Indonesia's Aceh mistake
14 January 2005
As if the people of Aceh, where at least 108,000 died in the tsunami, didn't have enough problems already. Now the Indonesian government - and especially its military - is putting obstacles in the way of international efforts to aid survivors in the devastated province.
In recent days, Indonesia has banned foreign aid workers from traveling to most parts of Aceh without prior approval or military escorts and insisted that the US and other foreign troops, who have rushed to aid the relief effort, leave before the end of March: "Three months are enough I think. The sooner, the better," said Vice President Jusuf Kalla.
The official reason for these restrictions is the same one that kept Aceh closed to outsiders until the urgent need for tsunami relief pried open its doors two weeks ago - a separatist insurgency that means the military can't guarantee their safety.
It's true there have been isolated reports of sporadic clashes between the army and rebels in recent days, despite the pro- independence movement's official declaration of a cease-fire in the wake of the December 26 tragedy.
But that hardly explains the decision to order the foreign troops to go home, or insist they can't carry weapons while in Indonesia. Already the restrictions are having a negative effect.
US marines have scaled back plans to send hundreds of troops ashore to build roads and clear rubble while the USS Abraham Lincoln has been diverted to international waters, further away from the Aceh coast. And as Norbert Vollertsen writes nearby, the travel restrictions imposed on aid workers mean that stockpiles of aid are piling up in the provincial capital of Banda Aceh, while the military pursues its campaign against the rebels.
It's scarcely surprising that the Indonesian military, which has profited from lucrative business opportunities in Aceh for many years while its closed status prevented outside scrutiny, should feel uneasy about this sudden influx of outsiders. The presence of Australian troops, in particular, ruffles the feathers of Indonesian nationalists by reminding them of the loss of that other rebellious province, East Timor.
But if they care about the welfare of their people, the priority should be to do what's best for the survivors. That means welcoming all offers of assistance, rather than adopting a grudging attitude that risks undermining the effectiveness of their efforts.
Rather than exaggerating the danger posed by a rag-tag band of rebels engaged in a decades-old nationalist insurgency,
Indonesian leaders should focus on the far more grave threat posed by Islamic radicals who have flocked to Aceh under the cloak of the relief effort. According to the New York Times, these include members of Laskar Mujahedeen, a paramilitary group with links to al Qaeda, some of whom arrived on a flight organized by Mr. Kalla. Mr. Kalla has made most of the public pronouncements on the tsunami crisis so far, while Indonesian
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has remained largely silent.
But Mr. Yudhoyono, a retired general, has a track record of advocating conciliation as the only way to end the Aceh conflict.
And if he can step forward and take the reins on this issue, Indonesia may yet be able to overcome the missteps of the past few days.