The Boxing Day Tsunami Two Years Later

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 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