Hope for Sumatra ...
IT IS DIFFICULT TO FIND SILVER linings in devastation such as last year’s tsunami, which struck the Indonesian island of Sumatra with sickening fury. When the ocean receded, the water was thick with bodies, trees and debris. More than 100,000 were dead, many of them children. But the waves and water accomplished what years of halfhearted negotiations had not: They stopped the violent, decades-long campaign for the independence of Aceh, the province on the northern tip of Sumatra.
On Tuesday, a year and a day after the tsunami, the Aceh rebels formally disbanded their armed wing. That will let them run in April provincial elections, transforming fighters into politicians. The Indonesian army, meanwhile, which had long ruled the province, has a new approach. Although it blocked most outside visitors before the tsunami struck, it later opened Aceh to foreign aid workers and began to withdraw troops and free Acehnese rebel prisoners.
The tsunami also produced record-breaking promises of help from abroad. In a marked change from the usual, most pledges have been fulfilled, and the United Nations has found itself in the extraordinary position of announcing that the amounts pledged have actually exceeded the initial amounts requested. The U.N. has raised billions of dollars to rebuild destroyed villages in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and other hard-hit countries, and it said the immediate cash donations helped prevent disease and famine. Weeks after the storm, some aid groups said they had enough money for the emergency and asked donors to send funds to other groups needing help.
The U.S. military was also quick to respond, diverting warships to provide aid. Private charities that collected hundreds of millions of dollars said much of the money would be paid out over several years. That will enable Indonesians to rebuild homes, schools, offices and government buildings. More than 300,000 people in Aceh are still living in makeshift shelters.
Much credit for the peace agreement with the rebels is due Indonesia’s president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who in September granted a blanket amnesty to the rebels, including those imprisoned for treason. Yudhoyono took office not long before the tsunami; a former general, he faced the difficult task of overruling onetime colleagues who wanted to continue hunting the Acehnese guerrillas.
Peace agreements can be fragile, but both the government and the rebels so far seem committed to politics, not warfare. They will need to focus on rebuilding the province, using energy previously devoted to obtaining weapons and setting ambushes. Aceh also will require continued aid to help small businesses and to pay for new roads, schools and mosques.
Nothing can bring back the tens of thousands who died or erase the horror endured by millions more. But with their response to the tsunami, Indonesians have shown the world what can be accomplished through common sense, determination and a shared sense of purpose.