The Artifice of Aceh’s Anniversary

Indonesia’s national news magazine, Tempo, invited me to write a guest column for its tsunami 10th anniversary English and Indonesian editions. It was an honour to be asked and a privilege to write the column. Tempo published it yesterday.

It’s often strange how life turns out. One moment you are getting on with everything as usual, the next it upends in the most unexpected way. That happened to me with the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. I did not expect to play any role in the tsunami recovery operations let alone a central one helping to lead the reconstruction operations from the top as the Indonesian Government’s senior adviser. But that’s the way it turned out.

I emerged from the experience a little over four years later battle scarred and burnout blurry but with enormous professional satisfaction at having contributed to one of the world’s great humanitarian causes. Little did I know I would also emerge as a global expert on disaster management, crisis leadership and the politics of international humanitarianism, or at least key strategic aspects of them. But that’s what happened in the strange world where things make a little more sense in retrospect than they ever do, did or could at the time.

And so, with the passage of time and the approach of the tsunami’s 10th anniversary, which is upon us this very week, Tempo invited me to write an insider’s perspective on the great national and international rebuilding program. The original text follows below. Before I come to it, however, a few words on this picture I have selected to accompany this article.

Reflections of a Job Well DoneI took the photograph in the final stages of the Aceh reconstruction program when people were wrapping up and handing out various awards and acknowledgements. One was given to my then boss, Indonesia’s tsunami minister, Dr Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, a good man and wonderful program leader who proved the power of positive leadership in advancing the cause of humanity.

We were standing in the covered walkway outside the office we shared in Banda Aceh. The country director of UNHCR, Bob Ashe, another good leader and exemplary humanitarian, had just presented Dr Kuntoro with a plaque to thank him for his contribution to tsunami recovery. It was one of those ironic moments because it should have been reversed: we should have been thanking Bob and his team, not the other way around.

Be that as it may, I took the picture after noticing how the plaque reflected Dr Kuntoro’s image. To me, it is an iconic representation of all that was good about the Aceh (and Nias) recovery program: terrific teamwork; the warmth of professional friendship; the camaraderie of mature common endeavour; practical engagement and positive political support; humanitarianism of the highest order; excellence in national leadership; and a unified UN system marshalled by highly intelligent, well-meaning individuals like Bob Ashe whose contributions and experience would have been sorely missed had they been absent.

With those thoughts in mind, here is the Tempo column. I wrote it to contrast the contrived credit various agencies and organisations will take from the Aceh experience as they pat themselves on the back for a job they supposedly did well. Supposedly. While mindful of the many positives represented in the photograph, I am also under no illusions about the wilful incompetence, calculated corruption and political nastiness that also lurked in every corner of the reconstruction program; and of the contempt with which too many agencies readily whitewash their darker deeds while claiming credit for any others.

I chose one Indonesian government agency to represent the intrusive incompetence we faced as part of the Aceh recovery program. The Indonesian Foreign Ministry, known for short as Deplu, loved to crash the party at the last minute to push others out of the way while claiming it was in charge of the enormous foreign contribution to rebuilding Aceh. Either that, or it would insist that it, and it alone, would make all necessary arrangements for whatever event was being held but then not turn up on the day leaving us to pick up the pieces. Either way, Deplu won a special place in my heart as the iconic representation of the challenges we faced in rebuilding Aceh.

* * *

The Artifice of Aceh’s Anniversary

Anniversaries can be strange. Deeply personal at one level, they can be coldly functional at another, set-piece events for pretenders keen to be seen.

I vividly remember the first anniversary of the 2004 tsunami.

It drew VIPs from around the world, overloading Banda Aceh’s crinkled airport with private jet traffic.

Deplu stepped in to take control at the last minute, desperate to appear involved and important. What a mess it made of things, as usual.

Take just one incident.

It detained US Ambassador Lynn Pascoe at the commemoration security check-in in Banda Aceh when his bodyguards were found to be armed, understandable in a place where war had raged for 30 years and sporadic firefights continued.

Then, despite the US being one of the biggest donors to Aceh’s recovery, Deplu officials insisted Ambassador Pascoe sit way up the back of the large temporary hall we erected for the ceremony, a shining example of discourtesy to a country that had given over $500 million to rebuild Aceh.

And there was more.

A stand-up argument ensued with the responsible Deplu official who physically tried to stop me as I installed a new row of seats for the Ambassador by pushing forward the armchairs placed at the front for the Indonesian President and his wife.

The Ambassador stood in embarrassment while everyone in the crowded room looked on listening to the raised voices as the farcical scene unfolded.

