Thu, 30 Nov 2000

State of emergency now

If the government is so keen to impose a state of emergency in Aceh, now is the best time to do it. While at it, the government should also declare a state of emergency in North Sumatra and West Sumatra. We are of course talking about a different kind of state of emergency, not the kind that unleashes the military to resume its repressive measures or brutal attacks on innocent civilians in Aceh, but the kind which hopefully can draw national and international attention to the plight of people affected by devastating floods and landslides in Sumatra.

Jakarta's response to news of the major natural disasters which have afflicted the three provinces in Sumatra this past week is far from satisfactory. Like other responses to earlier political and economic crises, there was a disturbing air of "business as usual" among Jakarta's elite. While thousands of people in Sumatra are fighting for their survival in floods and landslides, the political elite has been fighting each other, bickering mostly over petty issues, for their political survival.

Floods and landslides have devastated a large part of Sumatra, from the central to the upper half of the island. By Thursday morning, the total death toll in West Sumatra, North Sumatra and Aceh exceeded 100. Tens of thousands of others have been displaced. Many towns and villages in West Sumatra remain cut off from the rest of the world.

The costs of natural disasters have reached catastrophic proportions. Help in the meantime has been slow in coming. Apart from problems with logistics support, the central and local administrations are simply not properly stocked with supplies of food, medicine and other things needed to deal with major emergencies.

What good would a declaration of a state of emergency in the three Sumatran provinces do? A lot. To start with, it would end this "business as usual" attitude of people in Jakarta. It would startle the largely indifferent government to act, hopefully with the right kind of response. It would immediately elevate the problem, particularly the human cost caused by the disasters, to the national political agenda and hopefully it would prompt the political elite to put aside their petty bickering and start addressing the real problems the nation is currently facing.

A declaration of a state of emergency would mean greater coordination at the national and regional levels in the way relief supplies are collected and distributed. A state of emergency would delineate clear lines of responsibility among the various government officials and agencies, and therefore prevent the confusion that seems to always reign each time Indonesia is faced with this kind of emergency situation.

We can still recall the farce over the relief operation after the earthquake in Bengkulu early this year, such as when well- meaning foreign paramedics were turned away because Indonesia was not prepared to accept their presence. Many foreign governments and local and international agencies also did not know where and how to channel their aid then.

The government may be in short supply of aid, but, as with all other human tragedies, there is never a shortage of people in this country and abroad who are willing to lend a hand. Some private organizations, including big newspapers such as Kompas, have started a fund-raising campaign to help victims of the Sumatra disasters. A state of emergency by the government would better coordinate these various private initiatives, and prevent the overlapping of various works in the field.

The administration, with the support of the House of Representatives, should get into the habit of declaring a state of emergency when and where it matters most. Natural disasters of catastrophic proportions like we have seen in Sumatra this week certainly merit the consideration of such a status. To people in the afflicted area, it could mean the difference between life and death.