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From The Socialist newspaper, 8 January 2005

Indian Ocean tsunami disaster

Aceh: Indonesian military hampers aid operation

The Indonesian 'province' of Aceh on the island of Sumatra was only 155 km from the epicentre of the earthquake. After several days, the Indonesian government finally gave in to massive pressure to open up the closed war zone for international journalists and aid workers. Now the full and horrifying scale of the tsunami catastrophe can be seen. At the time of writing, the estimated death toll stands at 140,000, with a further 500,000 in desperate need of food and water.

Arne Johansson, Rattvisepartiet Socialisterna (CWI, Sweden)

Offensiv, the Swedish paper of the CWI, talked to Bakhtiar Abdullah who is a spokesperson for the exiled Free Aceh Movement (GAM) leadership based in Sweden. He tells the story of a brutal state of emergency and a war that has seriously undermined Aceh's health service and infrastructure. The 100,000-strong Indonesian military occupation force is also accused of achieving few results in the relief work and giving priority to their own families.

Now there is the threat of epidemics such as malaria, cholera and typhoid that can claim several tens of thousands more lives. According to the health ministry, those most vulnerable are the more than 500,000 injured, mostly children and old people.

The worst affected areas are the north-eastern coast from the capital Banda Aceh (on the northern edge of Sumatra) and the western coast down to the Meulabou district. Most of the houses have just disappeared. A CNN reporter described the centre of Banda Aceh as "totally destroyed". 10,000 had been counted dead in Melabou, of the town's total population of 40,000.

Soon after the catastrophe, the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) declared a unilateral ceasefire in order to assure the safety of aid workers. GAM will only defend itself under direct attack.

The Indonesian military have also declared that they now were "too busy" to be able to hunt the rebels. This is a lie, according to Bakhtiar Abdullah, speaking for the exiled leadership of GAM:

"We have received reports that military operations still go on during this disaster, in order to trample on GAM in the mountains. At the same time international rescue workers have been stopped and seriously delayed on their way to Aceh.

"International aid organisations should seek to reach out themselves to the people of Aceh with food, clean water, medicine, doctors, tents and blankets. The first priority must be to help the victims and to stop epidemics. But in order to rebuild Aceh in the long term, a political solution with peace, liberty and security is necessary."

At the same time as the regime in Jakarta proves its inefficiency in relief work, there are reports of widespread solidarity with the Acehnese people throughout Indonesia. In a web blog from Makassar in Eastern Indonesia, the female labour leader Dita Sari reports that kiosks have been put up to collect clothes and other necessities for the Acehnese every 300 metres on the streets in that town.

Similar initiatives are going on in Jakarta and other towns. In Jakarta student activists are planning to organise a demonstration against the government in order to demand that the relief efforts get through to the people in need.

See for full interview and background information.

The struggle for independence

The Free Aceh Movement (GAM) began fighting for independence in 1976. A ceasefire in 2002 broke down a year later and Jakarta imposed martial law on the province, which was only lifted in 2004.

Many Acehnese continue to resent Jakarta's rule. Most of the revenue from the province's rich oil and gas resources goes straight to the Indonesian government.

Aceh was handed over to Indonesia in 1949, despite not having been formally incorporated into the Dutch colonies, when the Dutch recognised Indonesian independence after four years of guerrilla warfare.

The Indonesian government used armed troops to annex the region and President Suharto conducted a policy of resettling Indonesians from Java.

In 1959, in an effort to appease the Acehnese, Jakarta gave the province a special status that conferred a certain amount of autonomy, especially over religious and educational matters. Aceh has a higher proportion of Muslims than other areas of Indonesia, and introduced Sharia law in 2002.

After the fall of Suharto in May 1998, General Wiranto - then the head of the armed forces - ended the military's control over Aceh and publicly apologised for human rights abuses in the province.

Conflict continued and, following the collapse of a peace deal in May 2003, Indonesia declared martial law and launched an all-out military offensive against the rebels. Since then, according to GAM, 10,000 mainly civilians have been killed.

Worst disaster for Sweden since World War One

"NOW EVERYTHING else must rest. National unity is needed." That was the message from Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson three days after the 26 December tsunami.

Per-Ake Westerlund and Arne Johansson Rattvisepartiet Socialisterna (CWI, Sweden)

Images of the dead and wounded, and scenes of total devastation have created solidarity and a willingness to act among broad layers. Most of the 1,350 Swedish tourists on charter holidays in Thailand are feared dead. In addition, there are 2,300 who are posted as missing. This makes the Swedish element of the Asian catastrophe the single worst disaster since the "Spanish flu" epidemic following World War One.

"National unity" on command from politicians, however, is something completely different from common action from workers and ordinary people.

It is not surprising that Persson called for "everything else to be put aside" since the catastrophe has also developed into a scandal for the Swedish government.

Swedish tourists who survived were overwhelming in their praise for the help given by poor Thai workers and youth and from other tourists. But they were enraged by the callous, arrogant and slow response of the Swedish government and particularly the Foreign Office (UD). The first three planes organised by the Swedish government arrived four days after the tsunami hit Thailand - even Swedish charter companies flew in some planes before this.

This has meant that many of those injured faced the possibility of dying from infections they had picked up in the overcrowded and under-resourced hospitals.

The Swedish Foreign Minister, Leila Freivalds, has been targeted for much of the criticism. She did not cut short her holiday until 31 hours after the catastrophe and was reported to have gone to the theatre on the night the tsunami hit Thailand.

The media, reflecting the huge anger of many Swedes have published vicious criticism of the government. Lena Mellin, writing in Aftonbladet, the biggest daily newspaper, explained: "The anger triggered by the slow handling of the situation by the government is monumental." The telephone exchange of this newspaper was reported to be blocked by angry callers complaining about the lack of action by the government.

One volunteer in Thailand was quoted as saying: "Everything is so disorganised. We trusted the Foreign Office, but where are they, where is the Swedish military? Get them down here and let them start digging for bodies."

Swedish workers and young people have responded to the tragedy by donating over 50 million. But they will be horrified by the fact that the government has promised less than what it costs to buy a JAS jet fighter to the emergency appeal!

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In The Socialist 8 January 2005:

They didn't have to die

Scale of tragedy was avoidable

India: A disaster made worse by poverty

Sri Lanka appeal

It was no 'Act of God'

Aceh: Indonesian military hampers aid operation

Strike against low pay

Fighting a failing system

Reports expose inequality scandal

How to resist New Labour's attacks

Elections in Iraq - but no peace or democracy

Fatah leaders 'unite' behind Abbas


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