Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The Boxing-Day Tsunami Two Years Later


22 December 2006

Thang D. Nguyen

Two years after one of the world’s worst natural disasters, Indonesia has made some unlikely gains but corruption and red tape still leave their scars

Sometimes a tragedy is the very thing that triggers progress. This is true in the case of Indonesia, one of the most-affected countries by the Asian tsunami that happened on Boxing Day two years ago.

Billed as one the world’s worst natural disasters, the 26 December 2004 disaster took approximately 230,000 lives in several Asian and African countries. In Indonesia, the worst hit areas were Aceh and Nias, both located in northern Sumatra, where 168,000 people died and thousands of homes, roads, and other infrastructures were destroyed.

Shortly after this tragedy happened, the international community reached out to Indonesia with food, water, medicine, and other logistical supplies and pledged generous aid packages for the reconstruction of Aceh and Nias.

While corruption and red tape have hampered the rebuilding of tens of thousands of homes even two years later, the tsunami, as devastating as it was, produced a remarkable political opportunity for the Indonesian government and its implacable foe, the Free Aceh Movement (GAM). It was perfect timing for Jakarta and GAM to go back to the negotiating table for peace talks. Historically, GAM had fought for separation from Jakarta for 30 years. Before the Tsunami, many deals had been cut and agreements signed between the two sides, but peace never came.

This time, however, it worked. Following a series of quiet but intense meetings between GAM leaders and the Indonesian government, a peace pact was signed in the Finnish capital of Helsinki in August 2005—two days before the Indonesian Independence Day of 17 August. GAM put down its weapons and the Indonesian military (TNI) pulled its 24,000 troops from Aceh following the signing of the agreement. Indeed, this historical break-through has been so positive that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was nominated and considered for this year’s Nobel peace prize.

To ensure the peace process in Aceh, however, the EU, Norway, Switzerland, and five Southeast Asian countries established an Aceh Monitoring Mission (AMM).

On the eve of the second anniversary of the tsunami, Aceh is not only more peaceful than ever before, but it has also become more democratic. About 2.6 million registered Acehnese voters went to the booths on 11 December to elect their local government.

For one thing, the December election was peaceful. Furthermore, it had participation from former GAM rebels. But most importantly, according to early polls, several ex-GAM rebels are expected to be elected as governor, mayors and regents.

With these successful elections, the AMM completed its mission and left Aceh.

“The page has been turned—people are looking forward,” said Pieter Feith, the head of the Aceh Monitoring Mission (AMM). There are concerns, however, about the future of Aceh. First, there is a call for GAM to ban its identity for good.

With former GAM leaders now in the newly elected government, it is hoped that they will ban this now-defunct organization. With AMM gone, however, it remains to be seen if GAM will forsake its past and continue to honor the Helsinki agreement.

Second, while the December elections were exemplary, a most formidable challenge for Aceh—and Nias, for that matter—is to revitalize the economy in this oil-rich province. According to a recent USAID-funded survey, Acehnese are most worried about economic issues: employment, poverty, social issues—not their physical security.

Third, there is a concern about the introduction of shariah (or Islamic laws) to Aceh. It is one thing to apply shariah only to Muslims; however, if it is applied to all people in Aceh it could, Feith believes, negatively affect the business climate, harming efforts to encourage investment.

Most importantly, despite all the aids from international donors, the reconstruction of Aceh and Nias is still far from adequate.

For one thing, while many aid packages have been pledged, not all have been delivered twp years later. According to a report by the BBC, of the US$6.7 billion pledged, a tenth has yet to be delivered, and only US$3.4 billion has been spent thus far. What is more, once aid packages have been delivered, it takes a long time for them to reach recipients—if they do.

Earlier this month, the head of the Aceh-Nias Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Agency (BRR), Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, told reporters that US$6.1 billion has been funded and reported that 57,000 homes have been built. But that is only over a third of the permanent 128,000 homes that are needed for tsunami and earthquake victims in Aceh and Nias.

