Monday, December 28, 2009

Recovering Aceh bites Western hand that fed it

HERE'S a provocative thought: if it weren't for the 2004 tsunami, Western aid workers in Banda Aceh city would not be the target of politically motivated drive-by shootings, and women in West Aceh regency would be free to wear trousers.

As of Friday, any Muslim woman in the regency will be forced to change into a government-supplied long skirt if she dares step outside in tight pants.

And after she takes the trousers off - and dons a jilbab, or Muslim head scarf - they will be publicly shredded.

The new laws will add to recently enacted provincial legislation prescribing stoning as punishment for adultery or homosexual relations.

The laws have attracted scorn and support in equal measure in Indonesia, but even they are mere pointers to a climate of uncertainty far outweighing simple questions of how Aceh has gone about rebuilding since December 26, 2004, when 170,000 of the 230,000 lives lost in the tsunami were from Aceh.

Major agencies including AusAid and the International Organisation for Migration, were humiliated when it was discovered that reconstruction projects they managed had used asbestos-laden building materials.

In Banda Aceh, emergency barracks built to house the homeless are still inhabited - not by refugees, but by hopefuls from the sticks who want to try their luck at work in the capital. For government and aid agency workers, these grifters have stories of sorrow and official bungling keeping them from homes they claim are rightfully theirs.

A good number of people, especially Indonesians and particularly Acehnese with strong business connections, profited handsomely from the aid contract money. Much of this profit was through legitimate dealings. But plenty of it was not.

Critics of this have sometimes had a hard time accepting that while capitalism and democracy - the latter having only had its birth in Indonesia with the fall of Suharto in 1998 - go hand-in-hand, they often do so in opaque ways, and it was never going to be a simple matter of overlaying foreign business practices on an Indonesian system. Tensions over the expectations for aid money and the reality were inevitable.

Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, in one of the early astute appointments of his presidency, directed former mining tzar Kuntoro Mangkusubroto to oversee a new cabinet-level body, the Aceh and Nias Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Agency.

The aim was not only to reduce corruption in the rebuilding effort but also to streamline the inefficient relationships between Indonesian government agencies. Dr Yudhoyono and his then-deputy, businessman Jusuf Kalla, also saw a grand political opportunity. They intervened in the civil war that had blighted Aceh for three decades.

Dr Yudhoyono and Mr Kalla put themselves in serious consideration for the Nobel Peace Prize after an agreement to end the conflict was signed in Helsinki in 2005, leading to a self-governance deal for Aceh enjoyed by no other Indonesian province.

This peace, and the political arrangements that flowed from it, would not have been possible without the tsunami.

Indeed, the man elected governor in historic 2006 elections, former rebel fighter Irwandi Yusuf, was a political prisoner who escaped when the tsunami destroyed cell walls in the central Banda Aceh jail where he was held. The future leader's epic flight set him on a course that is only now being fully played out. The no-trousers edict is one of its manifestations.

Sharia has become a watchword for Acehnese identity, even if, as Singapore-based analyst Farish A. Noor warns, its gradual imposition from within is in many ways a result of Jakarta's "complex and at times clumsy attempt to domesticate the forces of Acehnese resistance by playing the religious card".

The shooting attacks on foreign aid workers are another manifestation of the contradictory tsunami recovery experience.

Erhard Bauer, 50, the chief of the German Red Cross in Indonesia, was hit three times in the stomach and arm by two motorcycle-riding gunmen as he was being driven to the airport in early November. He survived after being flown to Singapore.

Soon afterwards, the home of the European Union chief in Aceh, John Penny, was shot up while he and his wife were inside.

And just a month ago gunmen opened fire on the home of two Americans who lecture in English literature at Banda Aceh's Syiah Kuala University.

Mr Irwandi is furious, demanding privately that the Indonesian military, or TNI, pull its head in even as he knows full well he cannot accuse its leaders publicly.

There is no direct proof that TNI elements are paying former Acehnese rebels - many now unemployed, and looking for new direction in their lives - to mount the attacks on foreign aid workers.

There is no proof at all; but in the view of those from the well-informed Banda Aceh intelligentsia down to taxi drivers, there is little doubt that this is the TNI taking revenge on the former rebel party's almost clean sweep of power in the provincial elections, and showing its determination to steal things back.

"The police believe it's the military, based on ballistics tests from the bullets used," political analyst Fajran Zein, from private policy think tank the Aceh Institute, told The Australian.

"The assumption is it's intended to accelerate the departure of foreigners from Aceh."

Indonesia's police and military have long been at each others' throats, of course, especially since the former were hived off from the military establishment in the immediate post-Suharto reforms.

"All three attacks against foreigners are linked," spokesman Farid Ahmad Saleh said after the third shooting.

"They were conducted by trained professionals . . . they want to terrorise foreigners working to heal Aceh."

The rebuilding might be almost over, but by any political and civic measure, the building of Aceh has barely begun.

The Australian

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