The 5-Minute Briefing: The tsunami aid crisis

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The Independent Online

Two-thirds of December's tsunami victims died in the province of Aceh in northern Sumatra. Why has reconstruction work been so slow?

Two-thirds of December's tsunami victims died in the province of Aceh in northern Sumatra. Why has reconstruction work been so slow?

It was reported yesterday that more than 1,300 containers of humanitarian aid had not moved from the region's main port of Belawan. The Indonesian official co-ordinating reconstruction said "close to zero" rebuilding had been done and £2.7bn worth of aid had not been distributed. He blamed a lack of government dynamism. The government took responsibility for major infrastructure rebuilding of bridges and roads, which other reconstruction work depends on. But it did not release its plans for weeks and only printed them in Indonesian. The military has accused the separatist movement Gam of hindering relief work. Gam has denied this and blamed government corruption. There have been reports of the military selling food and other aid instead of distributing them freely. Aid groups said their first priorities were emergency food, shelter and schooling. They blame government and port authority bureaucracy for the delays.

What problems do aid workers face?

The task is enormous as 500, 000 Acehnese are registered as refugees. Some survivors are expected to need food aid for at least another year. Pre-tsunami Aceh was largely closed to foreigners after martial law was declared in May 2003. What infrastructure had not been run down since then was largely wiped out by the tsunami that destroyed the capital, Banda Aceh.

Are there any other underlying issues?

Aceh is also still a conflict zone, as it has been for 30 years. More than 260 suspected separatists have been killed by the military since 26 December. After the storm, Gam proposed a unilateral ceasefire, but the government refused. An 18-month state of emergency was lifted last Wednesday, but 39,000 government troops remain in Aceh. Aid workers have had their travel restricted, as the government has said it cannot guarantee their safety outside certain areas. On 23 May the government announced that foreign NGOs must sign a memorandum of understanding confirming that they will not support the separatist movement.

What's the government's position?

It is nervous of foreign aid workers, but has not got the resources to handle the crisis on its own. Jakarta fears another East Timor-style secession, where pressure from humanitarian workers aided the successful 1999 independence campaign. Prime Minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said he wanted a non-military solution in Aceh when he was elected last September. Then the storm struck and killed 160,000 Acehnese. The massive international relief effort has been a catalyst for a new round of peace talks between the government and Gam. The government wants to keep the Aceh dispute a domestic issue, and get aid workers out of the province as soon as possible. The fourth round of talks starts today in Helsinki and runs until 31 May.