Darkness Descends on the Tsunami 10th Anniversary

And so the day draws to a close on the 10th anniversary of the 2004 tsunami. The commemoration ceremony has been held in Banda Aceh. Tears have been shed. The people of Aceh have supposedly thanked the world for its contribution in rebuilding their tsunami shattered province. And all the hangers on have had their day in the media sun as journalists prowl looking for yet another angle on the tsunami story that has been done to death—the death of a thousand cuts that have shredded the fundamental truths of Aceh’s reconstruction in the name of another tear-jerker that passes for good journalism but hardly rates more than a footnote in the rubbish bin of history.

Even the Vice President, Jusuf Kalla, a man I admire, seems to have fallen for the trap of opening his in a misplaced attempt to say something meaningful. He was pleased to find Banda Aceh in an improved state, at least so reported The Wall Street Journal, but regretted a missed opportunity not to turn it into a modern city, realigning major boulevards and building major institutions in new locations. Oh yeah! As if rebuilding what had been knocked down by the tsunami was not already big and complex enough. Now he looks back and wishes we had knocked down many of the buildings still standing to start over with them too. Wow, that would have gone down well at the time.

As for Aceh’s present Governor, Zaini Abdullah, he goes on in the same article to say that the Acehnese respect all religions and that the province’s Shariah law doesn’t apply to non-Muslims. You could have fooled me when I was there, particularly when the Shariah police raided the UN compound in Banda Aceh because its staff discreetly operated a small bar serving alcohol out the back. And they, the Shariah police, chose a weekend when almost everyone was away to conduct the raid. What idiots, firstly for raiding the compound in contravention of international law and then doing it on the wrong day when there was nothing to find. Give the Shariah police an inch and they’ll take a mile, corruptly too because they had their greedy hands out for bribes every inch of the way.

As for today, Shariah law is one of the great impediments to Aceh’s economic, political and social development. It isolates the province from an advancing, modern, secular Indonesia, holds it in the grip of an antiquated system of rote thinking at odds with intellectual curiosity and advancement, and makes foreign investors think twice (the wrong way) about investing in the province. And Governor Abdullah talks it up or shrugs it off suggesting it hardly matters at all. He should pull the other leg while he is at it. But the journalists seem to soak it up uncritically, adding his quote to other limp words they write while dodging reality.

Turning elsewhere for inspiration, I read another piece of rubbish peddled this time by UNICEF’s field coordinator Umar Bin Abdul Aziz who says: “The tsunami recovery work was very much focused on the physical reconstruction—less attention has been paid to the psycho-social or trauma healing for the tsunami survivors”. Oh yes, I’ve seen this one peddled before, many times, once by a bunch of mindless academics in Canberra at a demographics conference I attended at the ANU. It’s as if building a house for survivors did not help them socially or psychologically. Or giving joint land titles to previously dispossessed Acehnese wives did not give them psychological confidence in their future. Or giving land and house to the poor who could not previously afford either did not offer them the first economic peace of mind they had ever experienced. Let’s give them all psycho-social trauma counselling instead! That would have gone down well.

Of course, there is need for a little more psycho-social consideration than is usually doled out. In this regard, the much admired Jerry Talbot, a former SecGen of New Zealand Red Cross and tsunami coordinator for the IFRC, got it right in suggesting today that it was not only the direct tsunami victims who needed help but also those who came to help them. “We have to think not only of the people that are affected by the disaster; we have to think of the staff and volunteers that we have involved in these operations as well,” he told journalists. And right he was to do so because, reading the rubbish being written today, I’ll be needing my own little bit of counselling support to calm me down after all the insults suggesting the reconstruction program I spent a decade helping to design, lead and analyse was to blame for all the subsequent problems being experienced in Aceh. Yeah, of course, and blah blah blah.

One of the blah blah culprits is John McCarthy, obviously up to his nostrils wading into the tsunami of 10th anniversary journalistic reporting in Aceh today. Having been placed into a he-said/she-said contest with him in the Australian media today, I was enthralled to see John once again being quoted by our very own ABC on its website. My apologies, John, but I just can’t let this go.

In the original article in The Canberra Times, dear John gave faint praise to the emergency response and most of the infrastructure projects only to then say that much of the effort was only temporary—let’s not concern ourselves with specifics here—and people were experiencing a hunger season each year in the still largely impoverished area, as if this was the direct and specific fault of the reconstruction program. But we need to blame something, don’t we, so let’s give the tsunami reconstruction program a kick as the supposedly obvious culprit. And that’s what the good associate professor from the ANU did by saying that the post-tsunami aid did not do enough to reconstruct sectors the Acehnese relied on for their livelihoods including rice production, fish ponds and cash crops planted in the hills, neglected over the years during the conflict.

Whew there John boy. I seem to remember rice production being higher when we finished the reconstruction program than when we began. As for those fish ponds, they were a silted wasteland after the tsunami that we cleaned up and made operational again. And the cash crops planted in the hills that fell into neglect due to the conflict? Let me see, this assumes we on the reconstruction program were responsible for fixing these too when in fact we were not; indeed, at a policy level, we were instructed to have nothing to do with them (something we disobeyed; I wrote the divergent policy to encourage greater post-war recovery operations in non-tsunami affected areas) as they were the province of another government agency.

In one of those cute little statements that sugar-coat the criticism, Dr McCarthy said aid-funded infrastructure projects created an enormous amount of jobs but, when the money dried up, the Acehnese were left with “nice infrastructure” but few work opportunities. Mmmm. I suppose we could have propped up the Acehnese with a false economy that created jobs and left them with no infrastructure. I wonder how that would have gone down, particularly with the government auditors? I suspect a few people would have been sent to jail if we had gone down that particular route.

It seems John must have done a media course, because he appears to have trotted this line out to whoever would listen. The ABC certainly picked it up. “The donors and the NGO community had spent about $7.5 billion on the post-tsunami intervention,” it quotes him saying. “To have such a high-profile and one of the biggest development interventions in developing countries ever, how were they able to achieve, from our perspective, such poor livelihood outcomes? We were quite surprised by that really.”

Were we now, John, whoever “we” might be as I’m certainly not included in that collective noun. I suggest you walk down the corridor and have a chat with other of your colleagues in the ANU’s Crawford School. You might find that the real cause lies elsewhere in the many things you ignore starting with the paltry budget Aceh’s provincial government has for government services, an economy stalled by appallingly bad political leadership, a rampantly corrupt bureaucracy, a self-indulgent GAM leadership that picked the eyes out of the peace settlement funding, the dead hand of that Shariah thing and the fact that the real economic action in Indonesia lies elsewhere. But let’s pick a soft target like the reconstruction program for our criticism. After all, it can’t hit back like the others.

There are times I feel sorry for tenured academics, particularly those with titles. This day is not one of them. Those who jump aboard the sorry train of Aceh’s 10th anniversary commemoration should know better.

But it’s all such a lark. The hangers-on are always there pushing their ignorance on any who will listen. And there are plenty who clearly gobbled it up without offering one substantive word on the reconstruction program itself, that $7.5 billion whipping-post that everyone mentions but no one dissects. There was so much to learn from it, so much more to write about for any discerning journalist willing to look beyond the smokescreen of the easy quote. Yet, as darkness descends on the 10th anniversary, the opportunity for genuine reflection drains away to disappear in the dreary deceit of a system that thrives on empty rhetoric. Farewell lost opportunity. See you in the next great disaster.

Categories: Tsunami

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