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Banda Aceh Dispatch

The governor of the Indonesian province of Aceh, Abdullah Puteh, easily survived the tsunami that killed more than 173,000 Indonesians last month. At the time, he was safe in his cell at Salemba Penitentiary in central Jakarta, 1,000 miles away, awaiting trial for a million-dollar scam involving a gubernatorial helicopter. The aging, Russian-made Mi-2 now gathers dust in a remote hangar at the airport in the provincial capital of Banda Aceh, a Cyrillic-script instruction manual helpfully stuffed into its lifeless console. Nearby stand crates of food, medicine, and other foreign aid destined for Aceh's tsunami-blasted communities, much of it brought here by sleek U.S. Navy helicopters, which, thankfully, function better than Puteh's.

The trial of Aceh's governor, which began a day after the tsunami struck, is being closely watched in Indonesia. It is the first high-profile graft case during the three-month-old presidency of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who has vowed to fight the country's rampant corruption, which enrages ordinary Indonesians and scares off foreign investors. But the trial also has implications for the millions of people around the world who donated tsunami aid, and for the thousands of people in Aceh now trying to deliver it.

ACHE IS ARGUABLY the most corrupt province in one of the world's most corrupt countries. International graft watchdog Transparency International places Indonesia alongside the Democratic Republic of Congo, a war-ravaged dictatorship, near the bottom of its list of most corrupt nations. And, in a report released last week, the local NGO Indonesian Corruption Watch (ICW) gave Aceh a low ranking among the country's 32 provinces. The ICW conceded that this was "merely the tip of an iceberg of increasing corruption." Much goes unreported. In addition to the helicopter-related charges, investigators also claim Puteh deposited over $400,000 of the provincial budget in his personal bank account. When Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla departed for Aceh carrying the cash equivalent of $540,000 in tsunami aid, one alarmed parliamentarian publicly warned that the province's thieving officials tended to "fish for great catches in murky waters." Corruption even shapes the post- December 26 cityscape of Banda Aceh. Beyond the tsunami's lethal reach, most Dutch colonial-era buildings conspicuously survived the quake. Many modern government offices, by contrast, built by corrupt, substandard contractors, are rubble.

While Puteh is hardly an innocent scapegoat--ordinary Acehnese loathe him-- his trial is a distraction from a much larger problem. The province is controlled by the Indonesian military, known as the TNI, which for nearly three decades has fought separatists of the Free Aceh Movement, or GAM. TNI commanders in Aceh not only manage an array of legitimate companies, which form part of a vast and never-audited business empire, but they also run highly lucrative rackets in smuggling, logging, and extortion. In May 2003, after a cease-fire with GAM collapsed, the Indonesian government set out to crush the rebels. Over 40,000 soldiers and armed police were deployed to Aceh to fight a 5,000-strong enemy. Jakarta allocated more than $440 million for the offensive, a sum roughly equivalent to three times Aceh's provincial budget; much of this was later reported missing by government-appointed auditors.

FOREIGN GOVERNMENTS AND international agencies have pledged some $4 billion to Asia's tsunami-struck nations, with much of it destined for ravaged Aceh. How much long-term aid actually reaches the needy, however, depends largely on the Indonesian military and on the government that supposedly commands it. Supposedly, because in Aceh, the TNI is a law unto itself. Many Acehnese see the TNI offensive against GAM as a campaign of terrorism. The alleged torture of suspected rebels and their sympathizers--beatings, cigarette burns, and electric shocks--was "standard operating procedure" for the security forces in Aceh, according to a Jakarta foreign embassy official quoted in a September 2004 Human Rights Watch report.

Aceh has large reserves of oil and natural gas, although little of this natural wealth benefits the people, creating local grievances. Lhokseumawe, the town nearest to the oil fields, is a dreary huddle of low-rise concrete. This economic dispossession, combined with unchecked abuses by soldiers and police, helps explain the anger of so many Acehnese. Earlier this month, the Paris Club of rich creditor nations agreed to offer Indonesia a debt moratorium, supposedly to free up funds for rebuilding tsunami-hit areas. "Even in disaster, " remarked local anti-corruption activist Akhiruddin Mahjuddin, "Aceh gives the rest of the country a blessing."

