What about Aceh?


Zainal Abidin is the only person in his village of 1,000 to survive the tsunami. Zainal is a fisherman from the tiny village of Kampung Pande, just five minutes from Banda Aceh in the sub-district of Kuta Raja. His family was killed. His parents were killed. All his friends were killed. He has one set of clothes. His house has been destroyed and he cannot read or write.

Zainal desperately wants to return to the life he knows. Before the tsunami he made his living tending fishing ponds by the coast. He wants to begin to restore some sense of normality in a life that has been devastated. Almost three months after the tsunami, he has still received no help from his government or from international aid agencies.

Why is Zainal forced to endure this living hell when the world has been so generous?

Thanks to Bill Leak from the Australian

Thanks to Bill Leak from the Australian

The devil, as ever, is in the detail of this generosity. When John Howard announced on 5 January that Australia would pledge $1 billion to tsunami devastated Aceh, there was loud support. People were proud to be Australian: citizens of such a generous country, when our neighbours were in such great need. Why then has Australia only committed ‘up to’ $50 million of this $1 billion to Aceh? (Australia Indonesia Partnership for Reconstruction and Development – Joint Ministerial Statement March 17th 2005 – link here).

The emergency response for most of the tsunami-affected areas was very efficient and plagued only by relatively minor incidents in relation to the scale of the operation. Australia spent $100 million in this humanitarian response phase between AusAID and the use of the Defence Force. (Appropriation: Tsunami Financial Assistance Bill 2004/05, link here) The Australian Defence Force and Australian aid agencies were celebrated by the thankful Acehnese for establishing vital services such as water purification plants and sanitation stations. This was widely reported in the media in Australia.

The long term rebuilding though is appearing much more difficult as it becomes mired in political point scoring.

On 7 March a research note from the Federal Parliamentary Library (link here) questioned the method of accounting for Australia’s aid commitment. The questions posed by the paper were significant and diplomatic.

Why does Australia’s tsunami commitment directly reflect the objectives of Australia’s aid program to Indonesia outlined by the Foreign Minister in his statement of May 2004 seven months before the tsunami struck?

Why is Australia giving half the $1 billion as loans? (Report International Response to the Indian Ocean Disaster – A donor analysis: Focus on Australia, AID/WATCH March 2005, link here) Australia traditionally gives aid as grants and Indonesia, one of the most heavily indebted countries in the world, is in urgent need of assistance not more foreign debt. Australia, pre-tsunami, gave $160 million to Indonesia. According to the Treasury, Australia received, and will continue to receive, ‘between $75 and $85 million annually’ in debt repayments ‘over the next several years’ from Indonesia. (Inquiry into Australia’s relations with Indonesia submission 118, Treasury, Jan 23 2003 – pdf link here) While this repayment has been shelved in the short term, it gives a clear indication of the complexity and differing interests of the aid giving process.

Why is the package that was widely credited as a ‘tsunami aid package’ being dedicated to other regions of Indonesia? Careful attention to the Prime Minister’s statements indicates that this $1 billion is not about aid to tsunami affected Aceh, but to the Australia “Indonesia partnership.

Undoubtedly, there are many areas in Indonesia where the money could be well used, but why did the government not correct the erroneous statements made in the media relating to the ‘tsunami aid package’. They are usually not backward when it comes to challenging what they deem as negative media responses (see both the recent Costello/Gittins affair in the Sydney Morning Herald and Alston and the ABC over the Iraq war reporting, as prime examples).

The recent joint-ministerial meeting between Australia and Indonesia pledged up to $50 million for Aceh. Most of this will go towards assisting in the building of a much-needed hospital in Banda Aceh. Certainly a hospital makes for better photo opportunities than a few fishponds on the outskirts of the capital.

This $50 million is all we have heard about from the summit dedicated to the disaster-affected area. What happened to the $1 billion? The remaining issues discussed at the meeting were to do with terrorism and security, now items closely associated with the Australian aid program but not directly affecting the welfare of many in Aceh.

The ongoing conflict in Aceh, that has variously simmered and raged, has certainly exacerbated the difficulties in delivering effective aid programs. Deep enmity and suspicion exist on all sides, be they the Indonesian military, Acehnese freedom fighters, or the many civilians caught in the midst of this bloody sandwich.

Australia, with the international community, has refused to order and enforce a ceasefire in Aceh, deferring to the Indonesian Government’s claim that this is an ‘internal matter’. This has certainly not assisted with the complex aid delivery process and is something that Australia and its strategic relationship with Indonesia should be pushing harder for. The Achenese, long shunned by the international community, will not be holding their collective breath but such action is vital for any real effectiveness and long term development.

The closer relationship that has emerged in recent weeks between the two countries also provides Australia with the opportunity to ensure that Australian NGOs and other aid deliverers retain access for their workers and programs. Something which is not currently guaranteed, but both public and private donors will demand.

Much of the focus on accountability in relation to the aid money has been on the non-government organisations, which so many Australians supported. While this is understandable it should be remembered that this $1 billion is also public money and the Australian people will demand that it is used as promised.

Hence, real questions remain as to how generous and effective Australia’s aid program will be in assisting those in such desperate need in Aceh. Will Australian generosity turn to political expedience with more focus placed on the strategic relationship between Australia and Indonesia? I know what Zainal and many of his fellow Acehnese will be hoping for. Strategic relationships are likely to dictate what they will get.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.