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Aceh revisited: 12 months post 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami

by PF Journey

Dedicated to Margo Kingston, the founder of the Webdiary Community.

It seems like so long ago when Margo wrote:

G'day. A couple of readers have complained that Webdiary is fixated on the USA and the Iraq war at the expense of discussion about the big two for us in our region, China and Indonesia. I asked if anyone would like to report on either nation, and got a bite from a Webdiarist on the latter, who starts the batting with a piece on Aceh. For business reasons he has asked to write under the nom de plume PF Journey.

So with trepidation, I made my Webdiary debut on the 7/2/05 with a piece on Aceh called The Aceh conflict: past, present and Quo Vadis?. I assumed that this was only a one off thing and I will be happy to go back to be just a lurker and maybe an occasional poster on Webdiary. Like they say in the classic "I don't know what she saw in me" and asked me immediately to become a regular columnist for the Webdiary. The rest is history. So thank you to Margo for the encouragement and faith in me to speak out.

History does have a habit of repeating itself. I started to write this piece before Margo's shock announcement of her retirement from Webdiary. My heart sank at first then soared as the spirit of the Webdiary Community emerged almost immediately. And here I am, making my debut on the Webdiary Community on a piece on Aceh.

Tragic Anniversary

As we are approaching the tragic anniversary of Boxing Day Tsunami, it is an opportune time to update on what has happened to the tsunami relief efforts and the Aceh conflict.

I also wrote a piece about the danger of volcanoes and earthquake in the Indonesian archipelago. See The year without a summer from the Indonesian Archipelago.

It has been described as the greatest natural disaster in living memory for the sheer scale of the physical destruction. There have been other natural disasters where more were killed, but for the sheer scale of the physical destruction across the many countries, none can rival the Boxing Day Tsunami. It has been likened to sceneries from nuclear holocaust. Nobody really knows how many were killed and affected. The followings provide some idea on the scale of the disaster:

  • It happened at 8am local time, Boxing Day, 26th December 2004 with a 9.5 earth quake on the Richter scale with the epicentre just off the west coast of the Aceh province, Indonesia. The largest earthquake recorded in the last 40 years.
  • The tsunami the earthquake generated has been estimated to be 15m to 50m in height and travelled up to 700 kms per hour in all directions.
  • It hit Indonesia, Sri-Lanka, India, Thailand, Maldives, Malaysia, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Somalia, Tanzania and Kenya.
  • The number of people perished has been estimated to be about 250,000 people killed. Indonesia's Aceh Province suffered the most with 150,000 killed, followed by Sri Lanka with 30,000, India with 12,000 and Thailand 6000.Citizens of more than 50 countries or territories were among the dead. It appears that Mother Nature has also learnt about globalisation.
  • For the living, millions were left homeless with absolutely nothing. In Aceh alone, over 500,000 were left homeless. UNICEF estimates more than 150,000 children are homeless in Aceh, with more than 30,000 losing one or both parents and 2,000 children separated from their parents.
  • In Aceh, the UN's key priority was to provide housing as more than 100,000 houses were destroyed and to assist approximately 600,000 people who lost their livelihoods.

The World's Reactions

As the television images started to come in, the world watched in horror of the unbelievable images from many locations and the human miseries that were happening live before our eyes. Who can forget the image of that lone person, standing on the beach near Phuket, Thailand, frozen, facing death, as the surging tsunami was approaching him. A moment later, he was gone.

Who can forget, the first report by ABC's Tim Palmer (winner of the recent Walkley Gold Award) out of Aceh:

The surf crashes in on the beaches of the west coast of Aceh but the town of Lhoknga, behind the beach, has disappeared. Iwasiti is here looking for her brother and most of her husband's family, but there's nothing and no one to be found here. This beach faced the earthquake and took the full force of the biggest of the waves across the region. In an age where the term 'ground zero' is sprinkled around lightly, this really does look like the site of a nuclear explosion

The world responded swiftly with words, compassion, kindness, concerts, goods and pledges of money. The world pledged up to $US10 billion with Indonesia getting the lion share of some US $5B. It was also said because there were some 3000 citizens of the West were killed, the West responded with speed, width and depth. Of the recent earthquake in Khasmir of Pakistan and India where some 80,000 were killed, President Musharraf of Pakistan complained that: "Western countries were stingier with aid for this year's earthquake in Pakistan than last year's Asian tsunami because wealthy tourists weren't caught up in the disaster. The tsunami -- I think if one compares it realistically -- I would think the damage here is much more. The magnitude of the calamity here is much more. International donors responded generously to the tsunami because it affected people from many countries of the world, especially the West who were tourists in various areas". There is some truth in that.

