Thursday, July 30, 2015

Back from Ramadan . . . and into the cocoa fields with GPS in hand

The farmers (and Robert) had a much-needed break during the Eid holidays that ended last week, but time and cocoa wait for no man (or woman) so Robert returned to Aceh Timur, where all was once again a flurry of activity, with big healthy seedlings being delivered from the nursery into the cocoa fields.

Our goal is for every farmer to have at east 400 cocoa trees per hectare of land, and most have between ½ and 2 hectares (about 1 -5 acres) which is actually quite a lot of cocoa, once the grafted branches start producing.  One of these varieties can produce up to 40 kilos per tree per harvest!  We aren’t going to get quite that much, but the clones that the women are now using will be a big improvement.

Also this week was the introduction of a tiny new gizmo—the Garmin GPS,  which Robert will use to teach the farmers how to plot out their own farms.  This is quite useful in terms of making sure exactly where boundaries are in terms of the rainforest/protected area, as well as plotting the location of all the trees and the dates of their planting, and other useful information that aids in record-keeping.

Obviously this is not a traditional farming activity!  Most of the women keep all the information about the trees, the harvest, the amount of fertilizer/pesticide they use on each tree, etc. in their heads.  JMD has tailored its trainings to suit the education/literacy levels of the farmers, so far with good results.  But into every successful small business a little paperwork must fall, and we are hoping that the fledgling association can maintain some rather “modern” record-keeping in terms of GPS tracking, nursery inventory, and plantation mapping, because when they get bigger . . . they are going to be surprised at how useful written records can be!

Friday, July 17, 2015

Din Minimi, ex-GAM freedom fighter, turns thug and loses most of his former support

 In late March I reported on the murder of 2 TNI intelligence officers in Sawang, and the subsequent hunt for who most people thought was responsible: Nurdin Din Ismail, aka Din Minimi.  Minimi is a former GAM separatist who, like many ex-combatants, doesn’t accept that the war is over between those in Aceh who were fighting to return it to a sultanate, and the Jakarta government, who proffered the 2005 Peace Accord shortly after the December 2004 tsunami wiped out over 160,000 Acehnese.  Since first hearing of the murders in Sawang, we’ve been keeping an ear to the ground, and a few days ago learned from JMD staff and local media that Minimi has been tracked to Pante Bidari, Aeh Timur . . . which of course is the proposed site of our cocoa farmer improvement expansion.  We get all the celebrities.

Apparently, Din Minimi has lost most of his former outlaw appeal with the local population, since he and his band of 23 not-so-merry thugs (with 5—count’em-- rifles between them) have managed to piss off just about every household across the district, with their looting and violent mussing-up and general lack of any former populist ideology.  Although Junaidi reports that Minimi has been loudly critical of the current governor (and former GAM member) Zaini.  This is not a new song that GA has sung; from the beginning of the Peace Accord there has been obvious favoritism paid to a few GAM higher-ups at the expense of most of the 10,000 foot soldiers, most of whom continue to live in extreme poverty with no employment prospects while a cadre of their ranking elite run the province and become even wealthier.  In a way, this is smart of Jakarta: as in East Timor, through some skillful political wrangling, the central government can now say of its pesky outlying province: “Hey, don’t blame us—they’re killing themselves.”

Minimi has recently said that if he can speak with the current governor (whose nickname is “Four Eyes,” similar to what the Timorese called their former combatant-turned-Director of Defense Tau Matan Ruak, which means “Eyes in the Back of His Head”), he will personally surrender all his 5 (count’em) guns.

Local news outlet Okezone gve a more complete history of Minimi and the group, two of whom have since been captured and are singing like canaries, although not much new is revealed except that he’s holed up in Pante Bidari and probably did not receive the warmest of welcomes. 

Okezone reports that the Director General of Criminal Investigation of the Aceh police, Sr. Nurfallah, told reporters on Saturday that if Minimi’s men surrender, “with open arms we will receive them and treat them well.  It is good to surrender." Otherwise, “we will continue to pursue Din Minimi until whenever."

