A decade on, Aceh looks forward, not back – Nikkei Asian Review



Bursting bubbles outside the the Baiturrahman Grand Mosque, a popular meeting place in downtown Banda Aceh (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Bursting bubbles outside the the Baiturrahman Grand Mosque, a popular meeting place in downtown Banda Aceh (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia — A decade after the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami wreaked death and destruction, most people in the Indonesian province of Aceh say their region is more prosperous, vibrant and peaceful — partly because of the disaster on Dec. 26, 2004.

About 170,000 people from that single small island province were killed that morning — the vast majority of the estimated 230,000 who died in at least 15 countries as a result of the tsunami. The disaster caused about $4.45 billion in damage in Aceh —  equivalent to about 80% of the province’s gross domestic product, according to a 2008 paper by the  Brookings Institution, a U.S. think tank.

In the wake of the calamity, help poured in from across Indonesia and the world. Plaques in a park in downtown Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, commemorate the generosity of more than 50 countries that contributed about $7 billion in aid.

“It was amazing how many countries wanted to share their knowledge, their money,” said Muhammad Dirhamsyah, a mechanical engineer at Banda Aceh’s Syiah Kuala University, who founded the Tsunami Disaster Mitigation Research Center after losing a daughter to the waves.

Zainal Arifin, a local public official, said the aid had a deep impact as the influx of hundreds of international nongovernmental organizations and donor agencies opened locals’ eyes to foreign ways of doing business.

Zainal manages one of Banda Aceh’s new tourism landmarks — the 2,500 ton PLTD Apung, a flat-bottomed barge carrying a diesel power plant that was carried about 4km inland by the tsunami before coming to a halt in the city center.

The 2500 ton PLTD Apung ship was carried around 4km inland by the 2004 tsunami. Today, it is a tourist attraction (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

The 2500 ton PLTD Apung ship was carried around 4km inland by the 2004 tsunami. Today, it is a tourist attraction (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

“The presence of foreigners stimulate[d] them [Acehnese people] to work better, to be open minded,” Zainal told the Nikkei Asian Review, as visitors took selfies on their mobile phones in front of the barge.

Next to the barge, Irfan, a shopkeeper, described how he saved money by working as a translator after the disaster to set up a souvenir business. “Now there are many visitors, I can make a living, not like before the disaster,” he said.

After the aid agencies reduced their presence in 2008 and 2009, Aceh’s economy shrank by 5%, according to some estimates, but by 2012 annual GDP growth in the province was back up to 5%. Octowandi, manager of the Hermes Palace Hotel, where visiting Jakarta politicians rest their heads when in town, said he had noticed the change.

“We increase[d] business around 100% from 2010 to 2013,” Octowandi told NAR, adding he thought the jump was due to business travelers and conferences rather than tourism.

Banda Aceh now has several four and five star hotels, such as the Hermes Palace, as well as thriving restaurants showcasing the region’s cuisine, and showrooms glistening with brand new Honda motorcycles and sports utility vehicles.

Ostentatious jewelry has even become fashionable, with Acehnese men scouring up to 50 new jewelry shops for rings with locally-mined stones such as the solar, so-called because its dusky hue is reminiscent of a brand of diesel fuel. Most of the shops opened in the past half-year.

Polishing gems at Agus Primata’s shop in Banda Aceh (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Agus Primata opened his ring shop in November, having spotted a business opportunity in the new trend. “Many people are interested in buying the rings,” he said as a worker cut and polished rough stone into shiny gems.

Agus said he was not sure how long the gem rush would last, but was hopeful buyers would come from other parts of Indonesia.

However, in a region that boasts white sand beaches, lush hills and blue water diving, others think tourism might be a better long-term economic bet than the fickle fashion industry.

For the moment, tourism is mostly domestic. Four-fifths of the 184,000 visitors to Aceh in 2013 came from elsewhere in Indonesia, while most of the foreign arrivals came from largely Muslim Malaysia on direct flights from Kuala Lumpur and Penang, just across the Straits of Malacca.

Visitor numbers are low, but the potential is high, said Teuku Samsuar, head of Banda Aceh’s department of tourism and culture. “We have a lot of possibilities here — in nature, in culinary [attractions], in handicrafts,” he said.


Before the tsunami, Aceh was the site of 30 years of fighting between the Indonesian Army and the Free Aceh Movement, an Acehnese separatist organization known as GAM. Though peace talks had been held intermittently since the fall of Indonesia’s Suharto-led dictatorship in 1998, it took the tsunami to make fighting unthinkable, even impossible, after a conflict that took 15,000 lives.

“Without [the] tsunami there [would have been] no peace,” said Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, who was executive director of the Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Agency, known as the BRR — a body set up by the Indonesian government to oversee the rebuilding of the province.

