By: Ainur Rohmah

The Indonesian government has begun efforts to rehabilitate the damage caused by a nearly continuous series of earthquakes on the tourist island of Lombok, 200 km from Bali, which have resulted in at least 515 deaths and trillions of rupiah in losses.

Sitting as it does on the Ring of Fire, the 40,000-km horseshoe-shaped series of oceanic trenches and volcanic arcs belts and plate movements featuring 452 volcanoes, Indonesia is no stranger to rebuilding. The worst was the Boxing Day Tsunami, which hit Aceh province in 2004, a 9.0 earthquake that destroyed the province, causing 130,000, part of more than 230,000 total across 14 countries.

The government has been praised for what many say was a remarkable job putting Aceh back together. In this case, recovery efforts have been marred by a nearly continuous and growing litany of criticism as both Presidential candidates blame each other for an inadequate or insensitive response to the Lombok tragedy.

The first 6.4 temblor hit on July 29, and followed by massive aftershocks, with a 7.0 shake on Aug. 5. The most recent, on Aug. 19. On a scale of 6.9, caused panic trauma, with more and more people seeking refuge in shelters and open fields. Based on data from the National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB), more than 7,000 people have been injured in addition to those who have died. Losses are estimated to be more than US$342 million, 64 percent in damage to homes.

Vice President Jusuf Kalla said on Aug. 21 that the government would begin rehabilitating housing damaged by providing financial assistance to its owners to buy building materials. The Ministry of Public Works and Public Housing (PUPR) will provide assistance on how to build earthquake-resistant houses. “What must be done is to build earthquake-resistant houses,” Kalla said. 

Data shows that almost 74,000 houses have been damaged, with varying levels of severity. The government will provide financial assistance according to the level of damage from Rp10 million ($714) for slightly damaged to Rp50 million ($3.571) for heavy damage. Kalla said he expects single homes can be rehabilitated within a one month, while the target is to restore all damaged houses within six months.

Basuki Hadimuljono, the Minister of Public Works and Public Housing, said his ministry had trained residents on how to build earthquake-resistant houses. It will involve students from universities and the army personnel to oversee the construction of houses. “Simultaneously, the Ministry of PUPR also rehabilitate infrastructure, market and school,” said Hadimuljono, added around 43 out of 500 damaged schools have begun construction. 

President Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, immediately issued a presidential Instruction on accelerating the handling of the impact of the Lombok earthquake which involved the role of the central and regional governments.

Controversy Over “National Disaster” Status

Although the continuing disaster has caused many casualties, the government has refused to establish it as a “national disaster.” Maritime Coordinating Minister Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan said President Jokowi worried that tourism in Lombok and the surrounding areas, especially Bali, would be affected if the government declared the Lombok earthquake as a national disaster. Communities in the two regions depend on the economy from the tourism sector.

“If (we) use national disaster terminology, later (other countries will issue) travel warnings for the entire country. It’s going to be complicated,” Luhut said. Previous experience, he said, showed that when the government increases disaster levels in one area, tourists are reluctant to come to Indonesia. However, Luhut insisted that post-earthquake handling in Lombok would be intensive.

However, criticism has bubbled up from various parties, especially the opposition, sensing an opening for electoral maneuvering, who flayed the government as unresponsive.

“It clearly fulfills the criteria to be used as a national disaster. But it is strange that to this day, Jokowi has not (established a national disaster),” said Deputy Chairperson of the People’s Consultative Assembly Hidayat Nur Wahid, who is also an elite of the Islamist Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), one of the parties backing Jokowi’s presidential opponent, the former Special Forces Gen. Prabowo Subianto.

Hidayat criticized the government’s consideration to save the tourism sector as “inappropriate.” The psychological condition of millions of people can be disrupted, he said, “and this is only sacrificed in the interest of tourism which, in quotation marks, is for the benefit of foreign citizens.”

Besides PKS, several Gerindra Party and Democratic Party elites also urged the government to set the Lombok earthquake as a national disaster. The three parties and the National Mandate Party (PAN), have formed a coalition to back Prabowo Subianto as a presidential candidate.

Critics Attacked

BNPB’s spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho attacked the critics by saying that they don’t understand disaster management, including determining the status or level. “Many parties assume that with national disaster status there will be easy access to national resources. Even without that status, we are currently mobilizing all national potential,” said Nugroho.

Nugroho invited all parties to mobilize energy to help the people of Lombok, instead of polemic about determining national status. “Let’s unite. Disasters are humanitarian affairs. Get rid of differences in ideology, politics, religion, and others to help disaster victims,” ​​he said.

Disaster and Presidential Elections

The tragedy has become part of the campaign lore that backers of Jokowi and Prabowo are using against their opponents to energize superstitious voters.  Jokowi’s detractors are spreading propaganda on social media that the earthquake in West Nusa Tenggara Province occurred because God was angry with the governor, Muhammad Zainul Majdi, who expressed support for Jokowi’s return to the presidency. Majdi, known as Tuan Guru Bajang (TGB), a cleric and former Democrat Party official, announced his support for Jokowi in early July, shortly before the earthquake.

“Since the TGB supports Jkw (Jokowi), the earthquakes come one after another. Infrastructure has been destroyed. This is a divine warning,” Yanuar Andriyanto wrote in a Facebook group supporting Prabowo  that claims more than 300,000 friends.

Dian Wijaya wrote in the same group: “Repent TGB, so that there will be no more disasters in Lombok and Sumbawa…how pity of your people.”

On the other hand, Prabowo’s critics went after both the candidate and former President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), for being slow to express their distress about the disaster. “Where were Prabowo and SBY when Lombok was rocked by an earthquake? It is not appropriate for them to be called statesmen,” wrote Merukh Bastian Welly in a Facebook group supporting Jokowi that claims at least 57,000 accounts.