Which is probably not so long now, since secessionist ideology, understandable at the outset, has now given way to pure thuggery without much long-term planning, and although Aceh Timur is a close-knit community, it’s not a foolish one.  Hopefully this guy will be out of Pante Bidari by the next cocoa growing season.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

So THIS is why Angelina was nowhere to be found when the Rohingya were dying in June

An interesting April post in by international journalist Marian Houk regarding our favorite fly-by-night philanthropist, Angelina Jolie, has me wondering, yet again: which tail is wagging which dog? 

 “UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie has just been given the floor to address the UNSC on Syria, and used the word “We” when speaking of the UN failures there…”

It seems that several branches of the UN feel that the only way to stress the seriousness of some of the atrocities being committed by world governments is to have a beautiful, carefully dressed celebrity issue the UN Security Council a prepared speech while winking at her rapt audience.  Houk calls this a “ridiculous scheme” and notes that Jolie’s speech on Syria was certainly not her own, although it was probably the only way “to explain the UNSC to Angelina Jolie’s fan base.”  Pointed and thoughtful comments on the speech included one from Syria’s Ambassador to the UN, Bashar Al-Jaafari: “She’s beautiful.”
 Very helpful.  

The Daily Mail also stressed the seriousness of the event by noting “The 39-year-old actress and director spoke at the United Nations in New York on Friday dressed in a white blazer, matching skirt and delicate jewelry. She had removed her $250,000 diamond engagement ring to make her speech.” [Embarrassment?  Shame?  Fear that a brown member of the UNSC would steal it?]

And of course, this tidbit: “Earlier this month, a business associate of Jolie and husband Brad Pitt told The Daily Express that the couple want to adopt a little Syrian girl.”  Of course they do. That will solve everything.

Jolie ‘s speech urged the UNSG to end the conflict in Syria: “If we cannot end the conflict, we have an inescapable moral duty to help refugees and provide legal avenues to safety.”
This just wasn’t convenient for her to reiterate in May and June when thousands of Rohingya were being killed and left for dead at sea.  And she’d just said it a month before so what’s the sense of repeating herself? Plus, she already went to the Rohingya camps in 2009.  Singing the same old humanitarian song would be so . . . unflatteringly redundant.

You gotta love her wiggling right in there and making herself a member of the UNSC. Houk caught it too: “We” = meaning, the UN Security Council + Angelina Jolie?

“It is completely incongruous for UN Goodwill Ambassadors to address the UN Security Council on matters of substance relating to some of the worst and most intractable conflicts in the world,” notes Houk.  But, as she points out, how low have we sunk if star status is the only way the UN or any international body will take notice?
More from Angelina's address:  “It is sickening to see thousands of refugees drowning on the doorstep of the world’s wealthiest continent. No one risks the lives of their children in this way except out of utter desperation . . . We are standing by, in Syria.”
 Oh we are, are we?  I want to see Ms Jolie in Syria, standing by.  I want to see her in Aceh, in Myanmar, in Malaysia, standing by.  I want her to at least be in a panel discussion, using her own thoughts, words and passion for a cause, like Matt Dillon did.  But she and her publicists have no time for that.  The clock is ticking.  As we can see from the photo, Angelina’s It-Girl days are coming to a close so she needs to find a few more crises to dress up for.

I would like to address the UN.  I’ve worked with more marginalized groups than Angelina.  And it seems that nobody cared enough about the Rohingya to trot her out to wink at the Myanmar Ambassador. Is it my lack of fame?  My decidedly un-glamorous hair and not-so-pouty lips? or does this body, as Houk says, “prioritize fund-raising over political [and therefore controversial] work?”  Still, the bigger question is: why does it take a celebrity, seeking more celebrity status, to move people, agencies, and governments to take action?  Why can’t people, agencies and governments man up and do the right thing all on their own?

I give up. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Ten “escape” from Rohingya refugee camp . . . but for what reason?

The staff at JMD told me today that seven women at the refugee camp In Bayeun (that’s the one in Aceh Timur that Robert visited) escaped.  That was really all he knew, so I scoured international media (nada) and local media for more information.  One outlet, Lintas Atjeh, added a bit more to the story . . . but not much.

