A Disaster after Another

By Ye Naing Moe

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia – Suleiman, chief of Lamkruet village in Aceh Besar district, Aceh, has come to accept the Dec. 26, 2004, tsunami that devastated the village, along with so much of the province.

Though he lost two daughters, two sons-in-law and seven grandchildren to the massive waves, Suleiman, 55, has been able to turn to his faith as a religious Muslim to come to terms with the disaster and move on with his life.

While he has come to accept this horrific natural disaster, what he cannot accept or understand is the man-made disaster now devastating the lives of the poorest victims in his native province: rampant corruption.

Suleiman believes stealing money and food from the poor is the cruelest of all sins and the worst disaster for the people of Lamkruet, and all of the tsunami victims in Aceh.

“I do not know why we never received the aid money that was promised us, or where the money that was meant for us went. That is the real disaster,” he said.

The central government promised to provide all internally displaced persons (IDPs), including those in the camp in Lamkruet, with daily cash assistance for four full months from the day the tsunami struck. The displaced persons in the Lamkruet camp received the money for one month and then the assistance stopped arriving.

With their money running out, people began leaving Lamkruet to look for work elsewhere. As village chief, Suleiman did what he could to keep people together and save the village, but he had little to offer people in need of food and money to care for their families.

Suleiman blames corruption in the distribution of aid, not the tsunami, for the continued suffering of the residents of his village, who are struggling without assistance to feed their children.

For these people, the expensive four-wheel drive vehicles maneuvering through the streets of the provincial capital Banda Aceh and the fluttering flags of the various national and international organizations that rushed into the province do not provide any real hope. Nor do all the officials, running around and trying to look busy with their maps and charts.

Paradox of the land of peace and prosperity

Although Naggroe Aceh Darussalam, the official name of Indonesia’s easternmost province, which suffered the worst devastation and the greatest number of fatalities in the region affected by the tsunami, means the “land of peace and prosperity”, it is consistently rated one of the most corrupt provinces in Indonesia, which itself is one of the most corrupt countries in the world.

One study that was done before the tsunami placed Aceh as the sixth most corrupt province in Indonesia. The huge amounts of money poured into the province by the central government to fund military operations against separatist rebels, as well as to finance the ill-functioning bureaucracy, was a prime target for corruption.

One of the most prominent corruption cases in Aceh involved the now inactive governor, Abdullah Puteh, who was convicted of embezzling state funds and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

After the tsunami, when aid began pouring into the province, it provided even more opportunities for corruption, particularly without a proper oversight system in place, said J Kamal Farza, coordinator of local corruption watchdog SAMAR.

Without a meaningful system of oversight or governance, the influx of money after the tsunami gave dishonest business people and officials the opportunity to enrich themselves.

The most blatant example of this was the massive “consultants’ fees” paid by business people who won reconstruction projects to non-consultants such as local officials or officials high up in Jakarta.

Others used loopholes in the central government’s blueprint for Aceh’s reconstruction to enrich themselves. The blueprint is riddled with inconsistencies because it was put together in a rush, based on very rapid field assessments on the impact of the tsunami.

According to the findings of the Indonesian Corruption Watch (ICW), the basic data used in the blueprint to determine the total costs of reconstruction projects is inaccurate. This includes such basic figures as the number of displaced people and the total populations of different areas.

Others simply diverted aid – both money and goods – away from the intended recipients to people they knew, or embezzled the aid for their personal use. For example, according to the government’s reconstruction blueprint, each internally displaced person was to receive Rp 3,000 (30 cents) and 0.4 kilograms of rice per day for four months. The reality was that not all IDPs received the full aid to which they were entitled, and some received no assistance at all.

At the camp in Lamkruet, many IDPs were given just 0.2 kilograms of rice a day, and many others received no rice. After a month the assistance stopped arriving altogether. The internally displaced persons in Lambada Lhok village, also in Aceh Besar district, tell a similar story.

A resident of Lambada Lhok, Taufik, says people in the village received some assistance for the first month after the tsunami, but not the full amount promised them by the government. “When we filed a complaint with the community head and other local officials, they said they had problems with the data. But they never did anything to fix the problem.”

According to local corruption watchdog SAMAR, about 30 to 40 percent of IDPs did not receive the full assistance they were promised.

There were also problems with double accounts in the distribution of assistance. One IDP, for example, could be listed at two addresses, and there were also many fictitious names listed at multiple addresses, while many legitimate IDPs were not registered for assistance at all.

Many of these problems were simply the result of blatant nepotism. Kamal said some families in Banda Aceh and Aceh Besar district who were not affected by the tsunami still received assistance through their ties with government officials, while many legitimate IDPs did not receive aid, including many in Daya Geulumpang village in Mueraxa subdistrict and Laksana village in Kutaalam subdistrict.

