At the Eye of the Storm - Mourning and Hope

When the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and resulting tsunami struck Asia and East Africa on December 26, Indonesia took a devastating hit. More than 100,000 people died and another 500,000 were left homeless, with some experts predicting that the final death toll may rise above 250,000. Aceh province on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra, where the Free Aceh Movement rebel forces have been fighting against the Indonesian Defense Forces for almost 30 years, was at the center of the destruction. Donald Emmerson, a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for International Studies and director of its Southeast Asia Forum, is an Indonesia specialist who has been traveling to Aceh since the late 1960s. He's finishing a book entitled What is Indonesia? Identity, Calamity, Democracy.

STANFORD: What do we need to know about Aceh province?

That it's a wonderful place, that the people have a tradition of hospitality, and that they share with you what they have. It's very sad that it has been subject to so much violence and conflict for so many years.

What's been happening in recent times?

Since May 2003, Aceh has been virtually off-limits to foreigners. The [military] reasoning is that it's for security reasons, but there's always been a suspicion that it's also because bad things -- horrible things, killings and so forth -- are done in the dark, and they don't want people to watch. Certainly the human rights community has had great difficulty getting access to Aceh.

What could happen as a result of some 1,000 representatives of aid organizations being on the ground there?

The opening of Aceh to foreign and domestic humanitarian aid workers has the potential to introduce elements that can serve as a check on human rights abuses. Obviously, the time for mourning is not over. But if we can insert a silver lining in this very dark cloud, it might be that the devastation of the tsunami opens up an opportunity to rebuild much of Aceh, and that it will require cooperation among all Acehnese. I am cautiously optimistic about the opening that this catastrophe represents for trying to lessen the man-made pain of the Acehnese people.

What might a rebuilt Aceh look like?

The plan is to take villages that were destroyed, and maybe even the town of Meulaboh on the west coast, which was the worst hit, and move them inland a certain number of kilometers. Then, construct mangrove swamps as barriers against a repetition of the tsunami, and also to protect the soil from erosion and generate the possibility of brackish-water fishing for the livelihoods of the people. This is a massive effort that is going to last for years and years. Authorities have estimated that the rebuilding costs in Aceh could run to $2.2 billion.

Fishing villages would no longer exist on the coast?

I spent nine months in fishing villages in East Java, and I found that the relationship of the populations on the coast to the ocean is not necessarily what one would expect. They are not happy bathers on the beach, fishing is an extremely dangerous operation, and the ocean is considered a wild place.

Many fishing communities are overfishing the source. I wrote a long report for the Ministry of Agriculture's fisheries office, arguing that what Indonesia ought to do was take the money the government was spending to supply nylon fishing nets and higher horsepower outboard motors, and spend it on wives who were involved in craft commodities. The women have commercial skills, and getting microcredit programs for women to set up shops and expand is the future.

How will religion figure in that future?

Aceh is known in Indonesia as "the front porch of Mecca." The Acehnese are almost entirely Muslim. While there's a tendency among Americans to presume that [a Muslim nation] must be fanatic, Indonesia remains an overwhelmingly moderate society. There is a poignant photo, which hasn't been circulated in the U.S. press, of a sign at a depot for humanitarian relief supplies. It reads, "If you try to steal this material, you will be responsible to Allah."

The following is supplemental material that did not appear in the print edition of STANFORD.

What was the overall impact of the tsunami in Indonesia?

I think it's important to keep in mind that each of the affected countries was affected in a somewhat different way. In Sri Lanka, an estimated 70 percent of the coastline of the entire island was affected, so the economic consequences there are going to be more severe than the damage that was done to Indonesia. If you go down the west coast of Sumatra, you will see damage, but the main damage was overwhelmingly concentrated in a single province, Aceh, which represents less than 2 percent of the total population of Indonesia. Aceh got a double-barrel assault -- from the earthquake and the tsunami. The death toll was horrid, with a huge loss of life, but it was concentrated on the coasts.

How does Aceh's history set it apart from the rest of Indonesia?

The first record we have of an Islamic sultanate in what is now Indonesia is a stone carving dated 1297, on the north coast of Aceh. Aceh was closest to the Middle East, and there were Muslim traders who would go short distances, pause, sell, buy and reload. Long-distance Arab-Malay trade finally got to Indonesia, and the logical landfall was Ache.

Then there were tremendous and unequal casualties in the war against the Dutch, who recruited Ambonese troops to fight a colonial war in Aceh in the 19th century. There's a photograph of Dutch troops standing on the dead bodies of Acehese rebels. The Acehnese war lasted a long time, and it was one of the last parts of the archipelago to be fully brought into the colonial orbit.

Aceh has been for some time under a state of military emergency, and an estimated 13,000 have died as a result of the [rebel] war since 1976. But the tsunami has changed all that. Looking at it from a political science point of view, if we don't begin trying to analyze the situation, I'm not sure we can make it better down the road.

What needs to happen?

In a time of crisis what you need is efficiency and effectiveness, and you need somebody to stand up and say, "This is the way things are going to be." But the governor of Aceh is, by all accounts, exceedingly corrupt. He is in Jakarta now, in detention, awaiting trial on corruption charges. So you don't even have an active, sitting provincial government leader to take charge.

The number of members of the provincial administration who died in the tsunami is quite high, and the central government has had to send up 300 replacements from Jakarta. The administration of Aceh has essentially been completely taken over by the central government. This is potentially unhelpful, depending on how sensitive and effective the central government is and how corrupt the atmosphere is within which masses of foreign aid are moving.

The somewhat optimistic scenario is that now Aceh is even more dependent on the central government than it was before, with the need to rebuild substantial portions of its coastline. So a leader of the [freedom] movement [might] look down the road and say, "It's unrealistic for us at this point, with this incredible body blow to our economy, to expect that we can now somehow take over Aceh. We are more dependent than we were before on the central government."

And, conversely, in Jakarta there might be the thinking that since Aceh now so obviously needs support within the republic, "We are in a stronger position, and therefore we can afford to be generous, and to extend concessions, short of independence, that will take advantage of this." The bottom line is that two enemies who were at each other's throats now face a third enemy -- nature.

Are there other voices that should be heard in Aceh?

One of the difficulties of having negotiations between the Acehnese Freedom Movement and the central government is that it tends to exclude other Acehnese views, which is one reason why negotiations that took place previously were not successful. Acehnese society is pretty diverse, and the Acehnese Freedom Movement does not represent all Acehnese, not to mention the Javanese and Indonesians who have migrated into the province, who are university students and [members of] religious communities.

The conflict has lasted for 30 years in its present form, and it has created such enmities that there is no particular mood to compromise. The government has no incentive to reach out, and the Acehnese Freedom Movement remains intransigent. In the long run, those who disagree with a so-called freedom movement are in the shadows and their views tend not to be reported. My hope is that as these voices are allowed to take part in determining the future of Aceh and its political leadership, the polarization will decrease and there will emerge a kind of more moderate center, in favor of autonomy and full rights.

In the 1990s, the United States cut military assistance programs to Indonesia. Is the relationship between the two countries improving?

SBY -- Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono -- is a former military man, but he's identified as relatively clean, and associated with a somewhat more reform-minded element within the military. More than any previous president of Indonesia, he has had exposure to the United States. Certainly this is an opportunity for an improved relationship between Indonesia and the U.S.