Apparently ten refugees (nine women and one man) left the camp on July 9th, but three, including the man, were “successfully recaptured” at the Bayeun bridge about 30 meters away and brought back to the camp without incident.  So seven are still “on the loose.”
It was reported that the refugees had help from community members, but were spotted by other camp members, who reported them to authorities.

[Are you noticing, up to this point, my heroic restraint in sticking just to the facts?]

The police are, apparently, on the lookout for the remaining seven women.

So many questions, so many possibilities.
Colleagues here have asked me to speculate.
So I’m speculating.  That’s all.  Just speculating.

Let’s start with 2009, when JMD was involved in setting up one of the first camps for Rohingya refugees in Idi, Aceh Timur.  There were about 200 men and teen boys—no women, and conditions were not ideal.  As JMD handed over the running of the camp to provincial authorities and the Rohingya’s detention wore on, there were many reports of abuse of the boys in the camps, and back then, if someone “escaped,” there was no one from the authorities who went looking for them or tried to bring them back.  In fact, the majority of those refugees from 2009 walked out of the camp; this was the way that the province decided to address the problem and empty the camps.  As is the case now, their country of origin wasn’t going to take them back, and it was costing more than the province had to keep the camp going.  The solution? “Escapes.”  It was basically walk-offs.

You may wonder why someone would want to leave a camp after coming from a place where death or a lifetime of severe hardship was a near-certainty, only to face a foreign land where you did not speak the language and had no visible means of keeping yourself alive.  But you have to remember that most refugees, at least those from Myanmar, left in order to land in Malaysia and then “disappear” into life there.  Only those who were rescued at sea or found by authorities on shore either in Malaysia or took a wrong turn at the Malacca Straight and ended up in Aceh were sent to camps—better than death, better than Myanmar, but not the original plan.  The original plan was to blend in to the new landscape and remain free to take advantage of whatever opportunities came their way.

So for a man anyway, landing in a refugee camp might be ideal for a week or two, but then you want to leave and get on with it.  The difference this time, apparently, is that the authorities are instructed to go after walk-offs and bring them back.

So what about the women?  Well, it could be that the one man was the trafficker, and he agreed to take the women out of the camp because they paid him.  In 2009 we dealt frequently with a trafficker there—they get swept up in the rescues as well, after all.  They usually speak more than the language of the refugees, they know people, they have connections on the outside (on many outsides) and they are always working the system. They are consummate businessmen, and can’t make any money sitting in a camp. Unless someone in camp is paying them to get them out of camp.

So this man—let’s call him a trafficker (as in coyote, not a sex or slavery trafficker, just a get-me-out-of-here trafficker) for speculation’s sake—was either really bad at his profession or just a con man who took the women’s money and then got himself re-caught to go back and get more money to do it again.  But then that begs the question: why did only women go with him?  What would make just women, and no men, decide to pay a trafficker to help them escape the camp? So he could have been involved in sex trafficking from before, and these nine women were “his.”  Or something more nefarious was going on in the camp itself.  Nine women and no men (except the male helper) leave the camp into a country they know nothing about, leaving their children (one assumes), not speaking the language or having a skill or knowing where they will stay or when they will eat--what was going on in that camp to make them leave like that? How bad could it have gotten and why was it unbearable for just the women?

This new wave of Rohingya refugees is different because before, only the men came.  Even though life sucked back in Myanmar, it was thought to be too dangerous for a woman in the wilds of wherever these people were going to end up.  But now women, little children and babies are here, which points to two really gruesome things: life has gotten so bad in Myanmar that even small children are not safe, and that the dynamic in a confined camp has now changed to where women are once again prey: to other refugees, to camp officials and workers, to any man who wants to take advantage of the situation.

A friend who I told about this wanted to do her own search, wrote me, “The only thing I can find are generalized reports: women flee because Buddhist police formed murder squads; women flee to avoid being sold to China for sex trade; women flee because of gang rapes; abused women try to flee Ban Mai Nai Soi refugee camp in Thailand . . .”  Do you sense a possible pattern here?

Remember, I’m just speculating about this escape.
But I will assure you, no explanation is a happy one.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Finally: a new article on the Rohingya—and in the New York Times no less

Just when I was giving up hope that the story of the Rohingya would be forgotten by most of the world press after a month of good publicity, a great story comes out in the Times (July 5) called A Migrant Mother’s
Anguished Choice.”  Read it here; it will give you nightmares.

