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A decade on, Aceh raking over the ashes

Jakarta Post - December 26, 2014

Hotli Simanjuntak and Hasyim Widhiarto, Banda Aceh – Exactly 10 years ago, modern history's biggest natural disaster struck the Indian Ocean and nowhere was the devastation and loss of life worse than in Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam.

More than 221,000 people were killed and missing while over 800,000 were displaced and at least 477,000 had to live in refugee camps.

The disaster, however, had helped end a three-decade separatist conflict that had killed 15,000, as commanders of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) agreed in mid-2005 to a peace accord.

While the situation in Aceh is generally far better off than a decade ago, the province has seen several shortcomings that have held it back from unleashing its potential.

In the third quarter this year, Aceh's economic growth decelerated to 2.7 percent, almost half of the national's average of 5 percent, due to less contribution from oil and gas exports, as well as lack of investments and government spending.

Among the factors deterring foreign investments is the notorious red tape, graft and sharia, which discourage some western tourists from visiting.

As part of the many demands by GAM commanders in the peace accord, Aceh is the only Indonesian province imposing caning sharia, which includes canning for both Muslim and non-Muslim violators.

For investors looking to obtain business permits, many slip in additional funds for local officials, commonly known as "nanggroe taxes", referring to the province's official name.

The Acehnese regional leaders, most of whom are former GAM commanders, are also confused on how to spend the huge amount of money they receive from the central government.

As of November this year, the Aceh local government only managed to disburse 58 percent of a Rp 12.9 trillion (US$1.05 billion) annual budget.

"Sluggish budget disbursement has contributed to Aceh's economic slowdown over the past few years," said Hermanto, the head of Aceh's Central Statistics Agency (BPS), recently. Hermanto also said that the province remained dependent on its neighbors such as North Sumatra for basic food supplies.

As top government officials, foreign dignitaries and NGO representatives flock to Banda Aceh on Friday to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the disaster, hope is abounds for renewed pressure for the local administrations to have a clear vision for the province.

President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo has decided to cancel his attendance of the commemoration without giving a clear reason. Around 55 percent of eligible voters in Aceh voted for Jokowi's rival Prabowo Subianto during July's presidential election.

Vice President Jusuf Kalla, who played a leading role in the peace accord with GAM, is scheduled to attend the commemoration. Foreigners and residents from neighboring cities have also poured into Banda Aceh to attend the commemoration.

Female cleric Asmaiyah, 56, from Medan, North Sumatra, for instance, arrived on Thursday afternoon after travelling 450 kilometers in a bus along with 40 members of a Medan-based Koran study group. "We want to show our support to our brothers and sisters in Aceh by attending the [tsunami] commemoration tomorrow [Friday]," she said.

Malaysian national Mohammad Syahir Syuhada, meanwhile, said he had also been in the city since earlier this week with dozens of his friends to prepare a qasidah (traditional Islamic music) performance for the commemoration event.

The 20-year-old engineering student also said he and his friends were amazed with the city's transformation after the tsunami. "It is a beautiful city," he said.

Source: http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2014/12/26/a-decade-aceh-raking-over-ashes.html