INDONESIA: Death, lies and 'humanitarian aid'


Matthew Davies

Publicity about the tsunami relief effort in Indonesia's Aceh province has mostly depicted Indonesia's military (TNI) in an unprecedented favourable light. But the TNI's own official record has painted a very different picture than that presented to a world shocked by the massive disaster. The TNI's own records flatly contradicted their chiefs' "doorstop interview" claims to have made a serious commitment to the Acehnese population's welfare.

The TNI chiefs' publicity strategy found a receptive foreign audience. The commander of the Australian Defence Force's (ADF) relief contingent, Brigadier David Chalmers, praised the TNI for what he claimed was its rapid, dedicated and professional response. High pro-TNI political stakes underlay such warm publicity.

It was widely hoped that evidence of TNI efforts could defuse long-standing enmities in the bitter blood feud running generations between Aceh and Jakarta. In that spirit, ADF chief General Peter Cosgrove saw the tsunami crisis as a potential "circuit breaker" in Aceh's independence war.

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 soldiers, then 14,000). The ABC's Four Corners reiterated such claims, citing a purported one-third of TNI troops in Aceh as being tasked with relief and aid.

But on closer examination, reports by the TNI itself showed that its "humanitarian commitment" was minimal, primarily aimed towards Indonesian and Western public opinion and not, as its chief executives and PR claimed, to any genuine humanitarian relief in Aceh. In strict military format and headed "Force Strengths Involved in Humanitarian Aid", the TNI's own detailed report of January 8 listed just over four battalions of soldiers officially tasked with humanitarian work.

The official TNI effort compares to some 40 combat battalions deployed in Aceh, besides yet larger (and also officially admitted) units in the province. The sum "humanitarian" effort was even more modest: barely 2000 troops are working on such work, or as little as 5% of total TNI soldiers counted in Aceh from mid-2003.

The TNI's figures reveal its actually miniscule and token "humanitarian effort", concentrated mostly in Banda Aceh, with smaller contingents along the western coast, alongside an influx by foreign military personnel, international relief agencies and, most significantly, news media.

In a bizarre twist, the TNI displayed its non-combat troops to international media and aid workers: showing an enclave of post-tsunami compassion; welfare troops on show to the cameras in Aceh's wreckage. Thus did the world see a camouflaged "relief effort" that was really a topsy-turvy, modern-day "Petrushka-ville".

[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, February 23, 2005.
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