Aceh's wasted decade

It is a harsh reality that a decade after the devastating 2004 tsunami killed 170,000 people and ended a bloody 25-year-long rebellion, the separatist organisation that was meant to bring new hope for the Acehnese people is doing nothing of the kind.

Mr Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, head of the Aceh and Nias reconstruction agency (BRR) which spent US$7.2 billion (S$9.5 billion) provided by international donors and the Indonesian government, is particularly disappointed that the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) has failed to build on the massive four-year relief operation.

With no new investment in plantations, manufacturing, mining or tourism in the past five years, Aceh managed economic growth of only 2.7 per cent in the third quarter, compared to Indonesia's 5 per cent overall.

"I'm really sad," Mr Kuntoro told foreign journalists recently. "I built all that infrastructure, but 99 per cent of the cargo is coming in and nothing is going out. Infrastructure should be used for economic development, not just moving people."

He and others point to a disconnect between reconstruction and rehabilitation and say a lack of capacity-building means the provincial government and most of the 23 district administrations are simply not doing their job.

"The people may have peace and security, but they do not depend on the local government for anything," observes one long-time Acehnese friend, most of whose family survived the tsunami. "It's tragic to see what has happened."

Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) director Sidney Jones is equally scathing in her assessment, saying reconstruction has enriched only senior GAM leaders and left many former combatants out in the cold.

The Yudhoyono government believed GAM had ceased to exist under the 2005 Helsinki peace agreement. In fact, the rebels only agreed not to wear uniforms or display military insignia and other symbols of their struggle.

They disbanded the old organisation and transformed it into the omnipresent Aceh Transition Committee (KPA), which has the same basic GAM structure and which Ms Jones claims "operates more as a mafia than anything else".

My Acehnese friend agrees. He points to three layers of GAM - the old guard whose aim was independence, a second layer comprising victims of human rights abuses, and the third and biggest layer made up of common criminals.

With Aceh the only province allowed to form local parties for local elections, a similar structure was also used to form Partai Aceh, which went on to dominate executive posts and claim 47 per cent of the legislative seats in the 2009 elections.

It was the majority party again this year, this time with a reduced 35 per cent of the total vote but with GAM stalwart Zaini Abdullah as the new governor and KPA leader Muzakhir Manaf, the rebel group's former military commander, as his running mate.

Ms Jones contends that with the KPA, Partai Aceh and the provincial government consolidating into an "interlocking directorate", the only obstacle to Aceh becoming a one-party state has been splits within the old separatist leadership.

For all the money poured into Aceh since 2009 as part of the special autonomy fund, there is little to show for it apart from palatial district offices and an 80 billion rupiah (S$8.8 million) tsunami museum that is not being maintained and lacks any soul.

Socially, the facts speak for themselves - a soaring infant mortality rate (28 for every 1,000 live births, three more than the national average), and distressing poverty levels (18 per cent, compared with 11.3 per cent nationally).

Aceh also has one of the country's highest number of high-school exam failures, a 27 per cent unemployment rate, and rampant drug use, with former arms smugglers turning to the amphetamine and marijuana trade.

Policy adviser and tsunami survivor Muslahhudin Daud says Aceh officials have become "trapped in a chain of bureaucracy", uncaring of development plans and bound by a mentality of entitlement in which fostering private business appears to have little place.

Compounding the problem is that most wealthy Acehnese resettled in the North Sumatra capital of Medan after the tsunami. "Unless they move back and invest, no one will," says Mr Kuntoro. "There won't be any Chinese or foreigners."

Worryingly, Acehnese still place more faith in religion than technology for their survival. When a major quake struck last year, people in the restored provincial capital of Banda Aceh ran to the mosque instead of one of the four large, purpose-built "escape buildings".

In other words, the tsunami has failed to instill the same inner wisdom that prevails among the 70,000 inhabitants of Simeulue, an island off Aceh's west coast. When the sea recedes there, they head for the hills - as they did in 2004, when only six people died.

Politics and not religion is also driving the enforcement of fully fledged syariah law by an overly zealous religious police force that is now at least 6,300-strong and even has the same powers of detention as the regular police.

Soon after the passage of the 2001 Local Autonomy Law, the local Parliament enacted a series of religious laws which prescribe up to 100 lashes for adultery, gay sex, intimacy among unmarried couples, gambling and the consumption and sale of alcohol.

In this climate, tourism will never get off the ground.

Aceh's west coast may have some of the most beautiful beaches in Indonesia, but the religious police will ensure any foreigners who care to go there will have to leave their shorts and bikinis at home.

This article was first published on December 23, 2014.
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