Wed, Jan 26, 2005 - Page 9 News List

One month after tsunami, military aid remains a thorny issue

Although foreign troops have been accused of spying and are regarded with suspicion by some Muslims, the soldiers provide much-needed humanitarian support

DPA , BANDA ACEH, INDONESIA

One month after the catastrophic Boxing Day tsunami that killed nearly 175,000 people in Indonesia, foreign and national militaries continue to be a major source of relief for many victims in the devastated province of Aceh.

The strong, public military presence, however, has not come without headaches for Indonesia's leaders.

"The emergency stage is almost behind us, so militaries will no longer be as effective in contributing," Coordinating Minister for People's Welfare Alwi Shihab was quoted as saying by the Jakarta Post on Monday. "Civilians are needed."

The presence of foreign troops, especially from the US, on Indonesian soil is a thorny issue for some in nationalistic Indonesia, and particularly in Aceh, a devoutly Muslim province.

Nevertheless, tens of thousands of foreign troops remain in the province, providing critical logistic support for the humanitarian mission. Helicopters operating from five aircraft carriers based off the coast of Sumatra are still heavily relied upon to deliver aid, often to remote areas still unreachable by land routes.

The country's dilemma was highlighted by last week's testimony of Indonesia's chief of intelligence to officials at a hearing with the House of Representatives' commission for defense and intelligence affairs, attended by Defense Minister Juwono Sudarsono and Indonesian Military (TNI) chief General Endriartono Sutarto.

Syamsir Siregar, the head of the state Intelligence Agency (BIN), singled out the US and Australia in a warning to the state legislature that countries participating in the humanitarian mission might be using the opportunity for spying.

"Of course, the United States government has its interests and it will use this opportunity to closely monitor the geographic conditions of Aceh and the Strait of Malacca. But we should not be extremely suspicious of their presence [in Aceh]. We need their practical support to handle the catastrophe aftermath," Syamsir Siregar said.

In addition to the continued overwhelming need for assistance, Indonesian leaders have desperately tried to avoid offending their guests and creating any tension that could bring political fallout.

What was once called a three-month deadline for foreign troops to leave Aceh was recast by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono last week, as he toured the devastated provincial capital of Banda Aceh for the first time, as more of a flexible "timeline" than a deadline.

Yet despite the need for Indonesia to keep their international friends in the province for a while longer, the behind-the-scenes race to get civilian organizations ready to take over completely from militaries continues.

"We are opening up isolated areas using land transport, so we don't need any more helicopters," Alwi Shihab said.

It's not just foreign militaries that are giving some Indonesian leaders a headache.

The TNI has tens of thousands of troops in Aceh to provide security, aid in the humanitarian mission and keep rebels who have been fighting a three-decade-long insurgency at bay.

But despite the Indonesian government having declared an informal ceasefire with the rebels, military officials have independently said that they have killed 208 rebels since the tsunami in over 86 armed clashes across the province. They have also accused rebels of stealing humanitarian aid, although no organizations have reported such attacks.

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