh 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)" ("Acheh 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 Acheh 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 Acheh 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 Acheh 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.

Alan Nairn is a freelance journalist. Virtual Nairn blog:


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