The Relief Efforts

The emergency phase relief efforts of the first three months have been very successful and well co-ordinated, primarily due to the fact that it was pre-dominantly done by the military of many nations. Even Japan sent some 1000 troops to Aceh to help with the emergency relief. This was the first time that Japanese military has been sent offshore and set foot in another Asian country since WW2 where the Japanese military was there for a different reason. Since then, Japan has also sent troops to Iraq and "protected" by Aussie troops.

However, post emergency relief effort in Aceh is another story. The strongest criticism so far has been a lack of co-ordination, cooperation and information sharing between NGOs, Donors and the Indonesian's levels of government (Central, Province and Regency). According to one report: "Coordination had gotten so bad that different groups were working on the same projects without knowing it, wasting time, money and resources. The most visible result was confusion among residents who did not know which organization to turn to, leaving them frustrated and confused".

By May 2005, the Indonesian Government with the World Bank finally completed and released the five-year, 12-volume Master Plan for the Rehabilitation and Reconstruction of Aceh and the establishment of Aceh Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Agency (ARRA). One respected Mr. Kuntoro Mangkusubroto (Technocrat and former Minister of Mines and Energy in the Suharto Government) was appointed as its head.

Mr.Kuntoro's first comment was: "there was no sense of [government] urgency in Aceh and that "close to zero" of promised government funds had been disbursed. "It's shocking. Very limited things have been done for the poor peopleā€¦.. There are no roads being built, there are no bridges being built, there are no harbours being built. When it comes to reconstruction, zero". See The Guardian, Aceh reconstruction comes to a near halt.

Donor Funds Pledged for Aceh

According to the Five Year Master Plan, the following funds have been pledged by various parties for the Aceh reconstruction:


  • Indonesian Government Budget - US$621 million
  • Foreign grants from members of the Consultative Group on Indonesia (CGI) - US$1.7 billion
  • The foreign private sector and international NGOs grants - US$1.4 billion
  • Offshore loan funds from the Islamic Development Bank, the World Bank, and the Asian Development Bank - US$262 million
  • Australian Government Grant and soft loan - US$750 million.

Totalling: USD $4.7 billion. The Master Plan has identified some USD $5.1 billion is needed for the reconstruction.

Australia has pledged AUD $1 billion to Aceh. Half as grants and half as soft or interest free loan for up to 40 years, with no repayment of the principal for 10 years. Back in March 2005, there was a little spat between Australia and Indonesia over how to disburse this fund. Indonesia prefers the money to be disbursed through the Indonesian budget and became part of a single plan, where as Australia prefers the fund to be distributed by an Australian-Indonesian supervised joint commission. Alexander Downer said Australian taxpayers needed guarantees "their money is being spent on projects the Government approves and has accountability measures for". The commission is called: "Australia Indonesia Partnership for Reconstruction and Development (AIPRD)". See All funds will be managed through AUSAID.

So far, the issue of the fund disbursement has been a both-ways-finger-pointing exercise. On one hand, after the initial confusion, corruption, politics and lack of coordination, the donors complained that not enough fund has been spent where it is needed. Recently the Asahi Shimbun reported that as November 2005, only 15% of Japan's pledged fund has been withdrawn".

On the other hand, the donors have been accused of all talks and no action. ActionAid, one of Britain's largest development charities, found that of the $450 million initially pledged by the United States, only 35 per cent had been paid as of April 20. Germany's total pledged aid of some $1.5 billion yet to see the light of day. Norway has paid up only 55 per cent of its $219 million pledge. "Such donor behaviour seriously jeopardizes the process of recovery and the international community needs to undertake stringent measures in order to overcome this failure," the report noted.

As in September 2005, more than $280 million of Australia's pledge has been allocated to projects under the AIPRD program.

Aceh's Billions & Corruption

Thankfully, ARRA seems to be doing its job reasonably well. In particular, so far, it has not been engulfed in any major donor fund corruption cases or stuff-ups. Recently, it earned the praise for President Clinton, as the UN's Special Envoy for Tsunami Recovery. In a visit to Aceh on the 30/11/05, he was reported to have said that: "Kuntoro had achieved a great deal in enhancing transparency and unity in reconstruction efforts. Pak Kuntoro is scrupulously honest. He works like a dog, engages in self-criticism, and has brought all the different threads together".

