Mon, Jan 17, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Tsunami relief effort brings Australia-Indonesia ties to a new level

By Ben Sandilands  /  THE OBSERVER , LONDON

There is no doubt that Australian Prime Minister John Howard was very quick to grasp the enormity of the tsunami disaster and the opportunities it presented for boosting Australia's stature in Asia.

At a time when the world was being told more than 20,000 people were dead, a team of advisors told Howard that the death toll would exceed 100,000. In the space of a week before the recent Tsunami Aid Summit in Jakarta, Howard and his team worked intensively with the Indonesian administration on a "partnership for reconstruction and redevelopment," which caught other nations and the UN by surprise.

Within days, unarmed Australian soldiers were landing in Indonesia's previously "forbidden" province of Aceh to take guidance from the local authorities grappling with the extent of the destruction that has obliterated life along a sprawling coastal strip.

Aceh has been in a state of civil war in recent years. Resentment at the alleged excesses of the central government has turned it into a hot bed for Islamic extremist groups driven by the twin goals of establishing the rule of religious law and striking against perceived western interests or decadent influences.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono -- known as SBY -- took every opportunity publicly to express his deep gratitude to Howard for making Australia "first on the ground" in a death zone where more than 130,000 people are now known to have perished.

This was a marked departure on Jakarta's stance toward Australia immediately before the disaster, when Yudhoyono had instructed his officials to brief foreign correspondents on his displeasure at Howard's continued commitment to a policy of striking first at anti-Australian terrorists in "neighboring countries" and declaring maritime security zones that included about 40 percent of Indonesian waters.

Now all this bad feeling seems to have been buried under mountains of Australian cash and aid.

In one startling no-nonsense gesture for which no advance warning was sent to Washington, London, Beijing or Tokyo, Howard pledged far more than a down payment of A$1 billion in cash to assist in the recovery and rebuilding of Indonesia alone when he attended last week's aid summit. That response eclipsed those of Germany (US$650 million), Japan (US$500 million) and the US (US$350 million), and making China's donation of US$63 million seem trivial.

The Australian prime minister waved off questions about monetary value, saying: "This is all about pragmatism. Something had to be done immediately. We are a rich nation, we can afford to be generous, and we will stay the distance with our neighbors in their time of dire need."

While it took UN Secretary General Kofi Annan 14 days to reach the stricken zones the government in Canberra had people on the ground within hours. By the time Annan was in Jakarta, Australia had bypassed the aid apparatus of the UN with a bilateral assistance commission working 24 hours a day out of a Spartan office in the nation's Bappenas planning agency.

"We don't think it necessary to engage the efforts of the UN when we are dealing with a terrible disaster on our doorstep," Howard said.

In his blunt style, Howard said there were dangers of wastefulness and delays in "unnecessarily bureaucratizing the relief effort" and said he would not allow a situation where Australian taxpayers' dollars were put into the hands of others.

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