Sunday, November 06, 2005

Indonesia's Secret War in Aceh, by John Martinkus

As the title explains, this book is about a war that Indonesia would very much like to keep out of view. There has been a long history of the Acehnese wanting independence from Indonesia, which John Martinkus gives a brief over view of. Indeed, in Aceh they see Indonesia’s government as Javanese imperialist rule. Added to this is the difference in the religious observances of the Acehnese compared with the rest of Indonesia. Explains the author:

‘The strictness of fasting is one of the differences between the Muslims of Aceh and those of the rest of Indonesia. In Aceh, where Islam was introduced for the first time in the 12th century by Arab traders from the Middle East, the more permissive Islam of Indosnesia is looked down upon. The Acehnese see the Muslims of Java as following a hybrid version of their religion.’

The Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, or GAM), has been fighting to separate Aceh from Indonesia. After much killing, terror and misery for the people of Aceh, a pause in hostilities was negotiated in Geneva. Then the Indonesian military started created disturbances in Aceh, and blaming it on GAM, thereby enabling them to claim that they had broken the rules of the peace negotiated in Geneva.

The result of this was a terrible crackdown. In 2003, just as the world’s attention was focused on the war in Iraq, the Indonesian army invaded. Human rights abuses followed. To make matters worse, the Indonesia authorities did their very best (and succeeded) in making sure there was no one there to monitor what was going on. Journalists were not allowed into the war zone to report on what was going on. The usual tactics were used to scare the hell out of anyone trying to go into the area and monitor what was going on.

When you read John Martinkus’s account, it shocks you how this whole terrible war was organised and prosecuted at the highest levels of government, and the attitudes of those pushing the war along, people such as Megawati Sukarnoputri and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Martinkus also documents the attitudes of Western governments to what was going on, basically to turn a blind eye and mumble that Indonesia had a right to put down GAM, that they were essentially trouble makers. You can’t help but be filled with disgust.

The Indonesian army has a well documented history of human rights abuses. Firstly, in 1965, when some half a million communists or supposed communists were slaughtered. Secondly, the mass murder of a third of the population of East Timor, between 1975 and 1999. Now it is happening all over again, with Western governments turning a blind eye. The list of human rights abuses that have occurred in Aceh in the past few years – rape of children, torture and murder – is sickening.

As I was reading this book I kept of thinking of the Australian’s Greg Sheridan, with his hard, brassy words, talking about the region like it were a grand game of chess. This book is the opposite of that triumphant, arm chair view. John Martinkus has travelled through the region he talks about. He’s met all the creepy military men, seen people get stabbed and beaten. Seen all the horrible photographs.

The book is written in a quiet, modest, serious tone. John Martinkus has seen first hand how the policies of politicians can lead to murder, rape and torture. He’s seen how Western politicians do their utmost not to cast judgement on the Indonesian government. To say this is a sobering read is an understatement.

This is journalism in the style of George Orwell. What a difference Martinkus’ experience makes from Greg Sheriden’s – what can you call it? – innocence.

Related Web Experience links:

Travel's in American Iraq

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