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JAKARTA - Armed with an M-16 machine gun, Sergeant Juwono was—literally—cornering the market. The Indonesian soldier stood along a main road in war-torn Aceh province selling bumper stickers commemorating the country’s upcoming Aug. 17 Independence Day. He stopped every car driving north and gave a simple but effective sales pitch: buy a sticker or else.
A Newsweek correspondent traveling along the road promptly handed over 5,000 rupiah, or about 50 cents, to the armed salesman. He smiled politely, withdrew his weapon from the car’s window and waved the foreigners on. It’s a quick way to make a buck, to be sure, but most soldiers in Aceh have set their sights much higher. “That is chicken feed,” says Ahmad Humam Hamid, a political analyst in the provincial capital of Banda Aceh. “They’ve got their hands in so much more.”
The problem goes well beyond simply picking Aceh’s pocket. The Indonesian military, or TNI, recently requested an additional 8,000 troops to boost its current 22,000 forces in the devoutly Muslim province, ostensibly to crush a 26-year-old armed separatist movement once and for all. But many Acehnese wonder how eagerly the soldiers want to end the conflict. Already unwelcome because of past brutalities, troops in Aceh have also built up a vast, often illegal, business empire—encompassing everything from logging to coffee growing to everyday extortion—that would make any Mafia don jealous. Acehnese have long resented Jakarta for not sharing the billions in oil and gas revenues their province produces. But they hold a special contempt for soldiers like Sergeant Juwono, whom they blame for sucking the province dry, dollar by dollar. Recalling an old saying, Kamaruzzaman, a civilian peace negotiator for the Free Aceh Movement, or GAM, says, “Soldiers come here with an M-16 but leave with 16M”—as in 16 million rupiah.
Under former strongman Suharto, the TNI developed a web of business interests all across the sprawling archipelago, partially to shore up its war chest. But the military’s business ventures in Aceh have drawn special attention in recent weeks because top brass—touting the terrorist threat posed by GAM—are urging President Megawati Sukarnoputri to declare martial law in the province. Many Acehnese, who fear the prospect of the TNI’s being given a freer hand, saw the maneuver as a thin excuse to tighten the military’s financial stranglehold on the province. (An Aug. 5 decision on the matter was delayed.)
The people of Aceh aren’t the only ones watching for Megawati—and the TNI’s—next move. During a visit to Indonesia earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell suggested that the International Military Education and Training program, which promotes ties between the U.S. and Indonesian militaries, might soon be reinstated. The TNI has been blacklisted from the program since a military massacre of —East Timorese civilians in 1991. But its eagerness to be reinstated may not be driven, as many assume, by a desire for American military hardware. “What’s important for [the TNI] is the political significance of the decision in Washington,” says Rizal Sukma, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Once they have the U.S. confidence again they can use this to tell the public... we are making progress on the human-rights front.” That in turn would deflect attention from abuses allegedly being committed in places like Aceh. The TNI can be nonchalant about U.S. aid precisely because of the business opportunities it finds in conflict zones. Some 60 to 65 percent of the military’s operating expenses come from so-called off-budget sources. Some of those are more legal than others, particularly in areas far from Jakarta. “There is a lot of money to be had in Aceh, not only from the exploitation of natural resources, including logging, but also through smuggling going on in Sabang, and that’s real, big-time smuggling,” says Sidney Jones, the Indonesian project director of the International Crisis Group, who visited Aceh last month. According to Faisal Hadi, a member of the Aceh-based NGO Coalition for Human Rights, the TNI gets a cut on all automobiles shipped from Singapore into the province’s port island of Sabang. Besides the military markup, the cars, mostly luxury automobiles, can also fetch up to 9 million rupiah, or $1,000, in protection fees during their transport. According to Hadi, troops have been known to commandeer Hercules C-130 cargo planes to smuggle their four-wheel contraband to neighboring North Sumatra. Like good businessmen, the TNI has been careful to diversify its holdings. For many years, illegal logging has been the military’s bread and butter. Soldiers are assigned to protect logging companies that are clear-cutting Aceh’s dense forests and, in some cases, are ordered to put down their weapons, pick up chainsaws and do the work themselves. Analysts in Aceh say it’s impossible to estimate how much the TNI earns through illegal logging, but estimate that it is millions of dollars a year.
The TNI’s main legal business enterprise is protecting a massive oil and natural-gas facility operated by the U.S. fuel giant Exxon Mobil outside the coastal town of Lhokseumawe. The military is paid at least $500,000 a month, and stations about 3,000 soldiers backed by tanks and armored personnel carriers around the facility. Acehnese businesses receive a different sort of protection. According to human-rights workers, the TNI extorts money from businesses and factories across Aceh for “protection services”—meaning that if the owners pay up, they won’t find their businesses burned to the ground in the morning.
The province’s coffee trade is one of the military’s most recent acquisitions. The TNI has muscled in on the coffee plantations in Central Aceh district, employing Javanese migrants to grow the beans of local farmers who have fled their fields. Some of Aceh’s native coffee growers now live in refugee camps in Banda Aceh. “We couldn’t take it anymore,” says Maulidin, a 26-year-old farmer. He says he fled Central Aceh late last year after TNI soldiers burned down his house, beat him up and then made him watch as they poured pots of scalding hot water over four of his neighbors. Soldiers, Maulidin says, then dragged the victims away to be executed, leaving trails of seared flesh behind them. The TNI’s spokesman denied the killings, adding, “Maybe some of our soldiers do bad things, but it’s not on orders from headquarters.”
In an interview with NEWSWEEK, Maj. Gen. Djali Yusuf, commander of TNI forces in Aceh, refused to directly answer questions about human-rights abuses. At first he also denied that his troops were involved in illegal businesses in the province. When presented with accounts of the military’s moneymaking machine, the general acknowledged that some officers had engaged in illegal logging and coffee production, but “they’ve been captured.” The luxury vehicles parked outside his command headquarters may suggest otherwise.
Sadly, the GAM has decided to fight fire with fire. The separatist rebels have their own business empire and, like the TNI, profits come from preying on the people. The GAM’s leading cottage industry is kidnapping for ransom. Marijuana is a chief GAM export, likely to be found in hash bars as far away as Amsterdam. And, of course, rebels, too, set up roadblocks to tax those who may be passing by. But they strenuously object to the terrorist moniker, claiming it to be just more of Jakarta’s lies.
Amid the dizzying financial windfall, local residents are apt to wonder whether anyone has much incentive to stop the war in Aceh. Even worse, there is widespread belief that the TNI is parlaying the conflict into bigger defense budgets and greater political influence in Jakarta. “If there is no internal threat... how else could Indonesia explain to the IMF about a bigger military budget?” says one Western humanitarian aid worker in Aceh.
More than 100 people, most of whom are civilians, are killed each month in Aceh. A round of talks is tentatively scheduled for September, but serious negotiations between the two sides seem more distant. Hasballah Saad, an Acehnese and human-rights minister under former president Abdurrahman Wahid, argues that if the government used the $64,000 spent every day to feed its troops to compensate victims instead, it would already be well on the way to a peaceful solution to the Aceh problem. But that, of course, wouldn’t be good for business.

Posted in Military @ 26 August 2002 by Jeroen · 'Blog' RSS feed · permalink

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