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The Political Tsunami

Oppressive military regimes and prior environmental degradation add unnatural death and destruction to a supposedly natural disaster.
 
 
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Humanity deserves a solid pat on the back this week, as the global humanitarian outpouring of support for tsunami victims has surpassed all previous relief efforts in history. The American government may have been stingy, but the American people certainly haven't, forking over checks to a host of relief agencies.

We've also seen the tsunami bring out the worst in humanity – the bottom-feeders who move in when their prey is injured or disabled. In this arena we're seeing parasitic entrepreneurs engaging in the purchase and sale of tsunami orphans. And in the Aceh region, where approximately two-thirds of the tsunami victims lived, the government of Indonesia is attempting to finish off their brutal campaign against the Acehnese people and their movement for self-determination.

Aceh is what is called a "breakaway province." Officially part of Indonesia, for 28 years the Acehnese have been fighting a military campaign for independence as a supposedly democratic republic. Using the Bush administration's "war on terror" and the recent U.S. invasion of Iraq as justifications, the Indonesian military invaded Aceh in May 2003. They termed this a "shock and awe" operation, complete with "embedded journalists" and the "blessing of Sept. 11."

Though the Indonesians claimed their military operation was a police action aimed at restoring order in Aceh, it quickly took on the brutal aura of an invasion, complete with F-16 bombing missions and strafing runs using low-flying American-built planes.

The Indonesian military is employing the same tactics in Aceh as it did during its brutal quarter-century occupation of the now-independent nation of East Timor, where military operations killed one third of the Timorese population. In an October 2004 report, Amnesty International documents "a disturbing pattern of grave abuses of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights" in Aceh, including a wave of "unlawful killings, torture, ill-treatment and arbitrary detention" that encompass the entire province.

Amnesty also documents that under Indonesian military occupation, "women and girls have been subjected to rape and other forms of sexual violence," often doled out in retribution when family members are suspected of involvement in the independence fight led by the Free Aceh Movement, which the Indonesians have labeled as a "terrorist organization."

Shock and Exxon

Why is none of this in the news? First there's the "embedded reporter" factor. Indonesia banned all journalists not embedded with the military. And then there's the economic disincentive. The official economy of Aceh is based on a massive Exxon/Mobil natural gas extraction project which, according to estimates on Pacifica Radio's Democracy Now, has netted $40 billion worth of the resource. Very little of this money has flowed into the local Acehnese economy, where nearly a quarter of the children suffered from malnutrition before the tsunami struck.

This explains both Indonesia's motivation to maintain tight control over the province, and the American corporate media's disincentive to cover this remote region of the world.

In this light, the tsunami provided a big boost to the Indonesian campaign against Aceh, killing more Acehnese than they could politically get away while reeking chaos upon the province. Not satisfied with this sudden strategic gift, the Indonesian military immediately set upon the survivors, exacting control over relief operations and withholding food and water as weapons against the independence movement.

Amnesty International has reported that it is difficult to document the extent of the abuses in Aceh since the Indonesians have banned most foreigners (with the notable exception of Exxon/Mobil workers) and all journalists from the province. With relief aid, however, came journalists, who reported on Indonesian troops beating Acehnese who came to relief centers looking for food. The Indonesians were also requiring identification cards from tsunami survivors, many of whose houses are washed away. Acehnese without ID may be interrogated as suspected rebels – an interrogation that in the past often resulted in death. Journalists reporting this story have been ordered to leave Aceh, with one commander admonishing Australian journalists that "Your duty here is to observe the disaster, not the conflict."

Meanwhile, In the Stone Age

On a more inspiring note, indigenous Great Andamanese, Jarawa, Onge, Shompen and Sentinelese people, survived the tsunami with very little loss of life. Much of the world originally feared that entire cultures living on remote islands in India's Andaman and Nicobar island chain were wiped out by the tidal waves. Global media celebrated the fact that not only did they seem very much alive, but that a naked Sentinelese man fired upon an Indian Air Force helicopter with a bow and arrow.

In covering the story, the BBC reported that the islanders have very little contact with, and by inference, understanding of the outside world – hence the arrows. In reality, the indigenous populations of the Andaman and Nicobar islands have had extensive contact with the outside world. These descendents of African peoples were first visited by Marco Polo who described them as "No better than wild beasts." European slave-traders later raided the islands for slaves. Starting in the 1800s, British troops visited wholesale massacres upon the islanders. An Indian land grab in the 20th century forced most of the remaining islanders from their ancestral lands. Anthropologists report that slavers continued to raid the islands well into the second half of the 20th century, long after the international slave trade was thought dead. So it seems that the islanders have a much better understanding of the outside world than the BBC would suspect.

Mangroves and Coral

Where the region's environment has been damaged over the years, the tsunami damage was much greater. The wholesale destruction of coral reefs and mangrove swamps across the Indian Ocean removed the only environmental barriers that have protected coastal environments from tidal waves for eternity. Coral reefs have fallen victim to pollution, dynamite used both in dredging channels and in fishing, and in quarrying operations where crushed coral is used in construction. Mangroves have been cut down to make beaches, towns, shrimp farms and resorts that primarily serve Western consumers.

Some of the worst mangrove depletion has occurred over the years in Aceh, where satellite photos show seaside shrimp farms and towns on former mangrove swamps. Hence, it's no surprise that in Aceh, with the mangrove swamps that traditionally absorbed such waves and shored up coastal geology gone, the devastation was so severe. By contrast, areas that still had coral or mangrove intact, suffered only minor losses of life. People seeing the turmoil of the waves crashing above offshore coral reefs ran for safety before the waters arrived. Likewise, while the waves uprooted millions of mangroves, they lost much of their destructive power in the process.

No natural disaster is entirely natural. With mangrove swamps being uprooted for housing and tourist development across the tropics, we'll see more and more unnatural destruction from natural disasters. Likewise, as oppressive militaries look for advantage in whatever disaster comes their way, we'll also see unnatural death and destruction in the wake of supposedly natural death and destruction.

Michael I. Niman's previous columns are archived at www.mediastudy.com .