Perception is everything in the warfare of the "Communications Age", as it is with an army's humanitarian relief operations. Has Indonesia's controversial military "come of age' among the world's many civilian and military aid teams in devastated Aceh?
In the aftermath of the Boxing Day tsunami, Indonesia's military (TNI) staged a canny — and with Western help largely successful — public relations exercise for international observers. But the TNI's own official record of its effort paints a very different picture than that presented to a world shocked by the massive disaster.
Against ongoing allegations of brutal reprisal and other atrocities in its 30-year anti-guerrilla war in Indonesia's Aceh province, the TNI said much to claim that it really cared for Aceh's civilians in their time of greatest trauma and need. Indonesia had a chance to show it could now try to keep resource-rich Aceh through humanitarian compassion rather than by force of arms. In modern military parlance such activity falls within the "public affairs" part of "information operations". The more colloquial term is "spin".
The TNI strategy found a receptive foreign audience, including the commander of the Australian Defence Force's (ADF) relief contingent Brigadier David Chalmers. Shortly after his arrival in the debris of the provincial capital Banda Aceh, Chalmers praised the TNI for what he claimed was its rapid, dedicated and professional response.
Evidence of TNI relief efforts, it was widely hoped, could help defuse long-standing enmities. In that spirit, ADF Chief General Cosgrove saw the tsunami crisis as a potential "circuit breaker" in the protracted separatist struggle in Aceh, led by the Free Aceh Movement (GAM).
Some early reports challenged the TNI's publicity campaign. Critics alerted observers to reports of deliberate TNI stockpiling of emergency aid supplies, opportunistic mark-ups in refugee numbers, discriminatory release of aid and later, reports of a TNI aid distribution post selling donated food to desperate, starving Acehnese refugees.
But these were still logistical matters in a country notorious for corrupt and informal government revenue-raising. With the TNI in charge, it was hard to prove the substance of these disturbing reports. Were such practices so widespread as to be the norm? Was one TNI soldier's merchandising of aid at one post the standard procedure, or wayward opportunism by a TNI "rogue element", or "bad apple"?
Anyway, the TV cameras clearly showed some TNI troops doing the grisly and dirty task of gathering corpses and clearing debris. A later showpiece came from an Australian TV crew, filming a few TNI soldiers scrubbing away at a Banda Aceh school as if in routine clean-up at their home barracks. Aid was getting there, and if it was still too slow well, bureaucratic bloody-mindedness over quarantine, overlaps among Indonesian government agencies, and devastation to an already delicate infrastructure could also explain away that problem.
But the TNI stayed in charge, and the TNI held the most weapons and political power to keep calling the shots. From late December to February, TNI generals and public relations officers made inconsistent assurances to the public that they would task "half", "two thirds" or "all" of their forces in Aceh to the humanitarian operation (other TNI quotes set figures of 12,000, then 14,000).
All these claims sounded promising, because the many deployed TNI troops were based almost entirely among Aceh's population centres, best positioned to help run the medicine, food and reconstruction for the province's destroyed coastal lowlands.
But on closer examination, reports by the TNI showed that its "humanitarian commitment" was minimal. The TNI's own detailed and formatted report of January 8 listed just over four battalions of soldiers officially tasked with humanitarian work. There are some 40 TNI combat battalions deployed in Aceh. If the TNI's larger troop strength in the province is included, this means just 2000 of 40,000 soldiers in the province were tasked with humanitarian aid.
Under the heading "Force Strengths Involved in Humanitarian Aid", the TNI report listed one infantry, one air defence, and two lower-strength construction battalions, along with a couple of separate companies, platoons and teams. Actual medical and health staff totalled 115 people.
Mostly flown in from Medan, North Sumatera, almost the entire TNI "humanitarian force" was concentrated in Banda Aceh alongside an influx by foreign military personnel, international relief agencies and, most significantly, news media. Amid unprecedented foreign praise, and massive material and financial aid now entrusted to Jakarta, the TNI's own strict and itemised reports in military format contradicted its more vague public relations "line". It was the TNI itself that revealed its actually miniscule, token humanitarian effort.