“Nearly two years after the tsunami struck, enormous strides towards recovery have been made,” said Robert Fox, executive director of Oxfam Canada. “But the poorest people of Aceh—squatters, renters and women--are still wondering when and where they will be resettled.”

In addition to homes, roads, ports, and other badly-needed infrastructures in Aceh and Nias have not been built or rebuilt either. Many victims in Aceh and Nias are still homeless. With all the aid monies coming in from the international community, they thought that their lives could be rebuilt. But now, they are not sure about that. They remain victimized twice: First by the tsunami and earthquakes, and second by bureaucracy, corruption, and broken promises.

The writer is a Jakarta-based columnist. His writing can be read at

Monday, December 18, 2006

RP official defends ASEAN postponement

The Philippines Inquirer
December 17, 2006

By Nikko Dizon

PRESIDENT Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo knew her government would be heavily criticized whether or not the 12th ASEAN Summit was postponed because of inclement weather, an official of the organizing committee said yesterday.

"She risked this kind of criticism in making her decision. Either way, I don't think she would have gotten universal approval for whatever decision she made," Victoriano Lecaros, summit spokesperson, said.

The Inquirer sought Lecaros' reaction to a scathing column published Sunday in The Nation, one of Thailand's English dailies.

Titled "ASEAN caves in to the bad guys," columnist Thang D. Nguyen said a reported terrorist threat and a political maelstrom in Manila were the real reasons for the summit postponement.

"[The] typhoon never came. Over the weekend, there were only rains and strong winds in the area," Nguyen wrote.

The columnist said ASEAN had "lost face over the Cebu non-summit" and called the postponement, a "debacle [that] has caused considerable damage to the image of the ASEAN as an organization."

Nguyen wrote: "For one thing, it reflects poorly on the leadership of the Philippines as the host of the summit. Even if the typhoon was the real reason they shut it down, blaming it on the weather is just lame. Besides, if the weather in Cebu was a problem, why not move the summit to another city?"

He added: "The non-event this year also shows that current ASEAN leaders are not as strong as their predecessors. Indeed, by backing down this year, ASEAN has shown that it will cave in to terrorism. This is ironic because one of Asean's projects is tighter cooperation among its 10 leaders to fight terrorism."

The ASEAN Summit and the 2nd East Asia Summit should have been held on Dec. 10-14 but were postponed because of a typhoon forecast.

Speculations arose that the deferment was actually because of a terror threat, with the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and Japan issuing travel advisories to their citizens, discouraging them from going to Cebu during the summit.

A political storm was also brewing in Manila after various sectors condemned Arroyo's allies in the House of Representatives for attempts to railroad constitutional changes through forming the House into a constituent assembly to make the changes.

Lecaros said it was "understandable" for people who "were not in the room with the organizing committee, [who did not see] the weather maps, and [did not talk] to the weather bureau" to cast doubts on the real reason behind the summit's deferment.

"It was a case of choosing how we wanted to be criticized: For being irresponsible or for being weak?" he said.

Lecaros, who is also the country's ambassador to Malaysia, stressed that the organizing committee wanted to ensure the safety of the leaders who were scheduled to arrive on the day Typhoon "Seniang" (international code name: Utor) was expected to hit northern Cebu.

"We have to hand it to the President. She knew the kind of reaction [the decision to postpone the summit] would elicit. Still, she took the recommendation of the organizing committee," he said.

Calling the wave of criticisms over the summit postponement a "distraction," Lecaros said they would rather concentrate on preparing for the summit, which had been rescheduled to January 11-13.

Several ASEAN leaders have already confirmed their attendance. The Inquirer reported on Saturday that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had confirmed his attendance.

"The only [way to] answer these criticisms is to have a successful summit in three weeks' time," Lecaros said.

©Copyright 2001-2006 INQ7 Interactive, Inc. An INQUIRER and GMA Network Company

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Asean Caves In to the Bad Guys


14 December 2006

Thang D. Nguyen

Halting the Cebu Summit sent all the wrong signals ands showed the weakness of Southeast Asia's current crop of leaders.

