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PRD activist: reconstruction, not carpetbagging!

Green Left Weekly - February 9, 2005

Zely Ariane has been the secretary-general of the Peoples Democratic Party (PRD) since 2003. Indonesia's only openly operating socialist party, It played a central role in the movement to overthrow Suharto between 1994 and 1998 and has been at the forefront of attempts to unite the fragmented opposition to the neoliberal economic policies of the post-Suharto governments. Before 1998, the PRD was the only party in Indonesia supporting East Timor's right to self-determination. It is now the country's only party supporting the right of the Acehnese people to self-determination. Ariane herself is from Aceh, her parents having moved to Jakarta in 1996. She spoke to Green Left Weekly's Max Lane about the relief effort.

Over the phone she told Green Left Weekly of her 20-day visit to Aceh in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami. "I went back as part of the mobilisation of members of SEGERA, the Aceh solidarity group, to help deal with the aftermath of the tsunami. We mostly sent Acehnese activists because of military repression.

"Of course, I also visited my family in Aceh. My family comes from the village of Peusangan near Bireuen. It is a salt farming area. I think there were about 1500 people in the village; now only 15 are still living. Almost all my father's family was killed: his mother; his brother and sisters; their children. One sister survived but she was badly injured. It is like that all along the coast. Of the SEGERA activists in Aceh, at least six were killed and another six lost all their family and their home, including the chairperson of the main student group, Students in Solidarity with the People [SMUR]." It was a shocking experience for Ariane, seeing the devastation and hearing the stories of loss and listening to the people wonder about the future. "I overheard so many conversations among the people discussing the future. The sense of hopelessness is so strong. There is no sense of the government doing anything. Even the Jakarta elite's talk of the so-called rebuilding of Aceh never gets down to them. They don't know what their future is now that they have lost everything: spouses, parents, children, villages, livelihoods.

"It is amazing how they looked after themselves without any help. They survived in those horrific circumstances. Most of the refugee camps, especially away from Banda Aceh, were built by the people themselves. They got together the material for the tents; set up the kitchens – with no help from the government. In some places, they are not waiting for government help, they are building homes in the new camp sites from whatever is available." Ariane explained how within five days of the tsunami, returning SEGERA activists met up with other activists in Aceh. "All the activists who had lost their families and homes combined together to organise themselves to help with the relief effort. We formed CARE Aceh to concentrate on this work. We started off with about 15 volunteers, but now there are more than 50. They have spread out into the more removed areas, away from the cities, taking materials and helping set up aid depots. The money sent to SEGERA from Australian donations has been channeled to help CARE Aceh. Most of the volunteers now are working in the 'closed areas'." Ariane told of how the four regions of North Aceh, East Aceh, Pidie Aceh, and South Aceh had been closed to free aid distribution by the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI). "These are areas that the TNI considers to be support bases of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM). They are not areas that were hit by the tsunami; they are on higher ground. But they are areas which are receiving the bulk of the refugees from the west coastal regions. Refugees are living with family and friends. This is the majority of the refugees and getting assistance to them is difficult because they are spread out everywhere.

"The trouble is that in these closed areas all aid is supposed to be deposited first with the local military command. The TNI reserves the right to distribute everything. You can be beaten or even arrested if you distribute food or other aid directly to the people ... In some areas, women were mobilised to go to apply for aid as the only way to pressure the TNI to release material. This was later depicted in the media as GAM using village women to obtain aid for GAM fighters." The CARE Aceh activists have been taking material – mainly rice, sugar, coffee, and cooking oil – to these areas but also staying on to act as monitors of the aid distribution process. They SMS news to Banda Aceh and Jakarta to make sure that the spotlight is kept on the government's and TNI's activities. There are several groups doing this, including journalists who maintain the Acehkita.com news website.

