Aceh Diary: Handing over the torch

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Having returned to Washington DC in time for summer – lots of sun, heat, and humidity – the weather feels like I never left Aceh. I still sometimes find myself amazed and almost giddy from enjoyment of the bacteria-free hot water for showers and baths, a stable supply of electricity, the absence of dengue/malarial mosquitoes and regularly recurring stomach ailments. Supermarkets with endless brand choices in products from toothpaste to tuna, movies theatres, bakeries/cafes/restaurants carrying offerings from around the world, bookstores piled high from floor to ceiling with everything from Tolstoy to Tintin, museums, gyms, pool halls and bowling alleys, salons. In short, everything people living in cosmopolitan cities take for granted is all once again just a flick of a switch, a turn of a tap, or a short walk/drive away.

I left, unfortunately, at a time when things are really taking off. The reconstruction phase is definitely ramping up. Aceh just celebrated its first year of peace under the treaty signed in August 2005 between the Free Aceh Movement (in Indonesian: Gerakan Aceh Merdeka or GAM) and the central government. The long-awaited autonomy law was passed last month. The date for the historic first provincial elections has been set for December 11th. Finally, the foreign monitors of the Aceh Monitoring Mission have extended their stay for the third time until the polls are completed. But it’s not roses all the way...

The reconstruction effort remains vulnerable to corruption and misuse of funds, among other things. GAM reportedly remains unhappy with aspects of the autonomy law relating to future role of the armed forces, division of oil/natural resource revenues, and a clause on Aceh’s implementation of Sharia (Islamic) law.

Speaking of the Sharia implementation issue, the overzealous morality police should perhaps rethink pushing Aceh’s huge expat development community on this. I can’t imagine that repeats of the unauthorized midnight raid and peeping into the bedrooms of sleeping diplomats that happened at the UN World Food Programme compound last week would be easily tolerated. And too many more messy intrusions in the hopes of saving the foreigners from their own sins of drinking at their private bars might run the risk of an earlier than anticipated goodbye to all those European peace monitors, diplomats, NGO workers, consultants, etc. that are the lifeblood of the rebuilding process….and if it’s a process that’s driving them to drink, well, enough said about that.

As for me - back smack dab in the middle of a teeming city, the capital of the most powerful and privileged nation in the world - I miss Aceh so very much! What am I so nostalgic about? Well, if you’ve read my posts over the months, you remember that I wavered between excitement, frustration, amusement, amazement, wariness, and humility from all that I saw and experienced on a professional and personal level in the unequivocally unique corner of Indonesia that is Aceh. The beauty of the province, how the rich culture and religious beliefs/practices shape everyday life and the people – who are incredibly strong and yet simple and hospitable – and the importance of the work we’re trying to do there truly made it a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me.

I, for one, am incredibly interested in seeing how everything in Aceh shakes out. We couldn’t just let the Aceh Diary disappear at such an exciting time, so we have a brand new guest blogger, David Lawrence. David has just moved to Aceh as the IFC Program Coordinator and will be bringing us new posts as often as he is able. As for me, this isn’t a final goodbye. I’ll be out in Aceh shortly before the elections and will be sure to share some insights then.

Take care and please keep reading!

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