WASHINGTON -- December 30 -- U.S.-based groups with a long record of experience in the region today called on the Indonesian government to not let politics override the needs of people in tsunami-stricken Aceh. The groups include the East Timor Action Network (ETAN), International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF) and Nonviolence International (NI). Contact information for experts on the region available for interview is listed at the end of this advisory.
"Delays by the Indonesian government in allowing international access to Aceh may have needlessly cost precious lives. The government's apparent opening of Aceh must continue. The government must cut through its bureaucratic red tape so aid can get through as quickly as possible. International and Indonesian organizations must have unrestricted access to Aceh. International media must be free to report on conditions and relief efforts. Strict limits on internationals' time in Aceh must be lifted," said Michael Beer of NI.
"Politics must not be allowed to override the needs of the Acehnese people in this tragic time," he added.
As many as 100,000 people may have been killed in the Indonesian provinces of Aceh and North Sumatra as a result of an earthquake and tsunami that struck the region on December 26. The government initially kept the international community at bay as it apparently debated whether to open Aceh up to foreigners. The province had been almost entirely closed to any international presence due to military operations there. The Indonesian government's response remains slow and uncoordinated.
The groups urged aid organizations and agencies to work as closely as possible with local civil society groups and to resist Indonesian government and military attempts to close non-governmental local groups out of the process.
"The high level of corruption in Indonesia, especially in Aceh, and the great distrust of Aceh's central government make it crucial that aid groups be allowed to distribute urgently needed food, medical supplies, and other assistance outside of government channels, distributing aid directly and through local NGOs," said Karen Orenstein of ETAN.
ETAN, ILRF, and NI further urged the government of Indonesia to allow Acehnese outside of Indonesia -- many of whom fled political repression -- to return to Aceh, if they so choose, to seek their relatives and loved ones and assist the relief effort. Their return should take place without burdensome visa restrictions and without repercussions.
Finally, the groups pointed out that this tragedy caused by natural disaster comes on top of an already devastating human-created tragedy. Since May 2003, more than 2000 people, most of them civilians, have been killed in Aceh while the province was under marital law and then a civil emergency. During a previous period of martial law from 1989 to 1998 some 10,000 Acehnese perished. Despite the humanitarian catastrophe, there are still reports of ongoing military operations against Acehnese rebels.
"We are gravely concerned about reports of cease-fire violations by the Indonesian military, who are allegedly attacking Acehnese guerillas instead of focusing on the humanitarian disaster," said Bama Athreya of ILRF.
"The world must not forget that the people of Aceh have suffered massive human rights violations due to years of Indonesian military repression and guerilla operations by the Free Aceh Movement. Until very recently, the Indonesian government and armed forces had virtually sealed Aceh from any foreign presence. The ceasefires declared by the Acehnese guerrillas and the Indonesian government this week are a crucial first step. All sides to the decades-long conflict in Aceh must redouble efforts to find a peaceful solution that strongly involves civil society," continued Athreya.
Two U.S.-based grassroots relief funds have been established for the earthquake/tsunami disaster in Aceh: Nonviolence International-USA, www.nonviolenceinternational.net and East Timor Action Network, www.etan.org.
Funds raised by these groups will be sent directly to grassroots Acehnese humanitarian agencies and groups to save lives and relieve suffering. Both have the full backing of the expatriate Acehnese community in the U.S.
For interviews and other inquiries, media are advised to contact the following U.S.-based experts on Aceh:
Riva Syamsuddin, Acehnese activist and graduate of Syah Kuala University. Contact: 703-503-5272
Munawar Zainal, Acehnese student activist with the Acheh Center in Pennsylvania. Contact: 717-343-1598, email@example.com
Allan Nairn, award-winning independent journalist who has spent much time in Aceh, Indonesia and East Timor in the last few years. Contact: 917-345-8020, firstname.lastname@example.org
Michael Beer, director of Nonviolence International (NI). The NI office in Banda Aceh was destroyed and several staff members remain missing. Beer has been a frequent visitor to Aceh over the last 5 years. Contact: 202-244-0951, 703-875-9482, email@example.com
Patrick McInnis, former staff in Aceh for Peace Brigades International and Oxfam. McInnis served with the Carter Center as an election observer in Aceh in October and is proficient in the local Acehnese language. Contact: 831-484-1318
ETAN advocates for democracy, justice and human rights for East Timor and Indonesia.
The ILRF is a Washington, DC-based human rights advocacy organization which has long been active on behalf of labor rights in developing countries and which has brought suit against Exxon Mobil under the Alien Tort Claims Act for aiding and abetting torture and crimes against humanity in Aceh.
NI-USA is located in Washington, DC. Our affiliate in Aceh is the Peace Education Program that teaches conflict resolution and nonviolence to Islamic clerics and youth. NI serves as a resource center for nonviolent movements around the world.