Thus in a bizarre twist, the TNI directed its humanitarian effort mainly at the throngs of international media and aid workers gathering in shattered Banda Aceh. The TNI's camouflaged "relief effort" amounted to little more than a topsy-turvy, modern-day "Potemkin" village.
By January 12, the TNI's PR staff had removed these reports from their official website, including from its store of reports on Aceh and elsewhere going back years. Obviously someone in TNI headquarters had detected the extraordinary publicity risk of such official self-contradiction.
By January 24, the TNI again detailed some of its claimed humanitarian effort: three battalions, or just under 2000 troops, in the wrecked Meulaboh area. With the exception of about 100 soldiers relocating refugees, nearly the entire claimed TNI "humanitarian aid" for the western area comprised units tasked with "security" in escorting foreign military and civilian aid workers. In other word: no real change from normal heavily armed TNI combat patrols.
Even among those units officially on a "humanitarian aid" mission, most kept watch over foreigners moving about those areas where foreign aid posts were concentrated in Banda Aceh and later in the Province's west. The TNI's remaining portion of "humanitarian" troops worked to restore damaged bridges and roads in tasks essential to maintain logistics for offensive military operations.
Ongoing anti-guerrilla warfare
The situation was clearer still among the heavier troop concentrations along the northern and eastern coasts. The TNI's less detailed public statements claimed that its combat battalions already in Aceh were equally preoccupied with humanitarian emergency. But these units merely continued on their role in relocation and population surveillance duties done since Jakarta's Aceh campaign started in May 2003.
That earlier pattern of forced evacuations and free-fire zones changed to shifting some refugees into camps under close TNI watch. This activity always aimed to "filter" the population for alleged GAM members and their relatives and associates.
Moreover, despite widespread claims of an "unofficial ceasefire", the TNI's offensive military operations were to officially continue after the disaster. From Jakarta, both Indonesia's president and the TNI's chief executive claimed their campaign was on hold in the tsunami's wake. In Aceh's headquarters however, the TNI's PR officers released statements to the opposite effect: operations were still on. Patrols merely became more localised as the TNI regrouped to cover its own losses from the disaster.
The difference now was that the TNI couched its post-combat and arrest reports in indignant accusations that GAM was deliberately terrorising refugees and other civilians in the tsunami's wake. There was no mention at all of the GAM military command's December 27 declaration of a unilateral ceasefire.
TNI reports gave little supporting substance to their predictable accusations against GAM as a heartless criminal band "taking advantage of the disaster", oblivious to the welfare of its own fellow Acehnese people. According to the TNI, GAM now threatened aid convoys from Medan. But TNI combat reports specified offensive military action against alleged GAM members in townships up to 30 kilometres from the supply route. Meanwhile, aid convoy drivers reported the continued TNI extraction of fees all along Aceh's northern highway from Medan.
The TNI held supreme control over movements in and out of the province. Most importantly, Indonesia's military controlled the material aid into Aceh from Medan. Upon clearance by the TNI, foreign military and aid organisations could distribute supplies and conduct medical relief, but in the larger scheme, the tsunami became the TNI's boom time. And amid concerns about their own security, the foreigners chose to avoid antagonising their host "protectors" by addressing such matters.
A military adage holds: "Amateurs think tactics, professionals think logistics." That aphorism is an update of Napoleon's "an army marches on its stomach", but perhaps the TNI could alter the saying to: "an army marches on its blank cheque-book and racketeering profits". The flow of material for the disaster may yet sustain the Indonesian military's expensive operations in Aceh for years to come. This new situation helps to explain Jakarta's willingness to enter Helsinki peace negotiations with GAM's leadership — from a position of renewed strength.
How many more vulnerable people died as a result of this military-led ersatz humanitarianism? With their own budgets and public confidence at stake, we should not expect our governments, non-government organisations or the UN to make any serious investigation of that question.
Meanwhile, the TNI kept publicising detailed official information bluntly contradicting its leaders' rhetoric, as if daring the world: "What are you going to do about it?"
[Matthew Davies is a former defence intelligence analyst who has written a forthcoming book about the Aceh conflict Indonesia's War over Aceh: Last Stand on Mecca's Porch.]
From Green Left Weekly, March 2, 2005.
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