JAKARTA--Gone are the days when the Association of Southeast Asian Nations was steered by Indonesia's Suharto, Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew, and Malaysia's Mahathir Mohamad. Call them dictators or whatever you like, but to be sure, these leaders did lead Asean and made it a real entity in world affairs.

A case in point was the third Asean Summit in 1987 in Manila. A series of coup attempts threatened the government of former President Corazon Aquino as it was preparing to host the summit. Indonesia's former President Suharto took the lead and announced he would attend the event against security advice. He moved other Asean leaders to follow suit, and the summit took place.

In contrast, this year's Asean Summit, which was supposed to be held in Cebu, the Philippine second largest city, from 10-14 December, was postponed at the last minute because, according to the organizing committee, a great big rain storm was on the horizon.

"We can't say how strong or weak the typhoon will be," said Marciano Paynor, who heads the national committee that organized the summit. "The primary responsibility of the host is the safety of his guests."

Fair enough, but was the weather going to be so bad that it could shut down an event as important as this? According to Karl Wilson of AFP, one of the many journalists that went to Cebu to cover the summit, the Philippine national weather bureau had recommended it go ahead as planned.

And the typhoon never came. Over the weekend, there were only rains and strong winds in the area.

The real reason behind the abrupt and panicky cancellation, it turned out, was a terrorist threat. Just a few days before the summit was to begin an intelligence report from Australia said that a terrorist attack in the Cebu area was in its "final stages." Following the report, six countries including Australia, the US, the UK, and Japan, issued warnings to their citizens advising them not to travel to the province during the Asean summit.

Of course, such threats can be real. In recent years, two Muslim militant groups, the Philippines-based Abu Sayyaf and the Indonesia-headquartered Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), have launched several deadly attacks in the Philippines. In Indonesia itself, the JI was responsible for numerous attacks, namely the Bali bombings of 2002 and 2005; the Jakarta J.W. Marriott blast in 2003; and the bombing of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta in 2004.

But another reason behind the cancellation was the political situation in the Philippines. For one thing, the government still has to deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front [MILF], the largest Muslim rebel group in the southern Philippines. Furthermore, the summit was scheduled to take place at a time of heightened political tension in Manila over the government's plans to push through radical changes to the constitution.

"The threat of a terrorist attack was one part (of the reason) and the other part was the political situation in Manila," an anonymous source at the Philippine foreign ministry was quoted by Wilson as saying.

Still insisting that weather was the reason, the summit's organizing committee announced last weekend that the summit would be rescheduled for January 2007.

Meanwhile, the debacle has already caused considerable damages to the image of Asean as an organization. For one thing, it reflects poorly on the leadership of the Philippines as the host of the summit. Even if the typhoon was the real reason they shut it down, blaming it on the weather is just lame. Besides, if the weather in Cebu was a problem, why not move the summit to another city?

By comparison, Indonesia did better as the host of the last Asean summit. Despite threats from the JI, the Indonesian government hosted the last event last year in Bali, the resort island that has been attacked twice. Even US president, George W. Bush, whose foreign policy has been the main cause of terrorist attacks worldwide, attended.

The non-event this year also shows that current Asean leaders are not as strong as their predecessors. As young, bright, and polished as they are, the new generation apparently does not have the guts that Suharto and his colleagues did when the political situation in the Philippines was in turmoil ahead of that 1987 summit. They stared down the threat and pushed ahead.

Indeed, by backing down this year Asean has shown that it will cave in to terrorism. This is ironic because among one of Asean's projects is tighter cooperation among its 10 members to fight terrorism. Indeed, just last month, Asean defense ministers gathered and agreed to a collective security pact which aims at increasing intelligence-sharing, training, and technical assistance.

But perhaps Asean is what its critics have long claimed it to be: a machine that cranks out long-winded meetings and high-sounding documents that result in no action or progress.

It is sad that Asean lost face over the Cebu non- summit. It is sadder, however, that the winners in this are the terrorists themselves.

The writer is a Jakarta-based columnist. His writing can be read at
www.thangthecolumnist.blogspot.com .