"There are thousands, maybe more than 10,000 non-Acehnese volunteers in Aceh now", Ariane said. "It is the government and the TNI who are not showing any real effort. There has not been a single announcement by the TNI of how many soldiers it has mobilised to help evacuate corpses and do other relief work. I think they can't release that information because it will reveal what a tiny percentage of the tens of thousands of soldiers in Aceh are doing relief work." Ariane explained that most of the people in uniform doing real work in Aceh were from the Indonesian marines and not the Army, the force deployed against GAM. "And the marines also seemed to have no proper equipment. They were just using normal gloves and cheap face masks." She told of how she saw one incident were a few Army personnel were standing on the street issuing orders to civilians to clear up corpses but were doing nothing themselves. "A car-load of marines stopped and lectured the Army soldiers that they had to set an example and work as well. They made the soldiers do push-ups and roll around on the ground where the corpses had been as punishment." "The alienation of the Acehnese people from the government in Jakarta is going to worsen", she said. "It is not just the lack of real commitment of resources from the TNI, which has also been highlighted by comparisons with the serious aid effort by the foreign militaries. It is also the way that the so-called reconstruction of Aceh is being discussed. Already the big Jakarta based companies are being given contracts. The Suharto conglomerate, the Humpus Group, is already getting contracts. West Aceh is reported to be giving projects to the big business outfit of Tommy Winata." Winata is notorious in Jakarta for his attacks on media freedom. "In all of this, there has been no involvement of Acehnese society. Even the Acehnese business elite has been protesting that they are not getting any projects. Both the Jakarta and Acehnese elite are out to get as much of the aid money as they can." Ariane thinks that a major challenge is to mobilise the democratic and community organisations to take up these issues and provide leadership in defending the people's interests in the whole reconstruction process. "Many activists were also killed in the tsunami and many lost their offices. Some are too focused only in the immediate humanitarian issues and not giving a political lead. If this goes on, then the there will be no real reconstruction. Aceh will just be a big chance for carpetbagging as well as a war zone!" Reconstruction requires popular involvement and also peace, she emphasised. "But the TNI is making it clear it is completely opposed to a ceasefire. Every time the government, usually under international pressure, moved to prioritise negotiations, the TNI immediately moved to undermine it. It is in virtual revolt now against the government." On February 1, after the recent round of negotiations between the government and GAM finished in Finland, the army chief-of-staff, Ryamizard Ryacudu told the press, "It's preposterous, with [only] 2000 GAM remaining, why have a cease-fire? The only way that the conflict will end is if GAM surrenders to the TNI." "The TNI commanders have not let up on both verbal and military attacks on GAM since day one after the tsunami. And the government seems unwilling to counter this. One problem is that the political elites in the parliament are also siding with the TNI and have opposed even the ceasefire talks in Finland." For Ariane, key to making any progress in overcoming this impasse is the remobilisation of Acehnese society and its involvement in the political processes.

"All-inclusive dialogue on reconstruction and peace should lay the basis for the eventual implemnetation of a referendum process on the future of Aceh.

"That is why SEGERA supports the demand that a broader spectrum of society be represented in all talks with the government: the religious leaders, academics and doctors, community organisations, the whole political spectrum, as well as GAM, who must have a real role as well. This is crucial. There will neither be peace nor reconstruction if society is excluded from discussions. We do not agree either with the GAM leadership's insistence that it can represent everybody in Aceh. This is also frustrating especially when we know that there are many elements of GAM within Aceh itself who acknowledge the need for this broader involvement.' But it is building pressure to force the military to accept the ceasefire that is the central concern now, she said. "This is the shared focus now of the key pro-democracy groups in Indonesia, such as KONTRAS, Imparsial and all the NGOs in the Aceh Working Group. In Aceh, too besides the Acehnese Popular Democratic Resistance Front [FPDRA] and its member organisations, other groups are also more vocal in calling for a real ceasefire and for the whole of Acehnese society to be directly involved in all talks on peace as well as reconstruction."