Two years after the devastation of Aceh province by the tsunami, only 30% of those left homeless have gained access to permanent housing. The clean up alone -- for the most part getting rid of all of the debris left when the tsunami flooded half the city of Banda Aceh and drastically altered a 500-mile shoreline of villages -- has been a massive and successful undertaking.
When the tsunami struck Indonesia in late December 2004, Aceh province was involved in a thirty-year conflict with the central government, during which time Aceh was isolated from any Western influence. Aceh was closed to foreigners, journalists, NGOs, including even UN Agencies and the Red Cross/Crescent.
Aceh is considered the most Muslim part of the largest Muslim country in the world, with a rich cultural heritage that goes back centuries. A factoid is that of three ambassadors to the Muslim world retained by Elizabeth I of England, one of them was in Aceh.
However the regional conflict in Aceh was not to do with religion but the control of resources: oil, natural gas and timber.
In the wake of the tsunami and international organizations coming in to help with relief efforts, Banda Aceh, the capital of Aceh province, effectively turned into “NGO-ville”. In addition to representative missions from various foreign governments, at one time 500 foreign NGOs were based in Banda Aceh.
By and large, the Achinese people are today very open to and thankful for Western intervention, not only financially and developmentally, but also for the peace that it has brought. In the three decades before the tsunami, Aceh was embroiled in the turmoil of federal troops confronting the local heavily armed GAM resistance army, so people were not comfortable going out into the streets at night. But this has all changed and the people of Aceh look at the presence of the international community as the best guarantee of ongoing peace and prosperity.
So the tsunami effectively opened the doors of Aceh to the world, hitherto closed for decades. A GAM spokesperson indicated that in retrospect, the Achinese regard the tsunami as a miraculous "act of God ... It is an added mercy that the reconstruction effort will last for years, for one can expect (and hope) that representatives of the international NGO’s will remain yet a long time in Aceh, and that as witnesses they will deter the Indonesian government and the TNI from incurring further suffering on the people of Aceh".
While the NGOs obviously came to help on a humanitarian level, not everyone’s interest in Aceh is for humanitarian reasons. With Aceh negotiating to try to get about a much larger percentage of the oil revenue pumped in their province, they stand poised to become a very rich area, with both the oil companies and the commercial entrepreneurs equally interested.