A peace deal in August 2005 gave staunchly Islamic Aceh more autonomy than Indonesia’s other 32 provinces — a deal that was kept in place by the scale of post-disaster rebuilding, during which former fighters were given jobs and construction contracts.

“The rebuilding helped them maintain the peace process, as cooperation between the various actors was needed,” said Juanda Jamal, Secretary-General of the Acehnese Civil Society Task Force, a local NGO.

Aceh is rich in natural resources, but the economy remains reliant on oil and gas production, which account for between 15% and 20% of Indonesia’s total hydrocarbon output. There are also lavish financial transfers from Jakarta, a key element of the 2005 peace deal.

However resource extraction does not provide many jobs and there are concerns the subsidies from Jakarta risk fostering economic dependence on the central government. Some wonder whether Aceh, where about 18% of the population is unemployed, can attract the labor-intensive businesses that would provide work for those who need it.

“There is no new investment coming in, and unemployment is still high,” said Kuntoro, who oversaw the rebuilding of 140,000 houses, 1,700 schools and almost 4,000km of road during his tenure at the helm of the BRR.

Tourism could be a growth sector, but its prospects are likely to be curtailed by social restrictions on visitors — another byproduct of the post-tsunami peace deal, which gave Aceh’s government the scope to expand its already restrictive brand of sharia law.

The code was recently made applicable to non-Muslims, including foreigners, with dark green uniformed morality police known as the Wilayatul Hisbah scouring the streets for women without veils, or unmarried couples seeking some quiet time together.

“How can tourism go hand in hand with sharia law. You have some beautiful beaches, but what will happen if someone will wear a bikini? Will the sharia police detain her?” said Kuntoro.

If Bali-style hedonism is out of the question for Aceh, visitors might be drawn by what locals are calling “disaster tourism.”

That means promoting the region’s stirring tsunami memorials — such as the imposing PLTD Apung, the Tsunami Museum, with its dank and sheer water tunnel, designed to mimic the soaring tsunami waves, and the disaster research center, which doubles as an evacuation tower and sits near a mass grave holding the remains of almost 15,000 tsunami victims.

Reminders of the tsunami dot Banda Aceh, ensuring that although the disaster happened a decade ago, memories remain poignantly and ominously vivid in the minds of survivors.

After surviving the earthquake that rattled the town at 7:59 a.m. that morning, 25-year-old architect Tomy Mulia Hasan thought the worst was over. But then came the anguished, panicked shouts, turning Tomy’s head. “Water is coming, water is coming, run, run!”

About the length of a football field away, a rumbling, blackened wall of liquid turmoil, almost two stories high, was churning towards him, engulfing everything in its path. “I got in my car and tried to drive away, but then after just 30 meters I saw more water coming from the opposite direction,” Tomy said.

He jumped out of the car and ran for his life, scrambling up a nearby construction site. Climbing as high as he could up the half-finished edifice, he watched with relief and terror as churning seawater met just below his feet — thick with the debris of houses, trees and mangled cars.

“I pulled maybe 40 people from the water,” Tomy recalls of his grim two hours perched on the teetering, half-finished building. “They were all dead.”

On Dec. 26, thousands of people will gather in Banda Aceh to mark 10 years since the tsunami. The commemoration will be attended by Vice President Jusuf Kalla, who is popular in Aceh for his efforts to broker peace prior to the tsunami. President Joko Widodo will not attend, instead heading to Indonesia’s restive Papua region to celebrate Christmas.

The Acehnese are adamant that despite the destruction and loss wrought upon their province, Dec. 26 will not be a somber commemoration. “We [will be] doing this for years; it will be a way to develop and promote disaster tourism,” said Chairul Muslim, a board member of the province’s Disaster Management Agency.

Ten years after his frantic clamber up the side of a building, away from the crushing waves, Tomy is the lead organizer of the commemorative events. But despite his own vivid account of that terrifying morning, he believes that the anniversary ceremonies should be about looking ahead, not back.

“The tsunami brought international eyes to Aceh,” Tomy said. “If we talk about tsunami in Europe, in America, they know Aceh. It is good for tourism.”

View of Banda Aceh from tsunami evacuation tower, built on the coast after the 2004 disaster (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

View of Banda Aceh from tsunami evacuation tower, one of dozens built along the coast after the 2004 disaster (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Fishing at Ulee Lheue shoreline outside Banda Aceh. When the tsunami made landfall at this location on Dec 26 2004, the waves were estimated to be around 25 meters high (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Fishing at Ulee Lheue shoreline outside Banda Aceh. When the tsunami made landfall at this location on Dec 26 2004, the waves were estimated to be around 25 meters high (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Follow us on Twitter
, , ,