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Hope for the future, learning from Aceh

/ 09:39 PM November 24, 2013

A little geography.

Aceh is part of the Republic of Indonesia. It is not governed as a regular province but is considered a special region or territory of the country. Located at the northern end of Sumatra, its capital is Banda Aceh and has a population of just over 5 million. Aceh has a history of political turmoil and resistance to outsiders, be they Dutch colonizers or the central government in Jakarta.

When I served in Indonesia, one of the places I visited was the city of Lhokseumawe in Aceh, site of the Asean Aceh Fertilizer Project, one of the first attempts at Asean economic cooperation. At that time, Aceh was the scene of fighting between the Free Aceh Movement (FAM), a separatist group seeking independence from Indonesia, and government forces. I recall that on my visit, security was tight because of continuing clashes between FAM elements and the Indonesian Armed Forces.


* * *

On Dec. 26, 2004, an Indian Ocean undersea earthquake, registering 9.0 in intensity, triggered a tsunami that hit Aceh in Indonesia, Phuket in Thailand, and several other countries in the region. According to the US Geological Survey, the earthquake had the force of 23,000 Hiroshima-type atomic bombs. It resulted in the death of close to 200,000 people in Aceh alone, leaving half a million homeless. The tragedy was compounded a few months later with a second earthquake in March 2005 affecting the area between Aceh and Nias, off north Sumatra. Most of the western coast of Aceh was devastated with many towns wiped off the map completely. Of the 320,000 residents of the capital Banda Aceh, more than half were estimated to have been killed or missing.

Two months after the tsunami, former US presidents, George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, visited Aceh. They described the destruction as unimaginable, noting that inventory and distribution systems for relief were poor although they said that better procedures were being set up. That

appears to be the same observation that foreigners visiting Tacloban after Supertyphoon “Yolanda” got.

Following growing concern and complaints about the slow pace of rehabilitation and reconstruction in Aceh and Nias, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono established a high-powered agency known as the BRR (Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Agency for Aceh and Nias),

appointing a former minister of mines and energy to head the office.

As head of the new agency, Dr. Kuntoro Mangkusubroto quickly improved reconstruction efforts with better levels of coordination and speed. In particular, he focused on

accelerating construction of permanent housing for more than 500,000 Acehnese, the majority of whom were living in tent camps. The drive included some 30,000 new houses built by the end of 2005, an impressive feat considering that Indonesia’s annual construction rate was 60,000 houses nationwide. BRR’s second priority was infrastructure starting with roads but expanding to include schools, hospitals, harbors and religious facilities. The third priority was rebuilding livelihood, a process of clearing tsunami debris to allow recultivation of rice paddies and fishponds. Highly sensitive to the issue of corruption, Mangkusubroto established verifiable protocols for the disbursement of funds.


By mid-April 2009, or some four years after the tsunami, the agency was able to turn over reconstruction work to the provincial government of Aceh. Overall the BRR was hailed by the international community as a success story. It had built over 130,000 houses, 1,759 school buildings, 363 bridges, and 13 airports in a span of three years. No major corruption scandal affected the various projects and the results vastly exceeded early expectations.

* * *

My thoughts on the work ahead of us.

We ought to focus on just a few things.

First, we need a similar high-powered agency headed by a “take charge” guy who can make things happen with clarity and speed. Somehow I recall an interview with Social Welfare Secretary Dinky Soliman. A few days after Yolanda, she was asked: Who is in charge? Her reply: Secretary Mar Roxas and I serve as vice chair while Secretary Volts Gazmin is the chair. We consult with each other and work together.

The question was repeated: Who is in charge? Her reply, with some irritation, was the same.

By the way, has anyone contacted the Indonesian government, in particular Doctor Mangkusubroto, for advice and assistance? There is a lot we can learn from the Aceh experience. The Indonesians have significant expertise in disaster management. News reports mention that Mangkusubroto has this advice for us: Prepare for frustration and inflation. Survivors will get angry about living in tents well before houses are ready, and inflation will make those houses more expensive to build. He adds: Prepare warehouses all over the region and fill them with construction material. Fix the prices now.

Energy Secretary Jericho Petilla appears to have been designated as a key officer in the reconstruction efforts. Not much is known about Petilla. Let us hope he is the right man for the job. The last thing we need in the present situation

is politics.

Second, we all need patience, patience, and more patience. The road to recovery will be long and difficult: Miracles are not going to happen. But if we have the right people on the job, and everyone lends a helping hand, we can

accomplish a lot. Tacloban, Basey, Guiuan, and other communities in the disaster area will rise again. Word has just come in of a remote island off Coron in Palawan—Ocam-ocam—whose residents have not been reached by relief

efforts. They have been isolated for 13 days.

Third, in the midst of all the hardship that our countrymen are facing, we must have faith in the Almighty. But we have a tendency to leave everything to God (Bahala na ang Diyos!) forgetting that here on Earth, God’s work must truly be our own.

One last word. In August 2005, seven months after the tsunami hit Aceh, a peace agreement was entered into

between FAM and the Indonesian government. The peace talks were facilitated by a Finland-based NGO, the Crisis Management Initiative. Aceh received special autonomous status and government troops were withdrawn in exchange for disarmament. After eight years, peace in Aceh continues to hold.

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