Wed, 09 Mar 2005

Accountability in Aceh

There is a common joke among government officials that attempts to explain the supposedly assertive nature of the Acehnese people: "When 10 Acehnese gather to work out a consensus, they will come up with at least 11 different opinions." That yarn reflects the impatience, and sometimes the frustration, that central government officials and other outsiders often endure when trying to understand and accommodate the aspirations of the Acehnese.

On the other hand, however, as history has proved, such impatience has often become a major source of discontent among the Acehnese concerning the central government's attitude: In many cases, if not most, the central government prefers to take a top-down approach in its various development programs -- ignoring local demands. And in truth, the rebellious province is not alone. Many other provinces and regions have similar complaints.

Now, after more than two months of relief operations to help the Dec. 26 tsunami victims, the war-torn province is entering a new stage of development -- the long-term reconstruction of Aceh. The government has finished drafting a blueprint for the reconstruction of the province, and has started to invite some local people to present their input for the plan.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has decided to establish a special agency to handle the reconstruction efforts and it is quite natural that people in the province want their own men or women to lead it.

The government has received many complaints from the local people who feel that they have been left out of the decision- making process and that therefore the blueprint may not fit their expectations. The government's patience and wisdom will be tested once again and certainly no one hopes that the current administration will repeat the previous government's blunders in responding to those demands.

But it is a huge job that will need massive funding. Thanks to the strong support of the international community, the government has received large amounts of aid money to finance the planned projects. This means that the government must be fully accountable for how the budget is spent, and fully mindful that the money comes from those countries' taxpayers.

There have been reports about many non-Acehnese, who are currently busy lobbying government officials to win lucrative projects. The local people of Aceh, on the other hand, think they have the right to carry out the job, because it concerns the reconstruction of their territory. Moreover, although the projects may be very profitable for contractors, the reconstruction efforts also hold a strong social and humanitarian component.

Since most of the money comes from donations, it would be disgraceful if the social factor is put on the back burner, behind commercial considerations. The Acehnese must be treated as subjects, and not merely objects of the reconstruction efforts. For decades, the people of Aceh have suffered as Jakarta used violence and military methods to silence the outspoken Acehnese.

This is the right time to correct those past mistakes and show the people that, this time, they will be the real subjects of the development efforts. Again and again we need to remind ourselves that Indonesia has earned its international reputation as a notoriously corrupt country. With huge amounts of money now available for the province, it is very natural that those who have donated the funds worry about how their money is spent.

A senior government official who is intensively involved in the relief operations recently disclosed the government's plan to include foreign donors in a supervisory body, which will be established soon to monitor, from the earliest stage, the implementation of the reconstruction work. It seems indeed a good choice to involve the foreign donors in the job, to ensure accountability, even though many chauvinists may regard that an interference in Indonesia's domestic affairs.

However, when Indonesians do not even believe that the projects will be free from corruption, is it not much better to invite the donors to participate in the reconstruction work from the very beginning? However, the preparations need to be carried out immediately. The government has little time left to prove that the reconstruction of Aceh will be accountable, both to donors and to the people of Aceh, whose lives have been destroyed by the tsunami.