There is also a good map of the route that refugees take from Myanmar; most end up in Malaysia but many, as we know, have arrived in Aceh, and on the map you can see why.

A July 4 Forbes article, “Do Myanmar’s Rohingya really need citizenship now?” reiterates what I’ve been saying about the Aceh people’s willingness to help the refugees: “The Bangladeshis and Rohingya couldn’t have chosen a better place to end up than Aceh, by the way. The welcome by the Acehnese people and Indonesian health services couldn’t be warmer; the Acehnese may even end up inviting the 900-plus Rohingya men, women and children to stay permanently; the approximately 900 Bangladeshis, all men, will be sent home.” [As explained in a previous post, this is because the refugees from Bangladesh are not considered to be in danger; rather they are seeking economic betterment outside Bangladesh.]

Also of note is JMD Board member Lilianne Fan, research fellow with the Humanitarian Policy Group of Britain’s Overseas Development Institute (ODI), being interviewed for this article regarding the perception of many in Myanmar (including other oppressed minorities) that the Rohingya are not citizens and are “coming in and taking their jobs and land.”  In order to address this, as well as the immediate crisis, “We have to shift the narrative a little bit to, “The Rohingya are people like us. We’re all part of this complex history.”


Wednesday, July 8, 2015

During Ramadan . . . remember the Rohingya

Not much to update re: the Rohingya refugee camp in Aceh Timur.  Local media and other sources report that ACT will still purchase land for rice fields to feed the refugees, but no details have been ironed out yet, and no purchase has happened.  The head of the military base at Aceh Utara, however, has stated publicly that he supported this and has promised that a officer from the base will work with ACT if the plan moves forward.

As Junaidi from JMD said, “We will watch and see this from afar.”

And as life in the camp continues, so does the discovery of more Rohingya victims of trafficking:
Malaysia buries another 24 human trafficking victims
06 July 2015
Total number of suspected Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants given Muslim burials reaches 99 after 106 bodies found near Thai border  

And lest we forget:

Horrible Rohingya Muslims massacre by Buddhists supported by Burmese government


It’s actually hard to find any new reports this month. Certainly nothing on Myanmar or its reaction to "threats" of sanctions.

See?  The world  is already forgetting the Rohingya . . . again . . . . 

Friday, July 3, 2015

Update on the petition to Jokowi, plus: another agency helping the Rohingya in Aceh?

A few days ago I posted some information on a group called Coalition for Caring for the Rohingya and their petition to President Jokowi asking that Indonesia cut all ties with Myanmar until all Rohingya are acknowledged as citizens and given all rights due them.  JMD additionally reports that a CNN news story in Indonesia stated that the petition also seeks to take Myanmar to International court for crimes against humanity.

The petition was posted to the House of Representative Tuesday, with a copy to the President, and additional admonitions from Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahatir to expel Myanmar from ASEAN, but so far there is no word regarding how the petition was treated, dealt with, or paid attention to.  I did find out a little more abut the Coalition, however, and the man who started it.

Apparently, the Coalition for Caring for the Rohingya was the idea of attorney and Muslim activist Adnin Armas of Jakarta. Pak Adnin is also head of the Indonesian Society for Social Transformation (INSIST) in Jakarta.  One of their web pages is embedded in the Quebec-based Alternatives International site, which states:
INSIST goal is to eliminate all types and forms of injustice by promoting empowerment of groups that have, to this point, been placed in weak, marginalised positions. They must be empowered to become active, critical actors in all processes of social transformation, moving towards the realisation of more just economic, political, and cultural systems, so that they can make a greater contribution to the advancement of civilization and humanity overall.
Okay, great. However, their other web page,, is far more vague and frankly I can’t figure out what their mission is:
Since the late 1980s, there has been a restlessness in seeing the development of many NGOs in Indonesia. After a long process of reflection, supported by many real experiences in the field and critical studies, INSIST (the Institute for Social Transformation) was established in Jogyakarta, 10 December  1997. Since then, much has been done that has put INSIST at the forefront of Indonesian efforts to develop critical discourse, alternative perspectives, and new discourses. INSIST has become a creative, productive supporting system for people’s organizations and social movements in this country.