Foreign aid groups were banned from Aceh before the tsunami, likely so aid workers wouldn't stumble across TNI abuses. Now they are back in unprecedented numbers. Banda Aceh's residents are awoken at first light by the clatter of aid helicopters bound for the devastated west coast. Outside public buildings, heartbreaking leaflets bearing the names and faces of missing people are slowly being replaced by advertisements in English offering translation services or cars for rent. The vendor outside Zaini Abidin Hospital now sells his fragrant clove cigarettes for American dollars, not Indonesian rupiah.

The relief effort has been massive, multinational, and erratically coordinated: The hospital in remote Meulaboh had 14 foreign surgeons for only five patients, while at Sigli, a two-hour drive from Banda Aceh, 1,000 refugees were packed into a camp with no working latrines. It has also thrown together unlikely bedfellows--witness Greenpeace's yacht, The Rainbow Warrior, plying the same waters as the warship U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln. The Islamic Defenders Front, an Indonesian extremist group, came to Aceh to help collect corpses and to monitor Westerners, particularly Americans, whose warships "usually have prostitutes onboard," the Defenders' local leader told the BBC. And, opposite the governor's residence, foreign Scientologists are giving free massages.

And, unfortunately, because it's operating in one of the most corrupt and military-dominated places on earth, the relief effort, too, is being tainted. Several foreign aid agencies have praised the response of the TNI. Yet, even in unifying times of disaster, the TNI has barely let its guard down, with troops carrying assault rifles even when the weapons interfere with pressing tasks, such as heaving corpses onto trucks. Indonesian soldiers have quickly resumed familiar habits of terrorism and intimidation. Just days after the tsunami, soldiers reportedly executed five refugees they believed were GAM sympathizers. At another camp, traumatized refugees told me how soldiers had fired shots into the ground before patrolling the muddy lanes for rebel suspects. One refugee, a farmer whose home and rice fields the tsunami had devoured, believed the only brake on the soldiers' behavior was the presence at the camp of two foreign aid agencies. "The foreigners must stay in Aceh," he said mournfully. "They are our only protection."

Foreign soldiers, including Americans, have already received their marching orders: The TNI wants them out of Aceh by March 26. Foreign aid groups--and journalists--now wonder when their turn will come. Privately, aid workers express fears that the TNI will begin to restrict their movements. This, they believe, will hamper reconstruction and, by removing independent scrutiny over how aid is distributed, fuel corruption. But, without restrictions, the foreigners will inevitably draw unwanted attention to the TNI's brutal prosecution of the Aceh war. For example, foreign psychologists already dispatched to counsel survivors might soon find themselves treating the pre- tsunami trauma caused by military atrocities.

Those atrocities will likely continue. Despite conciliatory murmurs from Jakarta about peace talks with GAM, the Indonesian military likely has no desire to negotiate. TNI General Ryamizard Ryacudu claims that, since the tsunami, his soldiers have killed 208 GAM rebels for stealing relief aid. The claim is unconvincing and impossible to verify, but the stance of Ryacudu, a nationalist hard-liner, is clear: Peace talks will only allow a near-vanquished enemy to regroup.

President Yudhoyono, meanwhile, has appointed Ernst & Young to independently audit tsunami funds. That is unlikely to discourage military- linked companies, who "always have a very keen eye for making a dollar," notes Australian academic Damien Kingsbury, an expert on TNI business activities. According to anti-corruption activist Akhiruddin, one firm angling for a Halliburton-sized chunk of Aceh's reconstruction business is Jakarta-based corporate giant Artha Graha, of which, according to Kingsbury, the TNI owns 30 percent. Artha Graha is run by banking and real-estate billionaire Tomy Winata, who helped bankroll the campaign of President Yudhoyono, himself a retired general. Banda Aceh's streets are now bedecked with banners proclaiming in Indonesian, artha graha cares, although the warehouse it operates near the airport is empty, apart from some heavily armed soldiers.

LAST WEEK, Abdullah Puteh was temporarily released from jail for a three-day trip to his home province. And so the disgraced governor finally saw the aftermath of what many Acehnese believed at the time was hari kiamat--Judgment Day. As funds continue to pour into the region, minor instances of corruption are already being reported: the inflation of refugee numbers by local officials, the theft of medical supplies by distributors. With multimillion-dollar infrastructure projects up for grabs, along with epic profits, all eyes are on Indonesia and its all-powerful military. The brave but desperate people of Aceh have endured their judgment day. Their government's has yet to come.

This article originally ran in the February 7, 2005 issue of the magazine.