After the peace came $7.2bn of relief funds from international donors and the Indonesian government in one of the world’s biggest and most complex disaster reconstruction efforts.
It left Aceh with some of the country’s best roads and hospitals, 140,000 new homes and 1,400 new schools.
The funds also gave a big boost to the economy, turning Banda Aceh, the regional capital, into a boomtown with new hotels, two shopping malls and coffee shops full of students working on laptops and smartphones.
However, the province’s young population is more concerned about the future than the past. Corruption, economic stagnation, environmental degradation and the politicisation of Islam are threatening Aceh’s prospects.
Like the rest of Indonesia, southeast Asia’s biggest economy, Aceh is finding out the limits of an economy built on consumption and natural resource extraction. But its problems are more acute. While Indonesia’s economy grew at 5 per cent in the third quarter, Aceh grew at just 2.7 per cent, the second slowest rate of the country’s 34 provinces. About 18 per cent of Acehnese live below the official poverty line of $0.95 per person a day, well above the national average of 11 per cent.
Rather than tackling the province’s problems, the former fighters who run the local government under a special autonomy deal with Jakarta squabble over contracts, politics and Islamic dress codes for women.
In Aceh’s many mountainous hamlets and fishing villages, people are struggling to make ends meet, facing new threats from floods and droughts, and harassment from the sharia police, who uphold Islamic law.
“After the tsunami, people made a lot of money from the international NGOs but that ran out after five years,” says Teuku Ahmad Dadek, the head of planning for the local government of West Aceh, which incorporates Meulaboh. He argues that physical reconstruction was successful but that infrastructure alone does not generate economic growth.
“Now we have beautiful roads thanks to American and Japanese money but we don’t have any new jobs.”
Many large post-disaster aid operations are failures, with donors not delivering or money pilfered by greedy officials. Relief workers cite the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and the 2003 earthquake in Bam, Iran, as examples where promises of billions of dollars in aid either did not materialise or were frittered away. . . .
Sidney Jones, a conflict analyst who studies Aceh, says the peace dividend was followed by “10 years of really lousy governance”, and that reconstruction enabled some GAM leaders to become extremely rich, while generating a “big gap between the haves and have-nots”.
Residents such as Saiful, a 65-year-old from the rebuilt coastal village of Kuala Bubon in West Aceh, share this concern.
“Of the 118 households here, there are only four who have been able to send their children to university,” says the fisherman who, like many Indonesians, only goes by one name. “Before the tsunami, we used to be one of the most successful fishing villages around. But the old generation was wiped out and the new guys don’t have the skills, training or equipment. They make enough money to survive but not enough to educate their children properly.”
A US NGO built an ice factory in the village and provided new nets and boats but they have fallen into disrepair. . . .
While the Aceh government of former rebels struggles to develop the province, it is stepping up its efforts to enforce a strict form of sharia. Many Indonesian districts have some Islamic bylaws but Aceh was given the power by Jakarta to enforce a wide-ranging sharia code in 2001, and it is the only province with a dedicated sharia police force.
They stop and lecture women who wear tightfitting clothes or do not cover their heads, shut down cafés and shops during Friday prayers, and publicly cane people engaged in gambling, adultery and proximity to unmarried members of the opposite sex. Human rights campaigners worry about the targeting of women while other critics fear that the crackdowns will deter much-needed investors and tourists, even if the rules are not meant to apply to them.
“There are many interpretations of sharia and to me, it’s not right to whip people in the street,” says Muhammad Nur Djuli, a former top negotiator for the GAM separatists. “Why are we concerned about what women are wearing when we have so much corruption and we lack basic hygiene?”
He says that Acehnese used to follow a more spiritual and less rule-bound version of the religion. “We never had these dress codes in the past,” he says. “In fact, our women used to wear trousers when they were fighting against the Dutch colonialists in the 19th century.”
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