Indonesia: Tsunami Relief and Resurgent Nationalism


Edward Aspinall

The massive scale of the reconstruction effort in post-tsunami Aceh would be a challenge for any government. Little wonder, then, that the administration of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has welcomed the billions of dollars pledged in foreign support and assistance.

But there have also been conflicting signals. Government spokespeople have said that foreign agencies providing relief in Aceh will be 'screened', and only those playing a role truly commensurate with reconstruction work will be allowed to stay. The Banda Aceh immigration office has said that foreigners in the province will be required to report every two weeks. Government officials say that Indonesia must be able to show it can deal with its own problems.

Already, one major agency has been required to leave. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNCR) still had approximately US$33 million to spend on relief when it wound up its Aceh operations in late March. Government officials said that because the UNHCR's mandate was to assist people displaced between states, rather than within them, it had no place in Aceh. The coordinating minister for social affairs, Alwi Shihab, also signalled concern that the body might encourage asylum claims.

Foreign governments and the big international agencies know that the government views their role in Aceh's reconstruction as important. But there is no question also that the conflicting signals and restrictions are causing uncertainty among foreign relief workers on the ground. They are also giving rise to anxiety among some tsunami victims. National newspapers have run many stories quoting anxious Acehnese worried about what will happen to the emergency and housing assistance they are receiving from international groups.

Part of the explanation for suspicions about foreign help is security-related. The secessionist conflict in Aceh remains a source of anxiety for many Indonesian nationalists. Security officials have long suspected that hidden foreign hands have supported the separatist movement. There is acute sensitivity to any criticism of government policy or behaviour in the province.

This intersection of security and nationalism should remind us of another country in the region. In mid-March, China's parliament passed an 'anti-secession law' aimed squarely at Taiwan, in just the latest demonstration of China's increasingly assertive nationalism. Much media and academic attention in recent years has been focused on the new Chinese nationalism, but there has been little appreciation of a similar wave of nationalist sentiment in Indonesia.

In China, the new nationalism is partly an expression of growing economic strength and confidence. In Indonesia it is the reverse. Many Indonesians feel that their country has been subjected to unacceptable humiliations in recent years. The Asian economic crisis of 1997 not only worsened the living standards of many, it also brought obvious and extended foreign intervention in the economy, in the form of IMF packages and foreign buy-outs of domestic firms. Many Indonesians were also angered by the 'loss' of East Timor in 1999 after an Australian-led United Nations military intervention.

Aceh is not the only place where the new nationalism is evident. Throughout March, the Indonesian media was full of fervent and sometimes blood-curdling reporting of a dispute with Malaysia over a potentially oil rich stretch of ocean off the Eastern coast of Borneo. Local newspapers reported that Indonesian troops were ready to go into action on the border, while demonstrators in some cities revived the 1960s konfrontasi-era slogan of 'Crush Malaysia.'

Indonesian nationalism was a mighty force in the twentieth century. It transformed a diverse Dutch colony into an independent nation-state and pioneer of the non-aligned movement. It was a force that motivated many Indonesians to make great sacrifices to free their country and advance it economically and socially. But at times it led to suspicion and hostility of outsiders, and repressive and centralised policies at home. Its resurgence in new forms today deserves serious attention.

WATCHPOINT: Indonesian nationalist sentiment must be taken into consideration not only in the context of the relief effort, but also as a potentially important ingredient in domestic and regional politics.


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