13 January 2005 Edition

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Conflicts hinder tsunami aid

• Aceh

Aceh in Indonesia, is now reporting over 100,000 dead and thousands more missing as a result of the December tsunami.

And the land most devastated is also the least approachable. The province of Aceh has been largely inaccessible to the world over the past few years due to a raging civil war and stringent Indonesian Government restrictions on foreigners, including aid workers and journalists.

However, as the unimaginable scale of the disaster is becoming clear, the mass of red tape is being loosened and humanitarian agencies are being allowed to move in. Making aid doubly difficult is the hostile terrain, with massive stretches of coastline buried in mud and water, cutting off communication.

Humanitarian officials and human rights groups say the Indonesian military is actively preventing aid from being distributed. As world leaders put the finishing touches to a multi-billion-dollar aid and investment package for the devastated province and international military and medical teams step up relief efforts, the Indonesian military is taking advantage of the devastation to continue to wage war with separatist rebels in the hills of Aceh

After the catastrophe, the exiled leader of the separatist GAM movement called for a unilateral ceasefire in the region. "The Free Aceh Movement (GAM)... has ordered its armed forces to observe a unilateral ceasefire and will only fight if attacked," said Malik Mahmud.

However, the GAM ceasefire has not deterred the army from using all possible aims, even denying aid to the population of some areas of Aceh controlled by the guerrillas, to "win" the war. On Saturday 1 January, several aid groups and non-governmental organisations held a protest, calling on control of aid distribution to be taken out of the hands of the Indonesian military — which took control of the airport warehouse, where goods are received from relief flights and stored until they can be distributed around Banda Aceh and other devastated towns. With its control of outgoing supplies, the military has complete power in determining where scarce trucks head with their precious cargoes.

On 5 January, an Indonesian military spokesman confirmed that only two-thirds of the military's 40,000-strong force in the province was taking part in the relief effort, while the remaining third was engaged in military operations against insurgents.

The rebels of GAM said that the Indonesian military has moved more troops into rebel-held territory under the guise of relief operations since the tsunami struck. They say squads of soldiers have prevented hill villagers going to help their relatives on the coast.

"They are still conducting an incessant military operation," a rebel spokesman, Teuku Jamaika, said from his base somewhere in the Aceh hills. "There's no difference between before and after the tsunami."

Kirsten Schulze, a senior lecturer at the London School of Economics and the author of a number of papers on the Aceh insurgency, said counter-insurgency operations were continuing in the province, but she said it should be remembered the military was also doing most of the dirty work in hard-hit towns such as Banda Aceh.

Schulze said more troops had been sent into Aceh from North Sumatra, but only to bolster the relief effort.

The 19-month crackdown on the GAM rebels has become a sensitive issue for Indonesia. The failure of an internationally-brokered and short-lived ceasefire in 2003 prompted a massive military offensive, and Indonesia has reacted angrily to foreign criticism of various atrocities.

Before the tsunami hit, international aid workers were almost entirely prevented from operating in Aceh, journalists were curtailed to an extent which made balanced coverage impossible, and diplomats were largely barred from visiting.

The Acehnese fought against the Dutch and the Japanese to achieve their independence, only to be military occupied by the Javanese — similar to what happened in East Timor and West Papua.

Unable to crush the Acheh Merdeka (Free Aceh) rebellion, the Indonesian Government poured in its so-called elite special force, the US trained KOPASSUS, and declared the province virtually under military rule. During this period, thousands of Acehnese civilians, men, women, children and the elderly, have been murdered and tortured.

• Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka, another conflict zone, the Tamil Tiger guerrillas are participating in the relief efforts and the Tigers decided not to object to the US military presence in the South Asian island after the tsunami that killed at least 30,000 people in the country. The Tigers control areas in the northeast of the country of 19.7 million people.

"We have no objection to the US coming here as long as it's for humanitarian purposes," S Puleedevan, the head of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam peace secretariat, said in an interview in the capital, Colombo. About 500 US soldiers have been sent to Sri Lanka to help in the second most affected country in the region hit by giant waves triggered by an earthquake off Indonesia.

A two-decade civil war waged by Tamil Tiger rebels against the government has made it harder for both sides to work in the humanitarian disaster. Puleedevan said the lack of coordination in relief efforts within the government has hindered supplies to the northeast, where at least 20,000 were killed. President Chandrika Kumaratunga's decision on 5 January to appoint the military to run relief operations has resulted in tensions in welfare centres in the east, Puleedevan said.

"Tamils are leaving the welfare centers in Trincomalee and Ampara because there is the fear of the military," Puleedevan said. "Hundreds have left and many are going into jungle areas."

The rebels, who deployed 2,500 fighters to evacuate victims within half an hour of the waves hitting the coastline, said they are disappointed that United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan didn't visit rebel-controlled areas during his recent visit to Sri Lanka. Annan said at a news conference in Colombo that the UN doesn't take sides and he intends to return again to the island to see all parts of the country.

Rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran is committed to the peace process even with the tensions between the rebels and the government, Puleedevan said.

The Tamil Tiger rebels and the government have observed a ceasefire since February 2002. Peace negotiations are stalled over a Tamil Tiger demand that talks focus on allowing self- government for Tamils. The rebels have been fighting for a separate homeland since 1983 in a conflict that has killed more than 60,000 people.

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