Who Knew?

10 minute read
MARK R. MITCHELL Lhokseumawe

A war is raging and there are no good bars, but all in all, Aceh, Indonesia, is not a bad place to live if you’re a foreign employee of the biggest, most profitable corporation on earth. The people who oversee ExxonMobil’s gas fields in the province are generally housed in a company-built neighborhood called Bukit Indah. It is a fenced-off and fortified oasis of ranch-style homes and green lawns, a place where kids ride bikes, carefree, on tree-lined streets. There are swimming pools, tennis courts and a nearby golf course. Weekends bring barbecues or softball games. And in the evenings, residents watch satellite TV, the latest episode of Friends sometimes interrupted by the faint chatter of machine-gun firea sound that causes unease, but only a little, like a clap of thunder from a faraway rainstorm.

Imagine you are one of these people, an oilman from Texas maybe, reared on down-home cooking and wholesome notions of right and wrong. Suppose further you have heard that Bukit Indah’s tranquility has been built on Aceh’s ashes. You have been told the Indonesian troops whom ExxonMobil funds to protect you and your familysoldiers who salute you in the morningsspend their nights burning villages, looting and killing at random. Activists are claiming that these troops have used your company’s equipment to dig mass graves and are turning your company’s warehouses into torture chambers. Imagine you have heard these things. Suppose they might really be happening. Does your conscience bother you?

Anwar thinks it should. At a crowded refugee camp in a mosque not far from Bukit Indah, the 30-year-old farmer lifts his shirt to reveal thick, track-like scars, the remnants of wounds he says he received last summer when soldiers, assigned to defend ExxonMobil employees and property, whipped him nightly for a month with ropes of barbed wire. He was also burned with cigarettes and beaten unconscious with a wooden board. They did not kill him, but he wishes they had. Then he would not have had to watch the soldiers shoot his brother in the head.

Anwar says part of his ordeal took place inside the gates of ExxonMobil’s Cluster IV gas field. He says he was dragged, kicking and screaming, past men wearing white uniforms and ExxonMobil hard hatsthe company’s private security guards. He doesn’t know why he was tortured and claims to have no opinion about the Free Aceh Movement (gam), a rebel army fighting for independence from Indonesia. He doesn’t want any money from ExxonMobil. But he doesn’t have much good to say about the company either. “I hate Exxon,” he says, “they have no heart.”

He is not alone. Aceh’s mostly destitute population has harbored ill will for the company ever since it cut a deal with President Suharto to operate the province’s lucrative gas fields over 30 years ago. The decades-old rebellion has been fueled largely by popular resentment over the American company’s relative wealth and that 80% of the government revenues its gas fields generate are diverted back to Jakarta. When Abdurrahman Wahid became President in 1998, he vowed to correct the imbalance and even talked about allowing Aceh to hold a referendum on independence, but those promises fell victim to government paralysis and a strong military lobby that didn’t want to let Aceh go.

Today, residents of the one-ox towns immediately bordering ExxonMobil’s facilities in Aceh seem ready to storm the ramparts. Many of these towns have become breeding grounds for the rebel movement and, in some, the gam’s fighters can be seen resting, rusted rifles and rocket launchers strapped over their shoulders. They are fighting the Indonesian military. But they are also fighting ExxonMobil. Late last year, the rebels began targeting the company’s employees and property, forcing it in March to suspend its operations. The townspeople say it is good the rebels are attacking ExxonMobil. In some places, people literally line up to tell stories of abuse and murders committed by the troops they call Exxon’s Army.

Some of these stories will soon be heard by a jury. On June 20, the Washington-based International Labor Rights Fund (ilrf) filed a lawsuit in the United States on behalf of 11 Acehnese men and women who say they were tortured or beaten by soldiers from the A-13 military base, located on the road connecting ExxonMobil’s facilities and the city of Lhokseumawe. The troops in that camp are paid out of funds the company provides as part of its agreement with the Indonesian government. The group plans to argue that the company is liable under the centuries-old Alien Tort Claims Act, which allows companies to be sued in the U.S. for wrongful acts committed overseas.

There is no evidence that ExxonMobil’s senior executives have ever witnessed an atrocity in Aceh (they deny having done so) and the company has no command authority over the soldiers who protect it. In addition, all of the property and equipment that it uses is technically owned by Pertamina, Indonesia’s state-owned oil monopoly, which is the controlling partner in a production sharing contract with ExxonMobil. But Terry Collingsworth, the ilrf’s lead lawyer, is confident that the American company can be held liable. “All we need to show is that its executives knew what was going on, based on a reasonable standard, and failed to do anything about it,” he says. “There are plenty of reports out there about what has happened in Aceh. A word from Exxon’s chairman to an Indonesian minister might improve things, but the company has not even done that.”

