Articulo The Economist. www.economist.com. 15/01/05
Indonesia bore the brunt of the tsunami, suffering 100,000 of the 150,000 fatalities. The world's response has been generous, but is already causing tensions
It seemed too good to be true—and it was. In the aftermath of December 26th's horror, Indonesia threw open the province of Aceh to foreign aid workers and journalists. Singaporean planes, American helicopters and Australian warships all entered what had been a highly restricted military zone. The Indonesian army even talked about suspending its offensive against the separatist rebels of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM by its Indonesian acronym). Such openness and moderation marked a break with the suspicion and secrecy of the past, and raised hopes that Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Indonesia's new president, would set a fresh tone for government policy on Aceh, and on security matters more broadly.
Old habits, however, die hard. As the aid effort got under way, military spokesmen announced that GAM was attempting to steal provisions and infiltrate refugee camps. Relief workers, the army said, were not safe—although none of them had expressed any concerns. When shots were fired in Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, the police immediately blamed the rebels. The army, arguing that GAM was somehow trying to take advantage of the catastrophe, delayed the truce.
At first, civilian officials played down the army's concerns. Alwi Shihab, the minister in charge of the relief effort, cast doubt on stories of rebel infiltration. An agitated soldier, rather than an insurgent, turned out to be responsible for the gunfire. Meanwhile, Mr Yudhoyono asked several foreign diplomats for their advice on how to handle Aceh—a step close to treason in the eyes of Indonesia's more xenophobic generals.
In recent days, however, the government has started to toe the army's line. Earlier this week, it said foreigners would no longer be allowed to leave the cities of Banda Aceh and Meulaboh without a military escort. It also instructed all foreigners in the province to register with the authorities. In theory, these measures guarantee the safety of aid workers and prevent duplication in relief efforts. But the rebels insist that they will not disrupt the humanitarian work. Besides, unnecessary bureaucracy is a bigger obstacle to the relief effort than are duplication and the bedraggled guerrillas of GAM.
Mr Yudhoyono himself has said that he would like to see all foreign aid workers leave Aceh by the end of March. Underlings hint that some are not aid workers at all, and have come to the province with ulterior motives. The sooner foreign troops leave, the better, says Jusuf Kalla, the vice-president. Since the people of East Timor voted for independence from Indonesia in a UN-sponsored referendum in 1999, many Indonesians have become convinced that outsiders are plotting to dismember their country. Donors, such as Australia, which has pledged A$1 billion ($760m) in aid, were hoping that generosity would dispel such notions (see article). So far, it hasn't.
The government seems more relaxed about local helpers. Extremist Muslim outfits, such as the Islam Defenders Front and the Indonesian Mujahideen Council, have set up shop in Aceh unhindered—even with official assistance, according to some reports. In the past, such groups have recruited fighters to join in sectarian conflicts in other parts of Indonesia, or mounted vigilante attacks on businesses they deem immoral, including bars and nightclubs.
In fairness, the government's prickliness over foreign aid and its forbearance in the face of radical groups reflect local public opinion. It would be politically impossible at such a time for the authorities to turn away volunteers on the grounds that they were too religious. By the same token, ordinary Indonesians bridle at the idea that their country, the fourth most populous in the world, needs to be rescued from abroad. The speaker of parliament, among other politicians, has been urging the government to show foreigners the door as soon as possible.
Yet many observers had hoped that Mr Yudhoyono would use the authority of his office to press for a less emotive approach. Indeed, some analysts wonder whether the president really supports the new regulations in Aceh, or has simply been outmanoeuvred by hardliners in the army. He is a former general himself, and has recruited a former commander of the military garrison in Aceh to his staff. On all sorts of issues, from the composition of his cabinet to overhauling the budget, he has proved less of a reformer than many imagined at the time of his election.
As it happens, the relief effort in Aceh also impinges on the budget. On January 12th, ministers and officials of the Paris Club, a group of 19 big donor countries, offered Indonesia and other victims of the tsunami an immediate moratorium on payments, while they consider other forms of debt relief. Since Indonesia is due to pay its sovereign creditors some $8.8 billion over the next two years, the impact could be enormous
Indonesia has accepted the moratorium in principle. But the details are controversial. Newspapers are already giving warning that a moratorium, rather than a write-off, could aggravate the long-term debt problem, not least by affecting the country's credit rating. In 2003 a previous government spurned similar relief on the grounds that it compromised sovereignty. Mr Yudhoyono's team is struggling to plug the budget deficit and stop wasteful spending. A multi-billion-dollar windfall might encourage the reverse.
In any event, donors will want to be sure that the money freed up by the moratorium is actually spent on reconstruction in Aceh. But proper scrutiny seems unlikely, if the government's reluctance to grant foreigners unrestricted access to the province is anything to go by. For all its power, the tsunami does not seem to have changed some underlying attitudes in Indonesia's armed forces and officialdom. Only Mr Yudhoyono can do that.