The scenario is depressingly familiar, the outcome tragically the same. The feared Indonesian armed forces, TNI, are engaged in a massive military offensive in a territory strongly opposed to rule from Jakarta. Aceh, a province of 4 million people on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra, is being subjected to the TNI's largest operation since the invasion of East Timor in 1975.
There are many parallels with East Timor, not least the key support being provided by Britain. British-made Hawk ground-attack aircraft and Scorpion tanks are playing a vital role in flagrant breach of Indonesian “assurances” that British equipment will not be used for offensive or counter-insurgency purposes.
The Scorpions are employed to “sweep” villages and to form roadside checkpoints. Unquestionably, they will be used against suspected rebel positions when required. British Land Rovers are also being used extensively to transport troops and weapons around Aceh. The vehicles are an extremely intimidating presence and strike fear into local people only too aware of the TNI's record of abuse.
Urgen Action! Stop British support for war in Aceh
Indonesia's massive offensive in Aceh is causing hundreds of civilian casualties, the destruction of Aceh's infrastructure, and a grave refugee and humanitarian crisis. British military equipment, including Hawk aircraft and Scorpion tanks, is playing a key role in this war in. Land Rovers are also being used extensively to transport troops around the province. Military chiefs have made it clear they will not be bound by any restrictions on the use of the equipment.
Incredibly, the British Government is asking the Acehnese people to trust the TNI not to abuse human rights. If the situation were not so grave, this would be a laughable proposition. The TNI is renowned for its brutality, its lack of accountability in conflict areas, and its record of using imported equipment in East Timor, West Papua and Aceh and against its own citizens elsewhere.
The message from Indonesia's military chiefs could not be clearer. They insist they will use the weaponry at their disposal to “complete the job” in Aceh and they will not comply with any restrictions on the use of British equipment. Yet despite widespread demands for the withdrawal of the equipment and for a military embargo against Indonesia--set out in a statement signed in June by over90 human rights organisations, peace groups and anti-arms trade campaigners around the world--the British Government refuses to intervene.
Its feeble response is to say it is monitoring the situation. It seems more keen on preserving the value of the arms trade with Indonesia--a recent report disclosed that in 2002 the British Government authorised a staggering twenty-fold increase in the value of arms sales to Jakarta, from #2 million in 2000 to #41million in 2002.
The ostensible purpose of Indonesia's military offensive in Aceh is to crush the rebel group known as the Free Aceh Movement, GAM, but Achenese civil society is bearing the brunt of the onslaught. The war is causing hundreds of civilian casualties, the destruction of Aceh's infrastructure and a grave refugee and humanitarian crisis. Human rights defenders are in particular danger. They have been forced to flee or go under-ground for fear of being arrested, tortured or disappeared.
Prolonging the conflict
Activists are struggling to find the words to express their contempt for those who are prolonging the conflict by selling arms to Indonesia. Their anger at the role of the British Government is palpable.
The message they are getting is that Britain will not do anything unless and until the equipment is actually used to abuse human rights. An atrocity involving the killing of civilians might provoke a response, but anything less is unlikely to be sufficient it seems.
In an appalling abdication of responsibility, the British Foreign Office is placing the onus on people on the ground-- the potential victims--to produce credible evidence of the “misuse” of equipment. That is clearly impossible given the military's tight grip on conditions throughout Aceh. Indeed the TNI has issued an explicit warning to people not to take photographs of Scorpion tanks or to film them. Those who disobey are likely to face arrest and arbitrary detention or far worse.