On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Aid for tsunami victims hampered by politics

It started with a directive for foreign journalists and workers to be registered or risk being expelled. Then they were ordered to travel with armed soldiers to areas said to be insurgent hotbeds.

Until the tsunami hit Aceh on Dec 26, the province was out of bounds to foreign reporters seeking to cover the struggle of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), a separatist movement.

When reporters began trickling in on Dec 27, many of them had difficulties heading to Banda Aceh, a 10-hour journey by road from Medan. Many reporters I spoke to complained of being stopped and intimidated by Indonesian soldiers.

Although the travel ban on the media was lifted, word had not reached soldiers manning roadblocks leading to Aceh. Some insisted on "travel processing fees" from reporters.

The restrictions, some argued, delayed the arrival of foreign aid groups to the province for about three days after the earthquake and killer waves hit Aceh.

Jakarta has said the directive is meant to protect foreigners from certain sensitive areas although no aid workers have faced any obstacles or attacks from GAM separatists.

In its official statement, Jakarta said the government would be placed in a very difficult position if a foreigner who came to Aceh to assist in aid effort was harmed through "the acts of irresponsible parties".

But many analysts believe the sentiment is that Jakarta saw the presence of foreign troops – especially Americans and Australians – as a threat to Indonesia's sovereignty. Others say Jakarta wants to reassert its military presence in Aceh.

Despite international perception that Indonesia is incapable of handling one of the world's worst natural disasters on its own, Jakarta appears determined to go it alone.

From my short stay in Aceh, I could see the good work done by foreigners, especially the air support from USS Abraham Lincoln. Helicopters from the aircraft carrier allowed aid to reach isolated areas.

It was heart-wrenching for me to watch the tsunami victims fighting over bottled water. In another area, my colleague Chua Kok Hwa photographed a man in civvies but holding a machine-gun joining a crowd to collect food from the US navy men.

Last week, the USS Abraham Lincoln reportedly left Indonesian waters after Jakarta declined permission for its pilots to carry on with training flights. The AP news agency reported that navy rules require pilots to fly at least every two weeks or they lose their combat ratings and have to undergo extensive training.

Jakarta may have good reasons for disallowing foreign troops from staying too long in Aceh but it must be flexible when it comes to foreign relief workers.

I am told that foreign workers would be confined to Banda Aceh and Meulaboh but they would be barred from isolated villages in the west coast areas, which need help too.

The destruction in Aceh is so massive that it will take between five and 10 years to rebuild Banda Aceh.

Some sound advice has come from our authorities. Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak correctly told Malaysians to leave the job of bringing relief aid to the experts.

Malaysian do-gooders and adventure seekers were told to stay away from Aceh and not create problems for Indonesian and Malaysian groups in Aceh with their presence. In short, don't be a nuisance.

The last thing Banda Aceh needs are politicians seeking publicity from the tragedy.

The Malaysian relief workers, especially those from the Red Crescent and Mercy Malaysia, should focus on helping the victims, not greeting politicians at airports and arranging accommodation for them.

It is enough that Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has visited Aceh to have a personal look at the magnitude of the catastrophe.

There is no reason why Mentris Besar should be leading delegations to Aceh; one wonders how they can be of help.

Neither would it make much sense to send a batch of our national service trainees, as suggested by a youth leader. It will not be an outward bound exercise. Even seasoned journalists and aid workers were caught unprepared by the scale of destruction and death.

For security and logistic reasons, many international NGO groups have set up camps near Banda Aceh airport where relief work is being coordinated. But conditions are quite appalling.

During my brief visit, I did not see any mobile toilets. Many aid workers used the airport toilets or simply did their business in the bushes.

If you wish to help, donate cash to groups like the Red Crescent and Mercy Malaysia. The cost of sending foodstuff to Aceh can be astronomical. For example, an air cargo company charges up to RM100,000 for a trip to Aceh.

Many NGOs have also found their consignments of foodstuff stuck at Medan because ground logistics have been affected following the disaster.

Medan airport has been swamped with helicopters and planes since the tragedy while aircraft arrivals in Aceh have been restricted, making the arrival of relief work a nightmare.

Much more that, a cloud of uncertainty has appeared following the directive of the Indonesian authorities and unconfirmed reports of planned operations against Aceh rebels.

The world can only hope that our fears are unfounded. We hope Yusuf Kalla is right in setting out what he intends to do for Indonesia.

From a humanitarian point of view, we pray that relief work can be done within three months.