It is an old cliche, but there may be good reason why the Chinese word for “crisis” consists of characters that mean “danger” as well as “opportunity.” The earthquake and tsunami that devastated many South Asian communities in the last week of 2004 are truly a “crisis” for Indonesia. The danger is obvious: The tragedy is a humanitarian disaster and providing relief is a formidable challenge for newly elected President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
But there is also an opportunity. The need to get relief to hard-hit Aceh province provides the Jakarta government with an opening to discuss with guerrillas fighting for independence in that region as well as a chance to repair its relations with Western governments concerned about human rights violations in the province.
The magnitude 9.0 earthquake that hit Dec. 26 had its epicenter in Aceh province. It is estimated that more than 100,000 people were killed in the region and as many as 1 million left homeless, but its geographic remoteness and political isolation make accurate statistics hard to come by.
Separatist rebels have waged a war for independence in Aceh for 30 years. The Jakarta government has kept the province isolated from the outside world, to cut off the rebels and to shield its own military from their sometimes brutal campaigns. Martial law was in place through much of the 1990s and was reimposed in 2003. It was officially lifted last year, but many of the restrictions remain in place. Local resentment of the Indonesian government remains high.
The rebels immediately declared a ceasefire in the aftermath of the quake and it has been extended throughout the relief effort. It has largely held, despite reports of isolated skirmishes between them and government forces. The peace has allowed relief crews to work throughout the province. The World Food Program is deployed throughout Aceh, while Japan (which has dispatched two disaster relief teams to the region), the United States, Australia, Britain, France, Singapore and Malaysia have their militaries working in the province. More help is on the way.
That presence rankles Indonesians, and especially the military. The deployment is implicit recognition that Indonesia cannot do the job itself. Indonesians are fiercely protective of their sovereignty — understandably so — and the deployments, though well intended, raise hackles. There are reportedly already grumblings in Jakarta about the large foreign presence in Indonesia. That the U.S. is playing a leading role also inspires wild speculation by conspiracy-minded Muslims in the region.
Those sensitivities explain Jakarta’s recent announcements that relief workers would have to declare all travel and be accompanied by armed escorts, and that all foreign militaries should be out of the country within three months, if not sooner. Aid workers are worried that the former will compromise their mission, as they will appear to be working with the government. Reports that they are being questioned about contact with rebel forces illustrate the danger.
Relief missions prefer strict neutrality to maintain access to all the afflicted in conflict zones. They also worry that the new rules could create delivery bottlenecks. Even though the Indonesian military will deploy more forces in the region for relief work, it is unclear if they have the skills or the equipment — or the temperament — to substitute for the foreign forces.
The rebels have recognized the opportunity that the disaster provides. Following their unilateral ceasefire, they have declared a willingness to begin talks with the government on a more formal accord. Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla has said his government is ready to reciprocate and explore a real peace agreement. Some Indonesian officials report that overtures have already begun.
Jakarta may have a similar opening in its relations with the U.S. Reports of human rights abuses by the Indonesian military moved the U.S. Congress to block military sales and suspend military-to-military relations. Although both countries recognize the importance of their bilateral relationship, the ban has persisted and has proven to be an insuperable obstacle to improved relations. But last week, Washington lifted the ban on the sale of spare parts for Indonesian military transport planes.
Jakarta’s readiness to wage peace in Aceh and its willingness to embrace greater transparency in dealing with the province could pay huge dividends. Settling the festering sore in Aceh will give President Yudhoyono a boost and enhance his legitimacy and credibility. Peace will better the lives of the long-suffering people of Aceh. It will improve Indonesia’s relations with the West. And finally, a deal will allow him to focus his energies on the urgent task of fixing the Indonesian economy and eliminating the poverty and corruption that breed violence. The choice seems clear.
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