The Indonesians themselves are also well aware that the world is watching them as to how they use and spend the money. Jusuf Wanandi, a prominent political commentator, wrote recently in the Jakarta Post:


The role and responsibility of the local government in the reconstruction of Aceh, with the assistance and supervision from Jakarta, will be a heavy one because they must work efficiently and be free from all corruption. It is fine to have outside accounting firms such as Ernst and Young to do the oversight, but this might not be adequate. As indicated in the master plan prepared by the central government in consultation with local governments and local leaders, reconstruction efforts by donors could be undertaken directly so long as they are in accordance with the plan and in cooperation with national and local partners. If the Indonesian government and the elite do not want to be scrutinized, they should do it by themselves and with their own money, as India and Thailand have decided to do. That is acceptable and honourable. But you cannot have your cake and eat it too!

The Indonesian Agencies that have responsibility to monitor reconstruction to ensure that funds are not misused and corrupted are: The Supreme Audit Agency (BPK) and the Anti-Corruption Commission (KPK). BPK is working with international groups and NGOs to supervise and monitor aid flows, US accountants Ernst & Young have been retained to the external auditor.

In Suharto New Order era, large scale corruptions have centred in the central Jakarta Government. Since the decentralisation of few years ago, corruptions have filtered down to the provincial and regency level. Prior to the tsunami, more than 115 local government officials have already been implicated in corruption cases in 16 provinces. Aceh has long been seen as one of Indonesia's most corrupt provinces. Therefore, the issue of corruption is particular relevant in Aceh case.

Aceh Peace Pact, Allah's Will?

The best thing to have come out from the tsunami tragedy has been the signing of the Aceh Peace Pact on 15/8/05 in Helsinki, Finland. For the time being, the bloody 30-year independence struggle between the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and the central Indonesian Government in Jakarta has been set aside for the sake of the long suffering Aceh people. The sheer scale of the destructions and human miseries brought by the tsunami have convinced even the most extreme and ardent from both sides that there is a more important basic human value than political struggle. Both sides signed a joint declaration in Helsinki saying that both were "deeply convinced that only the peaceful settlement of the conflict will enable the rebuilding of Aceh".

Combatants from both sides have suffered directly from the tsunami too. The Indonesian Military lost some 3000 personnel and who knows how GAM soldiers and sympathizers have died. Aceh was constantly under the international spotlight and the political pressure put on GAM and Jakarta was enormous. Furthermore, corruption will flourish if the NGOs and other Agencies have to operate under a martial law environment where security is not ensured and require protection.

Many in Indonesia also believe that it was Allah who sent the tsunami as a warning and punishment to Indonesia. It was Allah's way of saying to both sides that this bloody and violent conflict and the killing of Muslims against Muslims must end. Both sides really have no choice but to settle.

The key points of the Peace Pact being:


  • Immediate cessation of hostilities between GAM and Jakarta.
  • Disarmament and demilitarisation of Aceh. Oversee by teams of 200 European observers and 100 monitors from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
  • 5,000 GAM guerrillas to lay down their arms under an amnesty.
  • 50,000 Indonesian troops to progressively withdraw from Aceh.
  • GAM can form its own political party and participate in the political process and elections.

Previously, the key "show-stopper" has always been the issue of self-rule or independence for Aceh. This time, both sides have also tacitly agreed to side step the issue by employing Fawlty Towers' technique of "don't mention self-rule or independence".

So far, the Peace Pact has held and both sides have shown good faith. According to the Jakarta Post, Indonesia withdrew 4,328 more troops from Aceh on 21/11/05, The withdrawal will bring to around 18,000 the number of troops pulled out of the province since the withdrawal began in September. Recently, GAM celebrated its 29th anniversary quietly on Sunday 3/12/05. Jakarta Post reported that:

"We're just expressing our gratitude that peace is being upheld in Aceh," the GAM commander in Aceh Besar regency, Muharram, told The Jakarta Post. This year GAM scrapped all forms of celebration to avoid any possibility of provocation from those bent on destroying the peace. The decision was taken during a recent meeting of GAM leaders, including Teungku Muhammad Usman Lampoh Awe and the commander of the group's armed wing, Muzakkir Manaf. Earlier, the government and the Aceh Monitoring Mission (AMM) warned GAM against overtly celebrating its anniversary in order to safeguard the peace.

Only time will tell if this Peace Pact will hold and bring peace and harmony to the Aceh. There have been two peace treaties previously, both have collapsed. Maybe this one will last because it is Allah's will.

Massive Deforestation

The good to come out of this tragedy is the signing of the Peace Pact. One of the bads to come out will be the huge demand for timber for the reconstruction of Aceh. Indonesia is already suffering from both legal and illegal logging of its forest, especially the illegal logging. As soon as the scale of the destruction became obvious, environmental NGOs such as WWF, FAO and Greenpeace already raising red flag about the potential of large scale forest logging to meet the timber demand for the reconstruction, especially illegal logging.

