More impressions of Aceh & beyond

Just before leaving Aceh yesterday, our delegation was told we would probably be able to meet in the morning with the Indonesian President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. It would be a good finish to a visit focused on the enormous human impacts of the tsunami and earthquakes in the region. The twin messages I got from my time in Aceh (and from meeting Acehnese politicians) was the need for more reconstruction to be happening on the ground, but also the need for the local people to have involvement in the reconstruction. Unfortunately, these two goals are often incompatible. Proper community involvement in decision making and implementation is highly desirable and gives the best chance of successful reconstruction and maximum value for money from all those people and countries who donated. However, if it is done properly, it also takes a lot of time, particularly for a place like Aceh which has a very fraught relationship with the central government and a generally high suspicion of many outsiders. By contrast, donors – and the local people – like to see results. Given the scale of the disaster, which is very hard to fully comprehend, I think the progress has been very good and the foundations well laid for things to be able to go ahead well from here.

However, the loss of local expertise is even harder and slower to replace than bridges, houses, ports and roads. It is possible that up to a quarter of a million people were killed. Many of them were community leaders, teachers, health workers and people in the local bureaucracy. Cultural and social differences make it difficult to just fly in a stack of replacements.

Of course the thing that can never be fully repaired or replaced is the personal loss. As we walked through the local (ex)village of Deah Baro yesterday, there were pockets of people here and there building some more solid shelters. Over a half to three quarters of all the people who lived in that area have died. As we walked up what used to be a laneway in the village towards the waterfront (the laneway with its curbing is still there, but the village is wiped away), a middle aged woman was walking towards us. We said hello and that we were from Australia, but she could not speak English. However, one of the other delegation members, Catherine King, the Labor Member for Ballarat, found one of our aid officials who could interpret. As we stood on the shoreline that used to be shielded behind the harbour that was blown to pieces, this local woman who had lived on the laneway told how she had been away when the tsunami hit and had returned home to find that all five of her children and all her grandchildren had been killed. She said in her local neighbourhood of 2000 people, only around 240 had survived. It was hard enough to just listen to this, let alone imagine what it would be like. I don’t know how you rebuild personally from that type of devastation. We stepped out of that world and back into the comfy chairs of our aeroplane and flew back to Jakarta to our very comfy hotel.

In the morning we got to meet President Yudhoyono. Foreign Minister Wirayuda who we met on Tuesday was also present. It went for about 30 minutes and it was undoubtedly an honour. Without revealing the specifics of what was said, such meetings inevitably have some diplomatic niceties, but there were some useful and positive things said.

The President acknowledged the security challenges that still need facing and expressed his clearly genuine thanks for Australia’s prompt, large and ongoing support (at community as well as government level) in helping to rebuild areas affected by the tsunami. The sizeable tasks still ahead in addressing central problems like poverty and corruption are recognised, but I agree with a comment left on my previous post that very substantial progress, bordering on the extraordinary, has been made in implementing real democracy in Indonesia and there is reason to be optimistic about the chances of improvement in some of these key areas. Also, as with the various discussions we had in Jakarta on Tuesday, I think people who are concerned about Schapelle Corby’s situation should have no concerns with what was said.

One does have to be careful not to get too rose coloured a picture on delegations like this, as inevitably the positive side of things tend to be heavily emphasised. However, I think there is a strong awareness and open acknowledgement by the Indonesians of the nature and size of the problems they face, not least of which are poverty and corruption. But when I consider the current habit amongst Australian governments, both Labor and Liberal, of denying or ignoring major problems or glossing over them with shiny rhetoric or shooting the messenger who highlights the problem, the Indonesian Government’s open acknowledgement of some of their major problems seems almost refreshing by contrast.

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  1. It constantly amazes me at how much good content you put on your site each day. You post two items each day, every single one of which justifies your re-election in the minds of a substantial section of the community. If everyone in Queensland read your blog then I am sure that the democrats would get at least two quotas each election.

  2. I have also found your blogging on the situation in Indonesia really interesting.
    While you deal with the substantive issues, I am nevertheless curious to know what might the average Indonesian think about Schapelle Corby and the ‘Australian response’ to her trial?

  3. I’m a bit loathe to speak for the ‘average Indonesian’ on the basis of 2 or 3 days in the country. However, I’ll give my impressions for what they’re worth.
    I did speak with a lot of Indonesian MPs from many parties in both formal and informal settings. There was a lot of commonality in what they said.
    Basically, they felt there was a fair degree of antagonism amongst the local populace as a result of what they saw as insulting attacks by Australians on Indonesia and its legal system (as I’m sure wuld be the case here if the situation was reversed). The politicians seemed all fairly sanguine about it, understanding that such feelings are pretty much inevitable given the sort of media coverage the issue has got. Indeed, their complaints about media distortion and sensationalism about the issue pretty much mirrored comments of Australian MPs about Australia’s media. My understanding is that some Indonesian media can go pretty feral – although nothing much different to a British tabloid that’s worked itself up into a froth of righteous indigination. I’m told their media is very free now and they certainly have far more media diversity than we do in Australia – something we could learn from them quite frankly.
    Anyway, I think Indonesians’ awareness of the huge and prompt support from Australians following the tsunami, as well as our shared bonds through tragedies like the Bali and Australian Embassy bombings, far outweigh any temporary irritation at any perceived patronising attitudes of some Australians. As long as our own media frenzy here in Australia dies down, I don’t think any serious problem will emerge (although that may be too much to hope for – I don’t think our media can help themselves with this one, despite the fact that they aren’t doing Ms Corby any favours and are basically just expoliting her for entertainment value.) Although I wasn’t doing media on the delegation, it seemed that Corby and the allegedly related issue of a prisoner exchange treaty were all they were interested in (hopefully her appeal will be successful and she won’t need to worry about the Treaty). Certainly there seemed little interest in the somewhat more important issue of how well $1.5 billion of aid from Australians is being spent and how the millions of people affected by the tsunami and earthquake tragedies are now faring.
    (BTW, thanks for your nice comments Benno – I’m not always as regular in my posting, but I spent a lot of time on planes, so I had more time to write stuff…. and most people won’t ever read this blog, so I don’t see it as a major pathway to re-election.)

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