BANDA ACEH – Almost a decade on from the ruinous, deadly 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Banda Aceh is back on its feet.
Last Wednesday, people in the province were on their feet, voting, along with almost 200 million other Indonesians, in the third presidential election held since ousting of dictator Suharto back amid economic collapse back in 1998.
In the intervening 16 years, Indonesia has become one of Asia’s more vibrant democracies, a political transition that has underpinned a halving of poverty in a country that stretches around 3000 miles and comprises more than 17,000 islands.
9 and a half years after a disaster that levelled much of the regional capital and killed 170,000 people, Aceh is as good a test as any of how the transition is improving life for Indonesia’s almost 250 million people.
In the years after the tsunami, the provinces’s economy expanded quickly, exceeding growth elsewhere in the resource-rich archipelago.
But that was driven by rebuilding work after the tsunami. When the aid agencies downsized after 2008, the region stagnated for a time, recalls Teuku Panlima, manager of the Country Steakhouse restaurant in the centre of Banda Aceh.
“There were a lot of opportunities because of the reconstruction,” he said, “but after that the economy was still.”
By 2012 however, the growth in the province was back up to 5%, based on revived fishing and agriculture.
Octowandi, manager of the Hermes Palace Hotel, where visiting Jakarta politicians rest their heads when in town, said he’s noticed the change. “We increase business around 100% 2010 to 2013.”
Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono stayed in the hotel 4 times since the tsunami, and among recent guests was Prabowo Subianto – a former general and one of two contenders for the to succeed Yodhoyono in last week’s election – who visited Aceh while on the camapign trail a month ago.
Official results for the election won’t be available until July 22nd, but early indicators were strong enough for Prabowo’s rival, Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo, to claim victory on Wednesday afternoon.
If Widodo takes office, he will be the first ruler of what is the world’s 4th biggest country and 10th biggest economy, not to have links with the old dictatorship.
Widodo, known popularly as “Jokowi” campaigned on successful tenures as mayor of his hometown Solo and as governor of Jakarta’s 20 million people.
Both men played the economic nationalism card on the hustings, but of the two, Widodo, untainted by corruption and with a track record for practical policymaking, is seen as more open to the reforms needed to take Indonesia’s economy beyond commodity exports.
The World Bank reckons that poor infrastructure – roads, bridges, ports – mean Indonesia is not growing as fast as it should.
And annual growth of 7% is needed if the country’s poor are to benefit. Despite having a 1 trillion dollar economy, 100 million Indonesians live on around 2 dollars a day.
Poverty in Aceh remains higher than the national average, 9 years after 2005 peace deal between Acehnese separatists and the Indonesian government, a local version of the Good Friday Agreement that saw Acehnese gain significant local autonomy in exchange for laying down weapons.
Curfews, kidnappings and roadblocks are a thing of the past, making doing business much easier than before, but as with elsewhere in Indonesia, political changes are but slowly bringing about a better life for all.
Muhamed Arisyah, speaking outside Banda Aceh’s iconic Baiturrahman mosque after evening prayers, said he had migrated from his hometown in rural Aceh, looking for a job to support his wife and 3 children.
“it is not easy to find a job, or to start some business,” he said. “I hope that whoever is the next President can bring more changes to Aceh as well as all of Indonesia”
For World Report, this is Simon Roughneen in Banda AcehShow