Whether or not ExxonMobil has approached the government, it does have leverage. Facing revenue losses of around $100 million a month after the company recently suspended operations, the Indonesian government promised to restore order swiftly. The troops at A-13 were put on high alert and in May, Jakarta dispatched 2,000 more soldiers to ExxonMobil’s gas sites. Among them were the feared Kopassus, or Special Forces, responsible for much of the mayhem in East Timor before it gained independence in 1999. According to Lieut. Colonel Sadharun Nandio, spokesman for the Aceh Security Restoration Operation: “The decision to add troops was taken after consultation between Exxon, government officials and the military.”

The new troops have performed their duty energetically. According to locals, riding a bicycle or oxcart on the street in front of ExxonMobil’s facilities has become a deadly game of dodge-bullet, with soldiers taking potshots at just about anybody who moves. Those who pass at the wrong time of day are sometimes dragged into ExxonMobil’s warehouses and taught a lesson. New military camps have been established at 500-m intervals along the company’s pipeline. By night, troops from these camps go to nearby settlements in search of food, women and (sometimes) rebels. If they don’t find what they’re looking for, they break homes and bones. It is not difficult to find people in these towns with new bullet wounds and houses that have been looted or burned in the past two months. “Things have become much worse since May,” says Ummiyah, who was recently shot in the leg while tending a field near the pipeline.

ExxonMobil’s private security guardsthe guys in the white uniformsman their posts side-by-side with Indonesian soldiers. If they have anything bad to say about the new troops, they aren’t talking. All questions are referred to the local army commander.

ExxonMobil’s senior executives are not bad people. Bukit Indah’s setup shows they care about their employees. If they have to be in a place with a war, employees have to be kept safeand that means depending on the army. They are required by their contract with the government to fund the troopsthey have even made sure there is a clause that prohibits the soldiers from conducting any offensive operations in the field. ExxonMobil no doubt thinks it has done all it can do in a difficult spot.

But as the situation has worsened, people in Aceh say the company should do more. Reports of atrocities committed by the troops from base A-13 have been accumulating for years. In 1998, a coalition of 17 local human rights groups accused Mobil Oil (the company assumed its current name after merging with Exxon in 1999) of ignoring this evidence, including reports that soldiers were using the corporation’s earthmoving equipment to bury their victims in mass graves. At least one of those graves was thought to be on Pertamina land, less than three miles from an ExxonMobil drill site. At the time, the company pleaded ignorance, saying if substantiated claims of abuse were brought to its attention, it “would aggressively respond to and denounce such actions.”

In the years that followed, though, the aggressive response didn’t come. The company has never publicly criticized the troops attached to its operations nor asked that they be replaced. The mass grave that might be sitting on its partner’s property has apparently never been investigated. And as claims of atrocities have increased, so have activists doubts about the company’s goodwill. A long list of questions was e-mailed to ExxonMobil for this story, but the company said it could not respond while the ilrf case is in litigation. Instead it sent a half-page statement: “ExxonMobil condemns the violation of human rights in any form … We reject the charge of ExxonMobil’s involvement in human rights violations.”

That is not much consolation to 17-year-old Afrina. When she tells her story, villagers hover nearby, some weeping. But Afrina does not cry. In a matter-of-fact way, she tells how soldiers came looking for her father last January in a village that nestles up against the gates of ExxonMobil’s Cluster I gas field. They didn’t find him, so they took her instead. For three days, she sat in a pool of water in a warehouse fronted by a sign that read: “You are now entering the Mobil premises.” The soldiers told her to remove her clothing and fondled her. Then she was dressed up in a military uniform and photographed. “I don’t like to be treated like a doll,” she says. “Exxon did this to me.”

The gam, which is no model of military discipline itself, used stories like Afrina’s to justify its attacks on civilians who work for ExxonMobil. Last December, a company plane was hit by ground fire as it approached a landing strip in Lhokseumawe. From Feb. 24 to March 3, mines blew up under three buses carrying ExxonMobil’s employees. When mortars landed on a facility called Point A later in March, the company’s security advisers decided things had become too dangerous. The firm shuttered its operations and evacuated Bukit Indah, leaving it in the hands of the now beefed-up military.

On July 2 an ExxonMobil spokeswoman said that security had been restored to the company’s satisfaction. Foreign employees are expected to return to Bukit Indah’s tennis courts and swimming pools any day now.

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