The victors' offensive half-truth about the tsunami relief

That the aid that followed the tsunami disaster 10 years ago would have been successful is an offensive half-truth. That is the opinion of Olle Törnquist, professor at the University of Oslo.

The ten-year memory of the tsunami is over. Seventy percent of the dead lived in the Aceh of the Civil War. Its population is much like Norway's; imagine the idea that instead 170.000 were killed in our neighboring country. One of the best ways to honor the victims would have been critical analysis to draw lessons for the future. But this is almost completely missing in the recent weeks' plethora of reports and comments. The winners write the story, it's usually hot. And quite rightly: when the donors, also from Scandinavia, gathered at the local government in Banda Aceh on December 26, little was said about experience and what remains to be done. The message was instead mutual congratulations: we did well. An offensive half-truth!

Relatively speaking, support for Aceh was as extensive as Marshall aid to Europe after World War II. And no doubt it went better than feared. The typical Indonesian invasion of the military and corrupt businessmen in the country's crisis areas at the time was thwarted by cooperation between the new government in Jakarta and the international aid agencies. The result was healthcare, clean-up and repairs, as well as new infrastructure, houses and wells and more. Far from perfect and not for everyone, but well above expectations.

The donors and the current rulers, however, ignore that the main reason why the aid did not arrive at all and that the reconstruction worked properly was the peace talks that had already begun and the unique agreement in mid-2005 between Jakarta and the GAM freedom movement. Through more democracy in Aceh than anywhere else in Indonesia, both the GAM and the national parties - but also other political groups and civil society in Aceh - would be able to build an autonomous province with its own parties and less corrupt administration, such as on Åland. And one completely forgets that aid thereafter did not promote or even defend democratic reforms, not even as Marshall aid in Europe.

This shattered the foundations of successful peace and development in Aceh. So at the same time as the technical reconstruction, the abuse of power has continued. Politics and administration are dominated by the conservative GAM leaders along with their former enemies in Jakarta. The reformists in the freedom movement and civil society groups have been marginalized. The crimes against
human rights have been swept under the rug. Sharia law is abused by dogmatists who support the ruling politicians in exchange for e.g. publicly allowed to whip up "immoral" women. Corruption is systematized. Foreign investment is absent. Economic growth is only half the national average. Self-government is still imperfect. Jakarta is pulling its legs behind it and the government in Aceh only manages to use about two-thirds of its annual budgets. Once again, Aceh is one of the least well-run and democratic parts of Indonesia. How could the promise of democratic peace, the fight against corruption and inclusive development go so badly? What did Scandinavian aid do?

Of course, it was first necessary to build up disaster relief efforts separately from the devastated, militarized and corrupt local administration. But development aid and democratization continued to be kept separate - with Scandinavian support. Thus, aid could seldom contribute to either better administration or good peacebuilding, including the integration of former guerrillas and all those affected by the civil war. Instead, they were forced to use their old command structures and personal networks to corruptly access some help and resources. Of course, donors could have invested in parallel peace and democracy work, but it was often rejected. The Olof Palme Center, the German Social Democrat Friedrich Ebert Stiftung and Indonesian pro-Democrats did their best but only got pocket money and shrugs. Not even when conservative GAM activists kidnapped their projects did they set up embassies and donors in defense, but instead appointed the pro-democrats as troublemakers. (Research results are available at

Therefore, even the hopeful coalition of GAM reformists and civil society groups that won the governors' and mayoral elections in 2006 was undermined. management. Instead, conservative forces were strengthened, corruption spread, and reformists and civil society groups were weakened. Subsequently, the conservative GAM leaders' Partai Aceh advanced sharply in the 2009 parliamentary elections through threats and slander by the reformists and civil society activists, as well as cow-trading with the former enemies of the most paid oligarchs and political and military elite in Jakarta.

Of course, alternative attempts were made. A successful pilot project in Southern Aceh was carried out e.g. with the support of the Swedish International Center for Local Democracy (ICLD). The idea was to instead start reforms and democratization at the local level within the framework of international municipal cooperation. But when the activists, researchers and local leaders had got all the hardships in place in both South Aceh and in the governor's palace in Banda Aceh, the ICLD did not even manage to mobilize the mood for Swedish interest, so it all collapsed. Another but Norwegian example is that attempts to promote peace and democracy education were rejected with the main argument that it should take place at a Muslim institution, albeit the best university.

The pattern was repeated in the new election of governor and mayor that would take place in 2011. When the conservative GAM leaders failed to stop the election, which they seemed to lose by boycott, they instead had their allies in Jakarta's elite to illegally postpone the same until 2012. The argument was , that the reformists in power must be weakened and people persuaded to vote for the conservatives because otherwise there would be war again. The international community remained silent. Stable division of power was considered more important than democracy. And thus the reformists and pro-democrats were calculated. So despite attempts before the parliamentary elections last year to form a new local party among GAM reformists and some civil society activists, this was an insufficient alternative. Many voters instead showed their dissatisfaction with the abuse of power and failed economic and social policies through apathy or voting for Jakarta-based parties.

Thus, the GAM traditionalists remain at the meat pots and were able to celebrate the 10th anniversary after the tsunami by, together with Jakarta and the donors, writing about history, celebrating the division of power, and refraining from planning how even the reformist political groups, civil society organizations and women activists could finally have a reasonable a chance to participate in and vigorously promote a democratically and economically successful community building, as provided for in the peace agreement. Our assistance needs to be revised!

Olle Törnquist, Professor of Political Science and Development Research, University of Oslo.

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