Thursday, January 06, 2005

Crisis in Aceh ~ Indonesia: Devastation and A Possible Political Boon


Although Indonesia suffered the brunt of the Dec. 26 tsunami, the country stands to gain from the disaster. During the relief and recovery efforts, which will take months -- maybe years -- Jakarta will benefit from the rebuilding of one of its poorest provinces and will be able to repair fractured military ties with the West. At an emergency summit in Jakarta set for Jan. 6, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono will have an opportunity to present himself as a regional leader as he coordinates international recovery efforts.


Of all the countries hit by the Dec. 26 tsunami, Indonesia suffered the most death and destruction. Huge areas of Sumatra's west coast were devastated and entire towns were wiped away by giant walls of water. So far, the dead number over 94,000 in Indonesia, with the final toll for the country expected to exceed 100,000. The political and economic impact of the disaster, however, could be a boon to Jakarta as Western aid pours in and regional leaders arrive for an emergency summit in Jakarta.

Since May 2003, Aceh province has been fairly isolated from the rest of Indonesia. Various states of emergency and periods of martial law have been in place there to deal with the government's ongoing counterinsurgency against the Free Aceh Movement (GAM). Aside from natural gas fields, Aceh is a poor province and the areas stricken on the west coast were of negligible economic importance. Aceh's natural gas production and export sites are located at the port of Arun, on Sumatra's eastern coast, and were not damaged by the tsunami.

Indonesia can expect a multi-billion dollar aid and investment package to be put together to rebuild Aceh's devastated infrastructure. Weak even before the tsunami, GAM does not enjoy a large popular support base in Aceh, and an influx of foreign aid, improved infrastructure and economic development will further erode its support. Meanwhile, despite a bilateral cease-fire, the Indonesian military has given no indication that it will suspend operations against GAM as it conducts relief operations.

Of course, billions of dollars going into a country with a track record for corruption will generate its own set of problems. The governor of Aceh, Abdullah Puteh, is currently on trial in Jakarta for corruption charges.

Jakarta wants to repair strained military ties with the West, especially the United States. Ties have been strained since 1999, when brutality by Indonesian army (TNI) and paramilitary forces against separatists in East Timor caused Western governments to slap an arms embargo on Jakarta. There has been some improvement in recent years, as Indonesia has been relatively cooperative in Washington's war on terrorism. Since Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration has been particularly interested in re-establishing ties with the Indonesian military in order to enlist its help in the war, but the U.S. Congress has remained opposed to providing Jakarta with military hardware and assistance.

Indonesia and the United States have several issues and interests in common. On Jan. 4, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell alluded to using the tsunami relief effort as an opportunity to end the insurgency in Aceh through diplomacy, a proposition to which Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono would be receptive. Both Washington and Jakarta have wanted to re-establish their former ties, and relief operations could be the beginning of a rapprochement. If the United States and Indonesia re-establish formal security ties, Washington will be able to help Jakarta more effectively take on terrorism, which would benefit both countries. This would diminish the need for an Australian or U.S. pre-emptive strike against Islamist militants in the region, something that none of the three countries want and a step that would be taken only as a last resort.

The TNI has had a difficult time maintaining its equipment in recent years. After the Asian financial crisis of 1997, a cash-strapped Jakarta was unable to pay for the upkeep of its Russian hardware. The post-East Timor embargo has left the government unable to maintain its Western-supplied weapons as well. Indonesia needs full access to the Western military aid that would come with closer security ties to the United States.

The seeds of increased military cooperation between Indonesia and the West may already have been sown. Australia has been very generous in its initial response to the disaster. In the days immediately after the tsunami, Canberra offered AU$8 million ($7.6 million) in aid to the Australian Red Cross and later increased the amount to AU$60 million ($46.7 million). Australian military personnel already are starting to arrive in what's left of the city of Banda Aceh, albeit in small numbers. In addition, Australia has chartered two Antonov cargo aircraft to airlift equipment to Sumatra consisting of three UH-1 helicopters and a field hospital.

Two U.S. Navy carriers and their attending warships also are conducting relief operations off of Sumatra's west coast. The USS Abraham Lincoln group is positioned off the northern end of the island supporting relief efforts in Aceh, while the USS Bonhomme Richard group -- consisting of an amphibious assault ship and six support vessels -- is operating further south in support of recovery efforts in Meulaboh. In addition, Japan likely will send troops to support relief operations and already has naval vessels in the region assisting in the recovery.

An international summit, scheduled to begin in Jakarta on Jan. 6, will be attended by Australian Prime Minister John Howard, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (the brother of U.S. President George W. Bush) and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, as well as the prime ministers of New Zealand, Singapore and South Korea. The summit will be a significant opportunity for Yudhoyono to present himself as a major regional player by taking the lead in efforts to mitigate the effects of the tsunami and establish safeguards to prevent similar disasters in the future. If he handles himself well and shows leadership, Yudhoyono's stature will improve both at home and in the region.

Canberra and Washington have a vested interest in a stable Indonesia, and preventing chaos in Aceh is part of their strategy. In a country with a large Muslim population, an Australian military presence is a sensitive issue, and a U.S. military presence is even more so. As long as U.S. military personnel keep handing out emergency supplies from helicopters, however, their presence will be tolerated.

(c) 2004 Strategic Forecasting, Inc. All rights reserved.
(Stratfor: Premium Global Intelligence Brief - January 4, 2005)

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