Reconstruction in Aceh after the devastating tsunami of December 2004 is considered a success. But ensuring political stability and sustained economic development in the aftermath of civil war remains a challenge.
Reconstruction director Kuntoro Mangkusubroto is very happy over his agency’s impressive statistics. Two thousand kilometers of road, 332 villages, 534 clinics, 837 schools, 216 bridges, 17 ports and 102,000 houses have been built in Indonesia’s tsunami-hit Aceh province and on the island of Nias. “By April 2008, with one or two exceptions, there will be no more house building projects,” said Mangkusubroto smoothly. “But that doesn’t mean every problem has been solved.”
Four thousand families are still living in temporary camps. Land rights remain difficult to clarify. Thousands of new houses are standing empty because of building flaws. Only half of all destroyed roads have been rebuilt. Completing the main road along the western coast, pledged by the United States, is likely to take years. And there is still no sign of a dependable province-wide electricity supply.
Three years after the tsunami, however, a lot of good news is coming out of Aceh. Reconstruction work, sluggish in the direct aftermath of the disaster, has been proceeding at a faster rate for some time. Ninety percent of the total €4.9 billion in aid money has been spent or allocated. Roughly speaking, one-third of the money is from the Indonesian government, another third from international donor countries and the rest from non-governmental organizations. Reports of corruption are surprisingly rare. After 30 years of fighting, the truce agreed between the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and the Indonesian government is holding. The economy is growing and the first directly elected governor of Aceh, Yusuf Irwandi, is performing well in office.
“A lot has been achieved,” said Jörg Meier, an aid official. “Tens of thousands have a roof over their heads again, public infrastructure has been restored in many places.”. He first came to Aceh for the aid organization German Agro Action, went on to work for the UN and is now advising the provincial government. “Reconstruction was and is a process with many mistakes but we have learned from them,” he added. “At first, we built too fast and the quality was bad so now flaws have to be corrected.”
Like most aid workers in Aceh, Jörg Meier is already thinking about the next phase and the one after that - securing long term peace, stable economic development and thinking about how former GAM rebels can be offered a viable future. “We have gone beyond the reconstruction phase and are already in a development phase,” said Helmut Krist of the German Association for Technical Cooperation (GTZ). The focus of German aid in Aceh is mainly in the areas of professional training, health and good governance, as well as micro-credit. The GTZ is the biggest German organization on the ground in Aceh. “Seventy percent of our projects have already been completed, the rest will be finished by mid-2009,” he added.
There are a number of reasons why the province is generally on such a good footing. Never before has the international community provided such massive aid in the aftermath of a natural disaster. Seldom have two conflict parties ended a decades-old conflict so smoothly. Under a peace deal signed in August 2005, the GAM rebels accepted “autonomy” and handed over their weapons. At the same time, the Indonesian government withdrew 25,000 combat troops. The EU and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) stepped into the gap, hardly a routine foreign policy decision for either. ASEAN and the EU destroyed the surrendered weapons and monitored the troop withdrawal.
“Armed struggle is no longer possible,” said EU diplomat Pieter Feith, who headed the observer mission. That claim, made at the end of 2006, is hotly disputed. The GAM did not hand over all their weapons and could easily acquire new ones. Jakarta’s soldiers could return. “Many people in Aceh see a temporary lull in a conflict that will inevitably flare up again,” wrote the International Crisis Group (ICG) in its latest Aceh report, which examines post-conflict complications. “Unsolved problems between Aceh and Jakarta are a time bomb.”
Following the Aceh peace treaty, signed in Helsinki in mid-2006, Jakarta passed a law regulating the province’s future government. It guarantees the local population 70 percent of oil and gas income and allows regional parties as well as independent candidates. The GAM was, and is, unhappy with several paragraphs of the law. The rebels wanted a “territory,” granted the authority to govern itself. Jakarta would accept only “a province with special status.” It was agreed in Helsinki that decisions by Jakarta affecting Aceh were to be taken only with local consent. But the law only provides for “consultation.” “Those are critical changes that must be reversed,” said Yusuf Irwandi, the former GAM spokesman elected by the people of Aceh as their governor a year ago. Jakarta has no plans to change the law.
While future tensions between Aceh and Jakarta may be anticipated, tensions within Aceh are already a reality. Practically everywhere, people are jostling for influence, office and secure jobs. Local elections have produced some district bosses and mayors who behave like mini-monarchs. Crime is on the rise. An agency set up to promote the reintegration of former GAM fighters was “dysfunctional” from the start and has “polarized” communities, according to the ICG. Many young ex-rebels are unemployed. About 3,000 of them received 25 million rupiahs (€1,838) each, to help them start new lives. But that’s not enough and anyway, the payments were controversial because far more than 3,000 men and women fought in the civil war.
In the meantime, GAM, whose old leaders are still living a life of comfortable exile in Sweden, has split into rival factions. Aceh’s provincial parliament is due to be elected in 2009 – the very year when the millions in aid dollars will be used up and the relief workers will have withdrawn. Then, at the latest, it will become clear if the new Aceh can stand peacefully on its own feet or whether - like East Timor - initial good news simply forebodes failure.