According to Mubariq Ahmad, Executive Director of WWF Indonesia:

Aceh faces the likelihood of further humanitarian and ecological disasters unless timber for reconstruction is immediately brought into the devastated Indonesian province. If the amount of timber needed for the reconstruction of Aceh was sourced locally, the result would be massive deforestation, which would lead to further floods and landslides and the potential for further tragedy for the Indonesian people.

Aceh is the home to the Leuser National Park, one of the archipelago's last remaining unexploited forest reserves. Environmentalists have already warned that the reconstruction work underway in the province is likely to lead to illegal logging in Leuser.

According to the Indonesian Minister of Forestry, Malam Sambat Kaban, the reconstruction in Aceh will require up to 8.5 million cubic meters of timber for the construction of about 123,000 new homes. Six million cubic meters will be in the form of logs and the remaining 2.5 million cubic meters will be sawn.

Most NGOs that are involved in the housing projects are well aware of this problem. Most NGOs will only source timber from countries that has been certified as sustainable timber by WWF. Australia can really play a part in helping to alleviate this problem as Australia has great tracks of plantation timber that are maturing in the next few years. I am glad to say that I am playing my small part.

The Heroes of Aceh - The Ordinary People

TIME Asia magazine recently has nominated 5 Aceh women as one of its Asian Heroes series for 2005. These women are Cut Aisah, Neneh, Nur Azmi, Nuraida and Sulastri. These are ordinary women whose village of Lampaseh was wiped out completely by the tsunami and each of them has gone through personal hell. Yet, through their own courage and determination, they decided to go back to their flattened village and re-built. Now, the village has 100 people out of 850 people that survived the tsunami, previously the village population was 6000. See The Kindness of Strangers.


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re: Aceh revisited: 12 months post 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami

Thanks PF, good on you for keeping up the regional perspective stuff.

I saw an article the other day about only 25% of the Australian government aid going to tsunami-affected areas, can't remember if was in mainstream or independent media though. The story included a reference to a road project in EASTERN Indonesia worth something like $300 million.

I'm all for increased Australian government aid, don't get me wrong (indeed, we still only spent half of our commitment to 0.7% of GDP). Somehow I don't think too many Australians would be keen on this particular aid not going to the tsunami victims though...

re: Aceh revisited: 12 months post 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami

PF Journey: "Coordination had gotten so bad that different groups were working on the same projects without knowing it, wasting time, money and resources. The most visible result was confusion among residents who did not know which organization to turn to, leaving them frustrated and confused".

Perhaps ironically this was a by-product of people's eagernes to help. I had a small role to play in a Northern Beaches fundraiser for the Tsunami relief appeal.

Almost immediately as things got going, dozens of people turned up with different ideas for raising funds.

Incredibly, one of these ideas - to gather medical supplies for the relief effort donated by local chemists - resulted in our local Council contacting QANTAS, Garuda and Singapore Airlines and getting free air cargo space. Then medical supplies began pouring in in such volume that storage became an issue.

This then developed into several of the volunteers, one with NGO experience and another with some local knowledge with the Aceh region, going to Bandeh Aceh with the supplies!!

Once there, they more or less stayed.

Now, amazingly, they are building a school there (meanwhile still getting support from the Council), as well as looking after a number of people in "their" immediate part of Aceh who were affected by the disaster.

Essentially, they have become a Council-supported NGO and ratepayer funded international aid agency.

Everyone is delighted by their genuine, heartfelt efforts and I can honestly say I've never heard a word of criticism in the local papers, in the Council newsletter, or even in passing conversation.

Don't get me wrong. These are lovely, helpful people. Apart from the medical supplies, over $300,000 was raised for this or that aid agency. Fantastic community effort.

But I bet their story has been repeated over and over by different groups around the world, all now mixed in amongst the major NGOs and aid groups, all bumping against each other in the region.

What's more, another volunteer got active with the local Sri Lankan community, getting container loads of soft toys and clothes to go to Sri Lanka. Again, Singapore Aitlines got approached, and along with the Singapore Defense Force, a container load of clothes went to Sri Lanka on a C130 or something. God knows what happened to it at the other end.

Amazing stuff, but what it all means I'm not quite sure!

As regards the Pakistan disaster, I wonder if the relative complacency in the West that President Musharraf speaks of stems from there being comparably little TV footage of the disaster there, especially when compared to the eye-popping actuality footage we saw of the Tsunami.

Not having so striking visual reference points may have made the Kashmir disaster seem a bit abstract and remote. Along, perhaps, with a bit of donor fatigue after the Tsunami.

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