South Asia tsunami information   |   Information on Aceh

Aceh feels the fallout

4 January 2005

In the wake of the tsunami tragedy that has claimed more than 80,000 Indonesian lives, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has called on his people to approach the New Year with optimism. The latest death toll in the country's poorest region - the resource-rich but war-ravaged province of Aceh on the northwestern tip of Sumatra Island - has been estimated at 82,000, mostly in Banda Aceh, Sabang and the west coast regencies of Aceh Jaya and Aceh Besar.

More than 40% of the population of the province was living below the poverty line before the disaster, which has deepened the poverty of thousands more by snatching away their livelihoods. Communities are shattered by the deaths of older people, traditional leaders and local officials. Health Minister Siti Fadilah Supari has said officials would now offer only general estimates of the death toll because there were simply too many bodies to count.

Concluding his year-end speech to the nation by declaring 2005 "The Year of Solidarity and Togetherness", Yudhoyono asked people to open their hearts to the victims of tragedies and to assist the relief effort. "Don't let them feel alone because they are a part of us, of our national family," he said.

Aceh's military commander, Major General Endang Suwarya, said up to three-quarters of the western coastline has been destroyed, with some towns being totally leveled. Vast tracts of the province are still flooded a week after the killer waves struck on Sunday, December 26.

Lack of coordination

The Aceh provincial administration and its structure were decimated. Reports say only half of the administration's employees survived the tragedy, and most government offices there were destroyed.

According to the United Nations, it could take up to a year to secure afflicted communities from hunger and disease. The central government has been slow to get its act together and face the daunting task of sustaining rescue efforts. The relief effort is being coordinated by the National Coordination Board (Bakornas) under the Coordinating Ministry for People's Welfare.

Operational coordination units (Satkorlak) have been established in Aceh and North Sumatra provinces under the governor. Regents are leading the regency-level operational units (Satlak). Though aid is beginning to filter in slowly in the wake of the disaster, distribution on the ground is severely hampered by a lack of coordination and a severe shortage of fuel and vehicles.

Sea Hawk helicopters from the United States aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln have been carrying emergency aid to some of the worst-hit towns such as Meulaboh and Calang. US and Australian C-130 Hercules transport planes, along with other civilian and military aircraft, are bringing bulk supplies and medical equipment into the capital, Banda Aceh.

Rebels under attack

Continuing separatist fighting in Aceh has raised concern among aid workers who claim the safety of thousands of homeless refugees could be at risk if the military (TNI) and Free Aceh Movement (GAM) do not respect a cease fire in the province.

The GAM leadership in exile in Sweden has offered a unilateral cease fire, and self-styled GAM Prime Minister Malik Mahmud said the tsunami might eventually help peace prospects. Critics claim the war against the rebels and earlier restrictions on foreigners were part of an effort by the security forces and provincial government to embezzle development funds, profit from illegal businesses and cover up the extent of severe human-rights abuses.

As for the military and police, they are now concentrating on burying the thousands of dead that line the streets, amid fears that epidemic outbreaks of water-borne diseases could claim thousands more lives. More than 370 soldiers and 51 members of their families are among the dead.

Yet the TNI are still finding time to continue the offensive against the rebels. Reports from the field said hundreds of troops were raiding GAM hideouts across East and North Aceh.

The president himself, possibly viewing the disaster in the war zone as an opportunity to negotiate an end to the long-running conflict, has called for a permanent end to the rebellion. "I call on those who are still raising arms to come out ... Let us use this historic momentum to join and be united again," he said in Jakarta less than two days after the earthquake.

Fears of graft

Leading parliamentarians also support the government's relief efforts but have been quick to urge extreme caution in disbursing aid to a province where corruption has been singularly rampant.

In 2003, the government allocated Rp4.06 trillion (US$429.5 million) to military operations in Aceh - roughly three times larger than the annual provincial budget - but a state-appointed auditor later found that about $291 million went missing. Aceh Governor Abdullah Puteh is on trial for graft in the new Anti-Corruption Court.

Speaker of the People's Consultative Assembly Hidayat Nurwahid warned the government it must ensure that relief aid to the province does not fall into the hands of corrupt officials with a propensity to "fish for great catches in murky waters". Nurwahid's younger brother Ahmad Wisanggeni and his wife died in Aceh.

The Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), which Nurwahid led prior to his appointment to the assembly, has a strong political base in Aceh, where its reputation for incorruptibility has won widespread support from ordinary voters. But despite the more favorable political landscape since Vice President Jusuf Kalla's victory over Akbar Tandjung to become Golkar's new leader, the parliamentary opposition movement still poses problems.

Speakers in the House of Representatives (DPR) and House faction and commission heads have agreed to establish a team to monitor the flow and utilization of material aid and monetary-relief funds. The move was in response to concerns voiced by Nurwahid and others that the aid should be disbursed quickly to the persons most in need and not find its way into the pockets of corrupt military and government officials. But the head of former president Megawati Sukarnoputri's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) faction in the House, Tjahyo Kumolo, said that his party would not support the formation of the monitoring team.

Reconstruction and rescheduling

Of the nine nations hit by the tsunami, Indonesia's $208 billion economy is the second largest behind India's ($600 billion). According to central bank data, total external public debt is around $81 billion, with almost half of this owed to the Paris Club of creditor nations.

As Finance Minister Jusuf Anwar points out, a moratorium would help ease pressure on foreign debt servicing and thus free up more funds for reconstruction of the disaster areas. Coordinating Minister for the Economy Aburizal Bakrie told Vice President Kalla that rebuilding Aceh and the surrounding areas will take at least five years and could cost some Rp33 trillion (about $3.5 billion).

Standard & Poor's last month raised Indonesia's long-term foreign-currency credit rating one step to the fourth-highest junk level, B+, from B. This is the highest its credit rating has reached since the 1997 Asian financial crisis and stemmed from the "declining debt and debt-servicing burden and increased stability". The rating will mean cheaper rates for government borrowing and help reduce the interest payment on overseas debt.

"It will likely lower the interest rate by 0.25 percentage points. That would translate into a saving of around $125 million in interest payments" a year, Bakrie said, adding that the upgrade "shows that foreign investors have confidence in Indonesia".

Leaving the International Monetary Fund (IMF) rescue package at the end of 2003 makes it, in theory, more difficult for Indonesia to seek fresh debt rescheduling from the Paris Club; an IMF country program is required to be in place for a country to be eligible for debt rescheduling. But German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and French President Jacques Chirac have both said their governments would press for the principle of a debt moratorium within the Paris Club for the countries involved - Indonesia and Somalia. The issue will be raised at the next scheduled meeting later this month.

Looking ahead

In the future, money will have to be spent on better disaster-relief programs to boost Indonesia's ability to cope with various degrees of disasters. Some measures and systems are in place now but have not been fully implemented and certainly not tested in disaster conditions. A Disaster Relief Brigade under the National Coordinating Board for Disaster Management has about 150 paramedics, doctors and disaster-management experts as well as several hundred paramedics and doctors on standby for mobilization as volunteers in case of a large-scale disaster.

The archipelago is located in an area dubbed the "Ring of Fire" for its high rate of volcanic and tectonic activity. Landslides and floods are also common, many caused by worsening environmental damage such as deforestation. The tsunami disaster was just the latest. An earthquake measuring 6.4 on the Richter scale devastated the East Nusa Tenggara island of Alor in November, killing more than 30, damaging more than 17,000 buildings and leaving 50,000 people homeless. In Nabire, West Papua, a powerful earthquake took 32 lives in late November.

Bill Guerin

Information on Aceh   |   Peace Movement Aotearoa