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Controversy erupts over Yudhoyono's Karo visit

Publication Date : 24-01-2014


President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono made a high-profile visit to Karo regency in North Sumatra, where he met residents displaced by the Mount Sinabung eruptions, in a bid to defuse criticism that he had been slow to respond to the crisis.

Some 28,000 people have fled their homes and are now living in shelters since the volcanic eruptions began last September.

Yudhoyono was accompanied by First Lady Kristiani Herawati and several ministers on Thursday.

He had skipped the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in order to deal with the simultaneous disasters that have struck Indonesia. Besides the Sinabung eruptions, deadly floods have hit Jakarta and also Manado in North Sulawesi.

But even before he arrived yesterday, online reports were playing up the supposed cost of a tent where he and his entourage would spend the night. Some claimed that the "VIP tent" cost 15 billion rupiah (US$1.23 million) to furnish.

A spokesman for the National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB), which put up the tent, denied the reports on Thursday.

"There are reports that say the President will be in a VIP tent costing 15 billion rupiah. That is not true," said spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho. The tent set up for the president, 10 ministers and his entourage actually cost 60 million rupiah ($4,920), he said.

The buzz over Yudhoyono's trip to Karo reflects the heightened political dimension the disasters have taken.

With Indonesia heading into parliamentary elections in April and a presidential election in July, political opponents have accused him of being slow to react to the disasters. Others descended on the small town of Kabanjahe, which has put up shelters for evacuees, to gain political mileage.

Yudhoyono, speaking to officials at the operations centre in Karo town on Thursday, urged them to speed up coordination of relief efforts. He also said he and the officials would be discussing options such as relocating villagers whose land has been destroyed to adjacent districts so that they can rebuild their lives.

But he also took aim at two TV stations that ran reports of his tent.

The tent cost 60 million rupiah, and not 15 billion rupiah as reported, he said.

"Why don't they (the TV stations) see for themselves, and... then assess whether it costs 15 billion rupiah," he added.

On Tuesday, tvOne, owned by Golkar party's presidential candidate Aburizal Bakrie, ran a nearly two-minute clip of preparations for the tent. It showed shots of air-conditioners, rubber mats and toilets outside and inside the grey-coloured tent. But the report did not give an estimated cost.

A similar report was aired by Metro TV, owned by another presidential aspirant, Surya Paloh of the National Democratic Party.

On Thursday, Yudhoyono also visited three shelters, including Paroki Church, which has 1,095 evacuees.

In recent days, politicians have been busy descending on disaster zones across the country.

In Karo, at least four ministers have visited Kabanjahe, known for its mountain views and cool weather, in the past 10 days.

T-shirts bearing the face and name of Trade Minister Gita Wirjawan were given out to evacuees during his visit on Monday. He distributed more than 150 sacks of rice as well as toys at the Masjid Agung relief shelter.

Gita is one of 11 Democrat Party members seeking nomination as the ruling party's presidential candidate.

Communications and Information Minister Tifatul Sembiring also went to the same shelter on Wednesday after visiting towns damaged by volcanic ash.

It remains unclear how visiting evacuees and handing out goodies will benefit the politicians.

Said evacuee Rapendi Tarigan, 35: "We have been here for months, and whoever gives help, we take. The help doesn't make me vote for the person or the party. I accept it out of necessity."


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