In other words: yakety-yak-yak-yak.  I do love a good academic discourse.

Likeminded agencies in Jakarta have signed the petition, but it’s still unclear as to which “communities” in Aceh or what members of those communities signed it.  We hear that many Rohingya in the camps signed it, but still don’t know if it was signed by local leaders, community members, or others.  JMD called contacts in Banda Aceh and at the Governor’s office; no on seemed to know much about it.  Which is either a sign that the petition is a flash in the pan (as JMD suspects; there are often “pop up” groups in Aceh responding to political or social events), or indicative of an Aceh bureaucracy still too preoccupied with itself to pay attention to outside issues.  Either way: not so good.

I also came across an interesting group that JMD has never heard of, but who are apparently very good at raising funds to help the Rohingya.  The campaign of the Us-Sunnah Foundation has so far raised $80,000 to provide food and supplies to Rohingya refugees in Indonesia.  The Foundation, stared by Al Camarata of California, is registered in the US (possibly Arizona) and in Indonesia; their office is outside Jakarta in Tangerang.  I am so happy that a faith-based organization has so much good ground support and seems to be directing their funds to those most in need. 


Again, no one we spoke to has ever heard of this foundation,  yet they boast that “We have seen other fundraisers for the refugees online but have not seen any of them on the ground. . . . . we are working in coop[eration] with all organizations on the ground as well as the Indonesian government. . . . we are the only organization . . .  actively seeking funds internationally for these refugee camps.”

Excuse me????

So of course my blood starts to boil and I call my stalwart detectives, who tell me that none of their friends or colleagues know of this foundation either, but further digging reveals that they do support a known entity at the camps, who Robert met, called ACT, (Aksi Cepat Tanggap) a Jakarta based NGO who has built a meeting hall and classroom/study area at the camp in Aceh Utara.

Us-Sunnah also stated that they purchased some land near the camp in Aceh Utara to plant rice to feed the refugees:
Yesterday us-Sunnah (registered nonprofit US and Indonesia) completed the purchase on a 7,500+ sqm (81,000+ sqft) rice field and put the down payment on another about 4,000 sqm (43,000 sqft), both of which can be used immediately and are already prepared for use. This is the first plot for our waqf (endowment) which will harvest several tonnes of rice every 4 to 6 months for hundreds or thousands of years.

But JMD tells me that as far as anyone knows, there has been no purchase and these plans are far from final and that acquiring land from the government could be difficult.  Perhaps it’s just a lease?  Either way, it would be good to know if the refugees can work in this field to grow their own food, or if the government has to provide labor and maintenance.

So I have asked JMD to please get in touch with Mr Camarata from us-Sunnah and introduce ourselves as the ONLY LOCAL agency working in Aceh and the agency that established the Rohingya camp in Aceh Timur in 2009 and perhaps we could conduct some mutual support and information sharing in the future.

They’re doing a nice Ramadan campaign on their Facebook Page,  and if all their proceeds go to the Rohingya I will seek them out and thank them personally myself.

Maruchen (Ramen Noodles) palm oil exploiters to conservationists: “Meh.”

A token gesture, so tiny and insignificant it’s almost bizarre, was all Maruchen, the Ramen Noodle giant, gave in response to calls for better sourcing (and reduction) of palm oil in its products.

Maruchen agreed to have US companies who import palm oil for their products adhere to the (laughably insufficient) RSPO—Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil-- standards. . . but this applies only to US companies and not products sold worldwide. 

Rainforest Action Network is asking the public to keep the pressure on, or soon the entire Sumatran rainforest complex, with all its endangered wildlife (including the orangutans) will be a thing of the past.  And yup, that includes Aceh.

RAN is urging everyone to call the Maruchen offices below and “raise your voice for forests and forest-dependent communities.”
English: US office at: (949)-789-2300 line #2 consumer affairs
Spanish: Mexican office at: 52 55 5669 1794
Japanese : Japanese office at: 0120 181 874 or 03 3458 3333