Aceh province can rebuild, but United States needs to assist volunteer groups, says Indonesian expert

Despite suffering large loss of life and devastation of cities and villages from the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and ensuing tsunami, Aceh province in Indonesia can rebuild. And at the same time, the United States can burnish its image among Indonesians — tarnished over the invasion of Iraq — by supporting Indonesian volunteer groups in the rebuilding process, says a sociocultural anthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis who lived in Aceh for five years and has studied its people and culture since 1978.

John R. Bowen, Ph.D., the Dunbar-Van Cleve Professor in Arts & Sciences at Washington University, says that the Indonesian army, which has been in a decades-long conflict with rebels in Aceh fighting for their independence, should have done more, early, to help in the relief effort.

Through groundbreaking fieldwork in Sumatra, Indonesia, beginning in 1978, John R. Bowen, Ph.D., has traced the intricacies of cultural and social shifts in the Gayo people's oral traditions, Islamic practice and legal systems.
Through groundbreaking fieldwork in Sumatra, Indonesia, beginning in 1978, John R. Bowen, Ph.D., has traced the intricacies of cultural and social shifts in the Gayo people’s oral traditions, Islamic practice and legal systems.

And with the Indonesian government recently setting a deadline for foreign troops to leave, and requiring foreign aid workers to be escorted by Indonesian troops, Bowen says it is imperative that the United States insist that Aceh — closed to the outside world and under military control in recent years — remain open to international inspection.

“It is Muslim voluntary associations that already are building new orphanages and schools, and are providing general psychological support to their fellow Indonesians; we need to be ready to support these groups,” says Bowen, who is also chair of Social Thought & Analysis in Arts & Sciences.

“We must recognize that their Islamic character is essential to their successful operation, and not a danger to security,” adds Bowen. “It would help if Homeland Security did not prevent people from entering the country who pose it no danger, and shut down charities before they have shown them to be engaged in terrorism.”

Bowen, whose first three books examined issues of religion, culture and politics in Indonesia, is available to provide background on the history of the area, the various ethnic and religious influences in the region, and on how the tsunami may influence the ongoing civil war between government and rebel forces.

His views are outlined in the newspaper commentary below, which is republished with permission from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The article ran in the NewsWatch section of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Sunday, Jan. 16, 2005. Copyright 2005 St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Inc.

After the flood: Islamic volunteers, with help from the U.S., can rebuild Aceh

By JOHN R. BOWEN/Special to the Post-Dispatch


I lived in Aceh for five years, and as of today know of 60 neighbors and acquaintances lost to last month’s tsunami. Hundreds of thousands of Acehnese who survived the waters lost their families, homes and livelihoods. The survivors are mobilizing to rebuild orphanages, schools and mosques.

Indonesians share with Americans a preference for working in private, voluntary associations. In Indonesia most of these associations are based on Islamic principles of charity and mutual aid – not surprisingly, given that Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world.

John Bowen
John Bowen

Many of the Islamic associations active in Aceh are supported by U.S. government programs or by such established bodies as the Asia Foundation, and we should be prepared to aid their efforts. Our own government’s effective military response, greatly appreciated by Indonesians, could be the basis for a new partnership between the people of our two countries.

At the same time as Muslim groups are flocking to Aceh to help, however, the Indonesian military is working to regain control over relief and reconstruction operations, which means limiting the effectiveness of private workers. On Wednesday, the Indonesian vice president asked all foreign troops to leave the country by March 26. The government also required all foreign workers to be accompanied by Indonesian troops if they distributed aid to villages.

Before the tsunami, foreign observers had been banned from the province lest they report on military actions against civilians; if they are banned again, Aceh would once again be incommunicado.

Of course, the Indonesian government has the right to organize relief efforts in its own country, but the recent past suggests that officials may have other things on their minds. Until the tsunami struck, the Indonesian army had been fighting the small Free Aceh Movement, known popularly as GAM (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka), and in the course of that campaign had tortured and killed many civilians. The U.S. government had suspended military aid to Indonesia over human rights abuses. Even now, the army is devoting much of its energy to pursuing the few remaining rebels, whose existence provides a handy, if feeble, excuse for a return to army control.

The Indonesian government has tried to justify its actions by suggesting that the rebels are radical Muslims with links to al-Qaeda, and some U.S. journalists have unfortunately bought this line, speaking of a “fundamentalist” Islamic rebellion. This claim seriously distorts the picture.

The rebellion in Aceh has little to do with religion and everything to do with resistance against exploitation and military repression. The Acehnese are proud of their resistance to outsiders: They never completely succumbed to the Dutch and after World War II they contributed large amounts of arms and soldiers to the fledgling Indonesian Republic. They expected Aceh to be given recognition as a separate province, but after independence the country’s new leaders took control of its economy, politics and army. Provincial leaders rebelled in 1953, and ended their fighting nine years later only after Jakarta had accorded the province special status, with control over religion and education.

But Jakarta never made good on that promise, and when vast reserves of natural gas were discovered in the 1970s, the government took nearly all the revenue, leaving the Acehnese as very poor people producing fantastically large amounts of wealth for an increasingly corrupt urban elite. Armed reaction came in 1976, when GAM was formed. Although GAM’s declared goal was the creation of an independent state, it gained support mainly because it voiced popular resentments.

At first the Indonesian army suppressed the revolt, but it responded with massive force to a new GAM offensive in 1989, setting in motion a sad cycle of violence and repression. By 1990, 12,000 soldiers operated in Aceh, engaging in “shock therapy” against villagers to scare them away from siding with the rebels. The army interrogated, tortured and killed thousands of unarmed civilians in the villages. In May 2003 President Megawati Soekarnoputri declared martial law and sent an additional 40,000 military and police to Aceh. When martial law officially expired one year later, the military commander ordered all foreign observers out of the province and continued to effectively exercise rule.

Given this state of affairs, it would have been surprising, though gratifying, if at the moment of the tsunami’s impact the army had suddenly adopted a humanitarian mission. The president, Bambang Susilo Yudhoyono, a general and former security chief with authority over Aceh, could have instantly mobilized the small planes that Indonesia uses to connect its many islands to give damage reports and deliver supplies. Instead, it was foreign planes and volunteers from throughout Indonesia and the rest of the world who began work, with the army eventually joining in.

Volunteer groups now face the enormous challenges of repairing the human and societal damage. The reformist Muslim organization Muhammadiyahhas prepared hundreds of orphanages to take in survivors, and the largest Indonesian Islamic association, the Nahdlatul Ulama, is creating places in boarding schools. The only functioning bank in town is the Islamic bank, where the United Nations now keeps its account.

The United States can best help the peaceful rebuilding of Aceh by supporting these volunteer efforts, recognizing that they draw strength from their religious convictions, and insisting that Aceh remain open to international inspection. Will these U.S. efforts improve its image? Yes, if we continue to work with the people of Indonesia, and object to those who would torture or kill them.

Current anti-American sentiment in Indonesia is high, but it is rage over the U.S. invasion of Iraq, not anger at the American people. We earned high marks for quick work in bringing aid to Aceh; now we have the opportunity to show that we can work with the people of Aceh, on their own terms, to help rebuild their lives.

John R. Bowen is Dunbar-Van Cleve Professor in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, and studies Islam in Asia and Europe.