The construction of barracks to house IDPs proved to be another major source of corruption, with construction costs unnaturally inflated by officials and contractors. According to Luky Djani of ICW, the government-sponsored barracks cost between 20 percent and 30 percent more to construct than their true value. Kamal puts the markups at closer to 40 percent of the true cost of the projects.

Even more disturbing, there were a number of cases of “phantoms barracks”. One example of this occurred at the Aspol Janto police dormitory in Aceh Besar, where the government planned to build four barracks. Though the money was distributed, the construction never took place.

Akhiruddin Mahjuddin, coordinator of GeRAK ACEH, a local corruption watchdog, said he had filed a protest with an official in charge of the barracks program about the phantom project in Aspon Janto, but never received a response.

There have also been complaints about local officials and administrations abusing their power to divert tsunami assistance to projects completely unrelated to post-natural disaster recovery. One example of this was when a local government unit planned to use tsunami relief money to build a new military camp in Naganraya subdistrict.

“That is abuse of power because Naganraya was not affected by the tsunami. Even if it had been affected, they have no right to use the aid money for that purpose. The camp should be built using the government’s military budget, not from tsunami relief funds,” Kamal said.

Military power in Aceh

The dominant role of the military in Aceh, as a result of the long armed conflict with the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM), has complicated the problem of corruption.

Following the imposition of martial law in the province in May 2003 after the collapse of a cessation of hostility agreement between the government and rebels, more military personnel were deployed to Aceh. The military also installed its own people as the heads of districts and subdistricts that were seen as being sympathetic to GAM.

This had unintended consequences, especially on civil life. In districts and subdistricts led by military men, corruption by people in uniform became an increasing fact of life. Business people across the province were unable to escape the overwhelming influence of the military, so they were forced to play by their rules. Their only other choice would have been to go to the separatists for protection.

In addition, some military personnel, as well as rebels, are believed to be involved in a number of illegal businesses in the province such as smuggling, drug trafficking and illegal logging.

“Every single illegal business here is controlled by someone with guns,” Kamal of SAMAR said. “It is a huge and extraordinary problem.”

Illegal logging became a major problem following the tsunami because of the need for timber for reconstruction. Some experts estimate reconstruction in Aceh will require at least four million cubic meters of unprocessed and processed logs over the next five years – an amount that far exceeds existing legal supplies. As an illustration, the government in 2005 granted a total quota of less than 10 million cubic meters of logs to the combined timber companies operating in Indonesia.

“This is big money business and the military is involved,” said Rully Syumanda, forest campaigner for the environmental NGO, the Executive National Walhi.

If military personnel are not involved directly in illegal logging, they are still profiting from it by collecting illegal levies on all of the illegally cut logs that pass through military checkpoints in the province.

It is reported that traders, whether dealing in legally or illegally cut logs, have to pay between 200,000 rupiahs (21 U.S. dollars) and Rp 500,000 (about 53 dollars) at each checkpoint they pass through. And there are about 70 checkpoints across the province. This has led to higher timber prices in Aceh. For example, timber that normally costs Rp 700,000 (about 74 dollars) per cubic meter in North Aceh costs buyers Rp 2 million (210 dollars) a cubic meter by the time it reaches Banda Aceh.

“You cannot transport timber in Aceh without passing through the military. If you go to a sawmill to buy some wood, you will see military officials there. The sawmills are forced to buy the logs from military and sell them to the military as well,” said Leonard Simanjuntak of Indonesia Transparency International.

Although many people believe the military is involved in most of the corruption and abuses of power in Aceh, no high-ranking officer has ever been arrested and charged with corruption.

“It is just too risky to look into corruption involving military officials,” Luky Djani, vice coordinator of ICW, said.

Ayi Jufridar, a local journalist who used to write for Aceh Kita magazine and Asahi Shimbun, agreed that it was dangerous to look too closely at military corruption.

A hope for tomorrow

Although dark clouds continue to hang over Aceh, there is still some hope the Acehnese will be able to rebuild their lives and reshape their homeland.

Suleiman, the chief of Lamkruet village, was optimistic when he heard Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, who has a reputation as a “clean” pubic servant, was named chairman of the official Aceh and Nias Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Agency.

On assuming his new post, Kuntoro promised corruption would not be tolerated and anyone involved in corruption would be punished under the full force of the law.

“When I heard about the appointment of Pak Kuntoro, I prayed that Allah would bless him and help him carry out his noble duty. He brings new hope for us all,” Suleiman said.

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