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Between Aceh and Tacloban

Publication Date : 17-11-2013


Images of what is left of the Philippine coastal town of Tacloban after the deadly Haiyan Typhoon on Nov. 8 reminds us of the city of Banda Aceh in the wake of the December 2004 tsunami. The scale and extent of destruction looked similar, although the casualty figures are considerably less this time.

In Aceh, an estimated 170,000 people died while in the Philippines, the early figure of 10,000 in Tacloban alone may turn out to be too high, but it helped to jolt international attention and response. The Philippine government has counted less than 3,000 bodies so far, but the number is still rising.

By now, if the Aceh experience is of any help, we must look at how many people survived instead of how many people died in the typhoon and storm and who is in need of help. Now, one week later, frustration and anger is growing among the survivors because help — food, water and medicine — is not reaching them in large enough quantities and not fast enough. Many more could die of neglect unless the Philippine government and military act faster to get relief to those who need it the most.

In spite of the early warning system in place, and the joint drills on disaster relief operation held by countries and militaries in the region, no amount of preparation would have ever been enough for the force of destruction unleashed by Haiyan. Rather than finger-pointing, the Philippine government should focus on getting the disaster relief operations underway, with the help of friends and neighbors.

It’s good to see Indonesia taking the initiative to be one of the first to extend help, and that one plane load of food and medicines had already left for the Philippines. Indonesia, particularly the people of Aceh, remembers well the generosity of the people around the world when it needed help the most in 2004. It is only appropriate for Indonesia to reciprocate whenever it can. And here is one such opportunity.

Indonesia should also help with the efforts to save the survivors and to rebuild and reconstruct the devastated areas, so that people can return to their normal lives as soon as possible.

Indonesia could share or use its experience in how it handled Aceh’s post-tsunami, and give a list of the do’s and don’ts for the Philippines in rebuilding Tacloban and other affected areas. One may recall that the disaster relief operation in Aceh in 2004 saw the largest ever peacetime military operation involving more than a dozen military from around the world.

Here is a problem however. Beyond the memory of those involved in the operation, and in the rebuilding and reconstruction, there is hardly any literature about that episode, whether in Bahasa Indonesia or even English. When eastern Japan was hit by a big earthquake and tsunami in 2011, many people raised the same questions about lessons learned from Aceh. We could not oblige.

Indonesia is always losing out on an opportunity to help friends because there aren’t enough people in the country who would take the trouble of writing up about their experiences. Yet, the country has many stories it could and should share with the rest of the world, if only for the purpose of sharing the lessons learned. Similarly, in the wake of the Arab Spring, many newly liberated countries (although not so liberated now) had been told to look at how Indonesia, the largest Muslim-majority country in the world, has succeeded in turning into a democracy (albeit a struggling one).

More Indonesians should write, and they should write in English. Is that too much to ask?

One person who doesn’t seem to miss out on writing is none other than President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. After composing songs for three albums, all while in office since 2004, he has now revealed that he has penned a memoir about his presidency. It will be published as early as December.

He has disclosed the title, Selalu Ada Pilihan (There is always a choice), and that it will be about the 9-years of his presidency, with personal anecdotes, and as he stated in his Twitter message “there will be surprises”. Sounding like one of those kiss-and-tell books, his announcement quickly raised speculations about how much and how revealing the book will be.

As president, he certainly knows a lot. So there is something to look forward to.

Mr. President, we don’t mean to deter you from your writing, but is it really ethical to publish your memoir while you still have about 10 more months in office? We certainly would like to read it, and we would encourage you to tell us all, no holds barred. But the timing is probably not right.

We know that former vice president, Jusuf Kalla, is also preparing his memoir about the time when he served as Yudhoyono’s deputy in 2004-2009. But he has gallantly refrained from publishing what he described as “the untold stories” until after Yudhoyono ends his term in 2014. Kalla resisted pressures from his friends to publish the book early, saying that it would simply be unethical.

Perhaps the president should work on his fourth album instead, and publish the book in October 2014.


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