Aceh, Nias and Foreigners

Friday, April 1, 2005
By nias

Friday, April 01, 2005The herculean task of reconstructing Aceh had not even begun when another catastrophe struck again on Monday in the same area of northern Sumatra.

More than 200,000 Indonesians perished in the Dec. 26 tsunami and it is estimated that at least 1,000 more died this week as local and foreign volunteers search for survivors on Nias Island. About half a million people lost their homes in Aceh and thousands out of a population of 400,000 in Nias are now homeless.

The generosity of neighboring countries is very touching with many people flocking to Nias to help just three months after the Dec. 26 disaster. Some of those good people were on their way out of Aceh or nearing the completion of their humanitarian work in devastated Aceh, when they found themselves badly needed again in nearby Nias. Notable among them is Malaysia, and despite its ongoing dispute with Indonesia over two oil blocks off Borneo island, the Malaysians are sending hundreds of volunteers and medical personnel at this very moment.

Although it could be considered a lesser disaster relative to the apocalyptic tsunami, the Nias earthquake will nevertheless have an affect on the recently issued blueprint for reconstructing Aceh. Although the blueprint did include Nias, which was affected somewhat by the first catastrophe, the government promptly announced its decision to review its blueprint on reconstructing Aceh to also include the latest devastation on Nias.

It is not clear at the moment whether the time frame in the blueprint — rehabilitation work from April 2005 to April 2006 and reconstruction work up to 2009 — will also be changed. The same question can be posed for the total cost of reconstruction, which exceeds Rp 40 trillion (US$4.2 billion), mainly funded by international donations.

While we commend the blueprint, which is now being disseminated around Aceh to allow public input, the reconstruction of Aceh still appears to be problematic. There were problems prior to these two disasters, occurring the day after Christmas and the day after Easter, respectively. The government has been focused on trying to deal with a dilemma on reconstructing Aceh. This is not to ignore the need to look beyond physical reconstruction or the need to heal the massive psychological wounds suffered by the Acehnese.

One of the key questions concerning the reconstruction of Aceh will be, whether or not the government should allow the reconstruction work to carried out by foreigners as demanded by the Acehnese, or take on the task wholly on its own?

Apart from their inherent distrust of the government, the Acehnese are well aware that Indonesia is one of the most corrupt countries in the world. It would be unfair to the Acehnese, however, to say that other provinces do not harbor the same distrust toward Jakarta; the sentiment seems to be quite similar throughout the nation. The difference is, with its separatist history, the Acehnese can afford to say so more openly where other provinces cannot. Other provinces seem to have less alternatives when it comes to development in their respective provinces directed from Jakarta.

Without belittling any effort forged by the government in reconstructing Aceh — some agencies like the social affairs ministry are taking care of thousands of orphaned Acehnese children — the government would do well to accommodate the aspirations of the people of Aceh.

There are two key reasons why this should be so. One, Aceh is not a typical Indonesian province. It is a special case. Its deep distrust toward the central government is not without justification. A foremost and staunch supporter of a free Indonesia in 1945, Aceh has since been disappointed by Jakarta too many times to count.

This is partly because of a flurry of broken promises by the government since day one of the nation's independence. Two, there is still an armed conflict going on between Aceh separatists and government troops. Aceh is one of two provinces in the country with a significant separatist problem.

This does not mean that the government should stand back and let the foreigners do their work together with the Acehnese. It is not a viable option as the Acehnese are likely to be less than equipped to do the massive reconstruction work. On the other hand, the foreigners need a capable partner in the field. A middle way has to be found out where all parties, including the Acehnese, the foreigners and the government, have a stake in the work. The government may well do the planning while the Acehnese could be given access to monitor the use of the funding.

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