MS Risk Blog

U.K. Oil Worker Kidnapped and Released in Aceh, Indonesia

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Last week, on Tuesday, 11th June, a British national was kidnapped in the Indonesian province of Aceh before being released in the early hours of Thursday, 13th June. Malcolm Primrose, 61, is a senior drilling advisor for PT Medco E&P Malaka Oil Company and reportedly has 30 years of experience in Indonesia.

When on his way home after work on Tuesday, his car was stopped by four armed men on the road between the company’s drilling site and his home village. His driver, named only as Dania, was tied up while Primrose was kidnapped. No shots were fired. Following the incident, the local police authorities began a large scale manhunt with military support.

On Wednesday 12th June, the kidnappers contacted authorities demanding a £500,000 ransom from Primrose’s family. Primrose was found unharmed in the early hours of Thursday morning, having been released in a remote palm oil plantation. According to the authorities, no ransom was paid in this instance, reportedly because his family were unable to meet the demand. No individuals have been arrested, and the identity of the kidnappers remains unknown.

Aceh is a region at the northern tip of Sumatra, and Indonesia’s third wealthiest province by natural resources.  From 1978 – 2005 a sustained and bloody insurgency took place in the province, led by the Free Aceh Movement (GAM). Aside from numerous historical and cultural grievances, such as a desire for autonomy and more conservative Islamic governance, one major issue centred on the exploitation of natural resources – mainly oil and gas. GAM’s leaders claimed that profits from natural resources were appropriated by the central Indonesian government and not reinvested fairly in Aceh itself.

Between 1989 – 1990, the Indonesian government launched a campaign to end the insurgency which led to the deaths of over 12’000 people, and was marred by numerous accusations of human rights abuses. A second Indonesian military campaign in 2003 – 2004 resulted in a decisive defeat for GAM.

This, combined with the devastation left by the 2004 tsunami, brought the 30 year conflict to an end. A peace deal in 2005 granted increased autonomy to Aceh in exchange for the separatists laying down arms. In elections since then, Aceh has consistently voted ex-GAM members into power, and enforced sharia law in the province.

While the issues that led to the insurgency have been largely resolved, there remain many individuals formerly active in the insurgent movement and a large volume of firearms in private ownership. There are also lingering economic difficulties in the province, with poverty amongst the highest in Indonesia.

Additionally, the position of some oil and gas operations remains contentious– US Company ExxonMobil was the subject of an attempted legal action in the United States based on accusations it collaborated with the Indonesian military by facilitating human rights abuses to protect its natural gas fields. Throughout Indonesia disputes between local communities, local government and resource companies are relatively commonplace, sometimes causing protests and disorder as a result. There are suggestions that the conservatism of Aceh’s populace may create increased tension with foreign companies.

Nevertheless, despite these lingering issues, last week’s incident is unusual as Aceh remains broadly peaceful with kidnapping of foreigners very rare. A French World Bank consultant was kidnapped in 2008 but released unharmed 24 hours later, while 5 Chinese workers were also kidnapped and released unharmed after 2 days in 2008. There have been no reported incidents since then.

The case took another interesting turn on Sunday, 16th June, when a source in the Indonesian National Police told the Jakarta Globe that Medco E&P had reportedly been the target of several attacks in the past weeks that it did not report to authorities. This included the shooting of company equipment and the attempted bombing of a workers barracks, neither of which caused injuries or significant damage. Nevertheless, and while reports are still vague, it suggests last week’s kidnapping of Primrose may be connected to a specific campaign against Medco instead of the result of a larger trend targeting foreign nationals in the region.

Foreign workers should be aware that the oil and gas industry has a contentious history in Aceh, and that the province as a whole remains impoverished and with a legacy of separatism and insurgency. However, while there is some cause for caution, kidnapping and other violent incidents remain rare, with currently no signs of a larger phenomenon of kidnap for ransom targeting foreigners emerging in Aceh.

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