Indonesia: A return to Aceh amidst hopes for peace and prosperity

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My first trip to Aceh was in August 1998, four months after the resignation of former President Soeharto. It was the height of Indonesia's pro-democracy Reformasi movement, and many journalists thought that travel permits were still required, as it had been for decades. My friend and I were venturing as 'tourists'. In many villages, the legacy of repression remained: razed houses, shuttered schools, and households run by widows. Poverty was unavoidable; violence and economic growth are often incompatible.

I would return to Aceh every six months or so for several years, and watched people's emotions run the gamut, from elation and excitement, to frustration and anger, to fear. Freedoms were offered, then taken away. Families became political pawns. Livelihoods suffered as frightened communities flocked to camps and shelters. Jakarta occasionally rushed an influx of funds as a result of decentralization and as an act of appeasement, but on the streets, one mostly felt desperation.

I moved overseas some months before the tsunami tore Aceh's shores. And I had not returned to Aceh since.

When I arrived at Banda Aceh airport last month, I was immediately struck by the size of the airport: it was at least double the size of the old one. In the city of Banda Aceh, the landmarks were recognizable—the grand Mesjid Raya and the adjoining market—but clearly the city itself had doubled if not tripled in size. A sizeable shopping mall stood proud where once there were one-story edifices. Thousands of people milled about as if conflict and curfews never plagued their lives.

After the earthquake and  tsunami, many modern coffee shops started to emerge in Banda Aceh. They not only offer coffee but also free internet access.

This bustle of activity shows the robustness of the Acehnese community—a robustness that is replicated in many towns across Indonesia. But the bustle also belies underlying weaknesses.

The phase of rehabilitation and reconstruction is nearing its end in Aceh. The Multi-Donor Fund for Aceh and Nias (MDF) effectively closes in December 2012. The MDF contributed only 10% of the US$7 billion overall reconstruction fund for Aceh and Nias, undertaken by development agencies and the private sector through the coordination of the Aceh and Nias Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Agency. Ultimately, the considerable challenge of job creation and sustainable development lies largely in the hands of the Acehnese and local governments.

The achievements of the MDF over some six years are considerable. On the micro-level, the MDF built some 20,000 houses, 2,600 kilometers of village roads, 1,600 kilometers of irrigation and drainage canals, 8000 wells and water sanitation facilities, more than 670 schools, and 511 government offices. Macro projects include 572 kilometers of national and provincial roads, 227 kilometers of district roads, 5 ports, and 11 water and shore-line management facilities. All these projects provided jobs for the Acehnese. But many projects have ended or are now ending.

Human development training was also significant. Thousands of teachers enrolled in capacity-building workshops, as did civil servants, members of civil society organizations, and former combatants. Forest management was targeted through a number of environmental protection initiatives.

The last phase of the MDF may be the biggest challenge, and it focuses on the transition from reconstruction to long-term economic development. The Acehnese government has a strategy for tackling this, and it involves improvements in the productivity and promotion of the following commodities: cocoa, rubber, rice, patchouli, and fisheries. Industry networks are being established or strengthened. Dialogue is ongoing between the government and the private sector on how to move forward.

Will all these efforts work? That is the big question. Top-level government commitment towards achieving these objectives is clear and pronounced. As always, difficulties are often encountered at the implementation stage. Often it is not enough to mean well.

Provincial and district elections are on the horizon in Aceh. If successful economic development cannot take place without concerted cooperation between the government, the private sector, and civil society, then it would be more difficult still without the assurance of peace. Political instability and violence is a deterrent to most economic activity.

Aceh has achieved so much since the days when violence did rule the streets. I remember those days well, and I remember the economic stagnancy suffered in villages and towns alike. I remember curfews and road-blocks emptying streets, and fear emptying rice fields of farmers. Aceh now stands on the cusp of leaving all that well and truly behind. I hope it will.

Lambung, Aceh, was almost completely flattened by the devastating tsunami. Three years later, houses and roads have been rebuilt.


Dini Djalal

Communications - Indonesia

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