Jakarta’s control over Aceh troops put to test


As massive aid rolls in, commanders must watch for graft among rogue officers.

INDONESIAN soldiers carrying M-16 rifles swagger through Aceh’s separatist-infiltrated districts of Pidie and Siglie all day looking for rebels.

Just 200km away in the provincial capital of Banda Aceh, soldiers hand out water and food to tsunami survivors.

Overnight, the focus of the Indonesian armed forces (TNI) in the strife-torn province switched from waging war on the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) to dealing with the aftermath of disaster.

After running Aceh as a virtual fiefdom for 15 years, the question is: Can the TNI pass for a humanitarian relief organisation?

No, say human rights groups.

Yes, say the generals.

A three-star army general in Jakarta involved in the aid coordination told The Straits Times: ‘We are the only organisation in Indonesia that has the infrastructure and network to handle a major emergency like this.’

Indeed, the TNI is also the only organisation whose reach extends right down to village level. It has the relevant experience too, having taken the lead in disaster management over the past 30 years.

Of the 30,000 soldiers in Aceh, half – mainly from the territorial and logistics units – will be re-deployed to the aid effort, leaving the 15,000-strong combat outfit to focus on tracking down GAM members.

Some aid workers and human rights groups charge that the military is hindering relief efforts. Some have alleged that while heading to stricken areas, they were pressured to turn over aid to the military for delivery.

One group, Human Rights Watch, has written to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono asking him to strip the military of its role in distributing relief supplies and to revoke a state of emergency imposed last year in Aceh.

Critics fear that as huge amounts of aid money pour in, rogue officers may give in to temptation and weaken the TNI’s resolve to play a humanitarian role.

One factor will be crucial: whether the central military command will be able to rein in rogue officers on the ground.

Historically, tensions between Jakarta and the outer regions, usually over finances, have hampered military operations.

The militia war against the Dutch, fought by bands of guerilla bandits, left a strong legacy of autonomy from Jakarta’s influence, even after then commander Abdul Haris Nasution strengthened the army’s centralised structure in the 1950s.

Mindful of the problem of funding a military fighting separatist rebellions simultaneously in several places, he ordered military units to find their own supplies through business ventures – and to keep the profits. Some underground ventures were in illegal businesses.

Financial controls were tightened in the 1980s, but the old practice of military involvement in illegal businesses is said to have flourished in Aceh since the late 1980s.

Some officers are said to have found Aceh a lucrative posting because of revenues from oil and gas, illegal timber and even marijuana.

The underground military businesses are based on an extensive network of patronage relationships between officers and these ties are often stronger than the links to the central command.

Jakarta’s control over vast swathes of Aceh is thus weaker than presented to the outside world.

With the international spotlight now on Aceh, the Indonesian military commanders in Aceh can probably be expected to keep their officers in line.

But as massive aid flows in and sufficient time goes by, rogue officers may find the temptation too hard to resist.

Given the assistance of 5,000 marines from the United States and hardware on the USS Abraham Lincoln, as well as help from several other countries, including Singapore, the logistics of aid distribution probably will not be the biggest challenge for the TNI.

Maintaining ranks over the long haul will.

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