In Aceh

We left Jakarta at 6.30 this morning on the Government jet to Banda Aceh. It is further away from Jakarta than I expected – over 1800 kilometres – and is actually further west than Vietnam and Thailand and lies well north of the Equator.

Accompanying us was Dr Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, who is the Director of the new Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Executing Agency for Aceh and Nias (BBR). This Agency is an innovative attempt to try to design and oversee a coordinated community driven reconstruction and development program. The good news for the region is that international donor support has been so large that it appears there will be sufficient funds for the huge tasks ahead. However, this raises the big challenge of ensuring the money is spent wisely, in a coordinated fashion and for the maximum long-term benefit of the local communities. Such a big amount of money can be very hard to spend well. The BBR’s biggest role is to match necessary projects with available donor funds and bodies from amongst the many NGOs and donor countries that are endeavouring to assist.

There is also a big emphasis on ensuring that the process is free of corruption and nepotism, as well as ensuring that projects aren’t built just to show that things are happening or in ways that make the donors feel good rather than meeting the needs of the community. It is easy to make knowing smiles about corruption in a country like Indonesia which openly acknowledges their own difficulties in this area, But it is worth remembering that there are plenty of examples in Australia that are less than transparent, especially when projects worth billions of dollars are involved.

Coupled with these challenges is the understandable and growing urge for things to happen quickly. The BBR reports directly to the Indonesian President and is thus (intended to be) able to avoid being caught up in Ministerial turf wars. One of the main messages we got when meeting with 3 of the Senators from Aceh yesterday was concern that some things were happening too slowly. I was therefore pleasantly surprised at the level of activity and the overall appearance of Banda Aceh, which was much better than I expected. There has obviously been an enormous amount of work put into cleaning up areas that were inundated by the tsunami. The place is very clean and indeed quite beautiful in parts. There is plenty of activity in areas of the city and plenty of food and goods in the markets.

However, that applies for those areas that suffered mainly from inundation. The areas where buildings were damaged or destroyed are a different matter. Many people will have seen some of the photos and footage of these areas, but it is still hard to be fully prepared for the totality of the devastation. It does look like a nuclear bomb has hit – kilometres of blasted earth, with just a few shells of houses and the odd palm tree left standing amongst the wasteland. Banda Aceh’s port, Ulee Lheu, was decimated, with breakwater walls smashed aside and much of the land to the port just washed away, with the sea now flowing right through. An announcement was made as part of our visit that agreement had been reached to rebuild this port and tendering for the job was starting straight away, with a completion date of November this year.

The force of the water was simply inconceivable. A huge barge which was in the harbour containing a mobile power generating unit was picked up from its moorings and carried more than a kilometre inland, where it now sits, with its power generator working well. The barge is a couple of stories high and I imagine will not be able to be moved. The impact of the earthquake itself also caused a lot of structural damage to buildings further inland.

It is the need to move on the major infrastructure projects which is becoming more pressing. These big ticket items such as bridges, ports and roads are the ones which must be properly planned and well built. There is also the number one need – housing. There are still many people living in tents, and many of the house shells that remain have graffiti on them with the owner’s name, saying they are alive and will be returning and occasionally even having a phone number. Rebuilding housing is easier said than done in some of the worst hit areas, where even the land itself has been severely damaged and in some cases is no longer there at all.

There are major cultural and political sensitivities in Aceh which will present big hurdles for the BBR and aid agencies. There is longstanding unease from many of the local people towards the central government in Jakarta. Even though the BBR is a nationally established agency, it is working hard to show that it is encouraging local community input and involvement in deciding how the reconstructions proceed and in actually participating in it. In addition, because separatist rebels from the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) had been fighting the Indonesian army in many parts of the province, the whole area was a ‘no go zone’ for most outsiders until the earthquake and tsunami. Now the locals are faced with people from a huge number of countries and NGOs. They are very grateful for the support, but still have their own customs and culture they are keen to maintain.

The editorial in today’s Jakarta Post commented on resolving the conflict in Aceh. It contained some scathing comments which show just how much press freedom there is in the newly democratic Indonesia. A couple of examples: “We – the people of Indonesia – have been accomplices to a reign of terror in Indonesia’s westernmost province….. For all intents and purposes, successive Indonesian governments, because of their exploitation, patronising behaviour and habitual use of terror in the province, may have lost any legitimacy to represent the interests of Aceh.” It should be noted that the Jakarta Daily is an English language paper which is far from the biggest or most influential paper. Even so, if any Indonesian paper had written something like that 10 years ago, there would have been hell to pay from the Government. It should be emphasised that the paper supported a “resolution of the Aceh conflict within the framework of the unitary state of Indonesia.”

Peace talks between the Indonesian Government and GAM have been happening in Helsinki. It is impossible to predict the chances of a good outcome, but I did feel from some of the many discussions we had yesterday that there is some tentative fragile optimism that some agreement for a form of special autonomy may be reached. I am not sure that there is a strong desire amongst most Acehnese for full independence, and if peace can be achieved with a form of special autonomy that would be a good outcome.

In the mean time, there is a hell of a lot of difficult work to be done rebuilding some of the shattered places and lives of Aceh. I believe things and people are in place to do that job well.

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3 Comments

  1. Ditto.
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