Tuesday, March 29, 2005
Financial Times [London]
Saturday, March 26 2005
Tsunami relief faces Indonesian crackdown
By Shawn Donnan
Three months after the Asian tsunami disaster left Indonesia's Aceh province in ruins, Jakarta has begun a crackdown on foreign aid groups operating there.
The UNHCR, the United Nations' refugee agency, this week said it was pulling its staff out of Aceh amid government pressure to do so, leaving the fate of $33m ($25.5m, £17.6m) raised to fund reconstruction projects up in the air. The government also has begun a review of aid groups operating in the province, the area hit hardest by the December 26 tsunami, giving them up to 60 days to justify their presence there.
Indonesia has for years restricted access to Aceh because of a long-running separatist conflict there that has given rise to allegations of human rights abuses against the Indonesian military and rebels from the Free Aceh Movement (GAM).
Jakarta lifted those restrictions soon after the tsunami which left more than 200,000 either dead or missing in Aceh and has insisted since that it would allow international aid workers to remain as long as they were needed.
But as the focus turns from the initial emergency response to reconstruction, Indonesia has begun imposing additional restrictions. Last week it extended by up to 60 days a deadline due to fall today, the three-month anniversary of the disaster, for foreign aid groups to register their activities, arguing that was needed to improve co-ordination.
Aid workers agree, given the presence of many under-funded groups and hangers-on in Aceh. But the deadline has also raised fears they might be forced to leave.
"It does cause a lot of unnecessary angst," said one aid worker. "There's a lot of lights burning late into the night with people making phone calls to Jakarta to try to make sure that they are allowed to stay."
Those fears have been heightened by the UNHCR's decision to leave after it was told it would not be allowed to take part in reconstruction despite having more than $33m earmarked for exactly that in its accounts.
"We haven't received anything in writing and we haven't been told in blunt terms, 'get out'. But in the discussions that we've had the government has made it clear that... they don't see us having a role in the reconstruction phase," said Robert Ashe, the UNHCR's regional representative in Jakarta.
An Indonesian foreign ministry spokesman insisted the UN agency's departure was voluntary. But a spokeswoman for Alwi Shihab, the minister overseeing relief efforts, said the ministry had been eager to see the UNHCR leave.
The agency has had a difficult relationship with Indonesia. Three of its staffers were killed in Indonesian West Timor in 2000 after militiamen linked to the military attacked their office. The agency has also been a loud advocate for Acehnese refugees seeking asylum in neighbouring Malaysia.