Tsunami aid helped ties with Indonesia: Australia's former PM

This December 31, 2004 file photo shows an Indonesian man as he carries some belongings from his damaged shop in Banda Aceh, six days after the powerful earthquake and resulting tsunami hit the area.

SYDNEY - Australia's unprecedented aid to Indonesia after the devastating 2004 tsunami "brought our two countries closer together", former leader John Howard said Friday.

On the 10th anniversary of the disaster Howard said Australia's relationship with Indonesia was still benefiting from the financial, logistic, political and moral support offered after the disaster.

"The magnitude and symbolism of the tsunami relief, they did a lot to improve relations and put the relations between the two countries on about as sound a footing as they can ever be," he said in an interview with The Australian published Friday.

The tsunami which struck on December 26, 2004 was triggered by a 9.3-magnitude earthquake off Indonesia which set off a series of towering waves that wrought destruction across the Indian Ocean. More than 220,000 people died across 14 countries, almost 170,000 from Indonesia.

"I knew then that this was no ordinary disaster," said Howard, who was prime minister at the time.

"An affluent stable country like Australia had to do more than just write a reasonably sized cheque. This was something which required a big response from our nation.

"We allocated Aus$1 billion (S$1 billion) for the aid package for Indonesia. It was the largest single aid contribution in Australia's history." Ties between Canberra and Jakarta had been strained in 1999 by East Timor's independence from Indonesia, but had strengthened after the terror bombings on the island of Bali in 2002 in which 88 Australians died.

After the tsunami, the world poured money and expertise into relief and reconstruction efforts, with more than US$13.5 billion (S$17.85 billion) collected in the months following, but Howard said the improved ties in the wake of the tragedy were not just down to Australia's large contribution.

He recounted a meeting with then president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in 2005 in which the Indonesian leader had not only thanked him, but said the tsunami aid "represented more than just a large amount of money".

"... it was also a sign to the rest of the world of how important Indonesia was to Australia," Howard told the paper.

Australia's foreign minister at the time, Alexander Downer, said the ability to get C-130 planes to deliver emergency aid to Aceh, ground zero of the tsunami and which was beset by a long-running separatist conflict, was also critical.

"There was civil war in Aceh and a failure to get help into Aceh soon would have made matters worse," Downer told The Australian.

"We were able to get planes there quickly, which was very important to the Indonesians." Memorials are planned for Friday to mark the anniversary of the tsunami, from Aceh which was hit first by the waves, to Thailand, Sri Lanka, and several European capitals where foreign nationals who perished will be remembered.