And, yes, we inserted the additional row of seats. And, yes, the ceremony continued when the President arrived.

But the charade was typical of Aceh’s massive reconstruction program, so much of it hit and miss.

The recovery leader, Dr Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, my boss, took the greatest hits.

In the smokescreen just beyond the first anniversary commemoration, the sharks of Jakarta circled to be rid of him so they could get their hands on the billions flowing through Aceh’s reconstruction.

The mantra of “going too slow” had taken hold of ignorant minds clueless of how long it takes to build the momentum of such a large program, particularly when supply chains are well and truly broken.

Reporters started the mantra and it kept repeating to the delight of the Jakarta naysayers keen to roll Kuntoro.

They had tried to do this even before his appointment, bureaucrats deliberately removing key clauses from the Presidential Perpu to severely limit his power. And now they were at it again.

As the battles raged to remove him, the Red Cross stepped in with a $100 million transitional shelter program to get tsunami victims out of tents, visibly lifting the momentum that grew to eventually build 140,000 new houses in four short years—housing being the tip of the reconstruction iceberg and its key political success measure.

Kuntoro would not have survived were it not for that Red Cross initiative. Nor would the reconstruction program. I doubt anyone but Kuntoro could have delivered it. And if anyone should know, it’s me.

I sat beside Kuntoro as his senior adviser over the full course of Aceh’s recovery, travelled with him on many of his international trips negotiating with donors and keeping their money warm. So I saw exactly what he did. And it was stunning by any measure.

Leadership is the defining element in human progress. I have written about it in my many books, one being Tsunami Chronicles, the unofficial, six-volume story of Aceh’s recovery in which I meticulously document the many political games that daily ripped, tore and gouged at Aceh’s recovery.

The great stresses came together in BRR, the agency Kuntoro led.

We were small until the peace settlement with GAM that required us to employ a thousand former combatants, something Kuntoro did with a smile knowing peace was the main game in Aceh. We could do nothing without it.

But employing the GAM 1,000 skewed BRR mightily, splitting it between the non-Acehnese professionals there to help at great personal cost and the Acehnese who considered any money, power or privileges they could extract, often at knife point, to be their birthright.

It was a nightmare for Kuntoro as daily he balanced the contending forces with the art of a leader who understood that managing the political elements was key to delivering the technical ones. There were advantages, of course.

Kuntoro kept the GAM leadership structure in place to maintain some control over its unemployed foot soldiers extorting money from international field programs throughout Aceh. Had the GAM leadership fractured, the whole reconstruction program could have failed, particularly if any combatant had killed one Red Cross or UN staffer.

Kuntoro won the day with an adroit combination of personal charm and strategic foresight but paid a painful price.

Senior Acehnese managers in BRR mounted a calculated campaign to divide Kuntoro from his key Javanese deputies, two in particular, Sudirman Said, now a Jokowi Minister, and Widja Widjajanto, a former national journalist who, with Sudirman, played a pivotal role in every aspect of BRR.

Both deserve medals for their contributions but instead got sacked as Kuntoro distanced himself from them in the great balancing act few could see let alone appreciate but which lay at the heart of Aceh’s recovery—assuming it has fully recovered, which is doubtful.

Huge obstacles remain. Aceh’s local government budget is pathetically small, hardly enough to deliver basic services let alone continue development. Shariah law, foisted on Aceh in the peace process, will keep it a backward joke, divided from a secular country by religion that should be a matter of personal preference not state imposition. And corruption remains the ever-present threat as former GAM leaders continue to enjoy the spoils of war far beyond anything they deserve. All are things to which the Jokowi Government should pay attention.

As for the Kuntoro legacy, this goes well beyond but hinges upon Aceh. Failure there could have easily damaged the Indonesian psyche given the tremendous power and money at his disposal. I could imagine others saying: “If he couldn’t do it with all that, no one else could, so don’t bother trying”.

This thought and Kuntoro’s great reform agenda kept me working up to 20-hour days seven days a week leading to long burnout that still lingers another six years on.

But Kuntoro did succeed. At least we did—Kuntoro with the tremendous help, and politics, of the international community. For it was in the end a great team effort. Thousands came to help from around the world in a mass demonstration of human kindness.

At its core was leadership. Kuntoro’s leadership. And politics. Always politics. Plus incompetence, of which Deplu was far from alone. And competence too, always inspired by genuine concern for a community smashed by the fist of nature.

* Bill Nicol was senior adviser to the Indonesia Government for Aceh’s reconstruction and is the author of Tsunami Chronicles: Adventures in Disaster Management, the definitive analysis of the Aceh recovery program. He can be reached through his website, www.nicolnotes.com.

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