Where tsunami isn’t the only tragedy

New Zealand Herald

Tuesday 18 January 2005, by Maire LEADBEATER

The year is ending tragically for hundreds of thousands of our Southeast Asian neighbours. The only hope to be drawn from the sad situation is the thought that the international community is geared to respond with urgent aid.

But the Indonesian province of Aceh has been off-limits to international aid agencies for months and even after the disaster the Indonesian Government was reluctant to allow free admission to international aid agencies. Finally the Government bowed to pressure and to news from Aceh of apocalyptic scenes of devastation. Aid agencies and journalists are being allowed in but foreigners will still have to submit application letters for processing and could be subjected to delays. Aceh, one of the places worst-hit by the tsunami, is in an area torn by war almost continuously since 1976 - a war which has cost an estimated 10,000 lives.

In the past two years the people have been living under martial law or under a state of civil emergency. The Indonesian Government says it is trying to wipe out the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) but most reports say that civilians, including women and children, have been the main casualties. Indonesia has resisted calls to resume its negotiations with GAM even though the talks that were happening early last year were supported by the United States and other Western nations.

For the people of Aceh, fear was a constant companion even before this disaster, and ordinary life was overshadowed by military checkpoints, curfews and tight censorship. Indonesian and international human rights groups have been calling for an end to the state of civil emergency, for negotiations to resume and for the process to include not just GAM but also other community and religious leaders.

It has been more difficult to get an accurate picture of the disaster from Aceh than from other parts of the region, especially from the west coast, nearest to the centre of the quake where communications have all been cut. Recovery from the tragedy must also be made vastly more difficult because of the war.

Reports say that thousands of people have been forced to move from the coast into the hills where they will be without food and likely to get caught up in the fighting. GAM has declared a unilateral ceasefire but armed clashes are still being recorded.

The hospitals that will now be receiving the injured were already crowded with war victims. The international community must insist that humanitarian needs come before politics.

In the wake of the tsunami one of the biggest fears is that disease will take a terrible toll and it is clear that Aceh is struggling in the tropical heat with medicine, body bags and clean water in short supply.

At Christmas I feared for the safety of an estimated 6000 people trapped behind an Army cordon at the other end of Indonesia, some 4500km to the east. They had fled to the bitterly cold foothills of the Puncak Jaya mountain in Indonesian-occupied West Papua after military attacks on their remote highland villages. Since then some have tried to return, only to be shot at. Church reports say that many villages are destroyed and that homes, churches and crops have all been burned. Of course, it is difficult to know the full story because Indonesia has imposed a ban preventing any international media from visiting West Papua. The military have denied access to aid and medical help and there have been many needless deaths, mostly of children, in the two months the people have been sheltering in the jungle. Nine hundred extra troops were sent to the area, and now neither church nor humanitarian groups can reach the afflicted.

The military accuse the people of being supporters of the OPM or Free West Papua movement, but the Rev Socrataz Sofyan Yoman, president of the West Papuan Baptist Church, says the OPM is not active in the region and the military is responsible for the violence. Before the military operation there were several mysterious killings including the murder of a Kopassus soldier and a respected pastor. West Papua was cheated out of its right to self-determination as long ago as the 1960s, and now the people risk jail if they so much as dare to speak of independence or raise their Morning Star flag.

An estimated 100,000 have died since Indonesia took control. The population is about 2.5 million, including nearly a million new transmigrants brought in from places such as Java and Makassar under a resettlement programme supported by the World Bank. There is a growing international campaign to persuade the United Nations to re-examine its role in the 1969 plebiscite which the Indonesians called an Act of Free Choice, but which was a blatant travesty of the democratic process.

Only 1022 hand-picked people were allowed to vote out of close to a million people, and it is widely accepted that they were coerced into their unanimous vote in support of Indonesia. Understandably, international humanitarian focus will now shift to tsunami-affected areas but the need for immediate aid for the people in West Papua should not be set aside.

If we cannot stop natural disasters we can do something to push for a peaceful end to military conflict and for the needs and rights of civilians caught in the crossfire.

* Maire Leadbeater is spokeswoman for the Indonesia Human Rights Committee.

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