JAKARTA, Indonesia -- When the tsunami crashed into Indonesia's westernmost province of Aceh in December, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was nearly 3,000 miles away at the far end of the archipelago. It took him more than a day to reach the scene of the disaster, but that was a sprint by the standards of Indonesia's traditionally lumbering leadership.
He has returned to Aceh four more times, winning widespread applause from ordinary Indonesians for his high-profile presence in the devastated region.
Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, center, prays at a mass grave for tsunami victims during a visit to Banda Aceh on Feb. 19.
(Binsar Bakkara -- AP)
Indonesian political analysts and commentators said, however, it was not enough to turn up at the scene. Yudhoyono appeared to be too stiff and proper, dressed for a meeting rather than a rescue mission, many analysts said. During his trips, the president wore a formal shirt with long sleeves neatly buttoned at the wrist instead of rolling his sleeves up and wading into the wreckage. Critics fault Yudhoyono for missing a golden chance to energize his young administration, which took over in October, and rally a nation that has grown cynical about politics in recent years. Moreover, they blame the president for failing to provide clear direction for recovery efforts in Aceh, where at least 120,000 people were killed by the tsunami and many more left homeless.
"He should have used much more urgent rhetoric to drive home the message of national emergency," said Dewi Fortuna Anwar, a political commentator with the Habibie Center, a private think tank. "It was characteristic of Bambang Yudhoyono. He was good, but he could have gone the extra mile."
Faced with a natural disaster unparalleled in the country's modern history, Yudhoyono fell short in marshaling Indonesia's resources, she said. For instance, he deferred to military commanders when they resisted the emergency deployment of two army battalions to the province to help in relief efforts.
Then, after proposing the establishment last month of a special authority to oversee Aceh's reconstruction, Yudhoyono seemed to back away from the idea, creating confusion over who will orchestrate the massive effort. Two months after the disaster, critics say there remains little coordination among government ministries, private charities and international organizations.
"Who's in charge? Who's going to be the conductor?" asked Humam Hamid, chairman of the Aceh Recovery Forum. "The president needs to be more decisive. People are waiting."
Hamid said, for instance, that Acehnese refugees living outside designated camps had yet to receive emergency food supplies because of confusion among government officials. And he said the central government had been slow to formalize its plan to establish coastal buffer zones. As a result, some refugees have already begun to rebuild destroyed homes in locations where the government may ultimately ban development.
"We still have much to do," Yudhoyono recently conceded during a speech in Singapore. "We hope the current emergency relief phase will be completed by the end of March, after which we will move on to rehabilitation and reconstruction." During his visit to Aceh this weekend, he told reporters he had directed government agencies to accelerate their efforts.
Presidential spokesman Andi Mallarangeng said that the administration was still on schedule to complete a redevelopment master plan by late next month and create a special authority to help implement it. Dismissing criticism, he said a key measure of the government's success was the absence of epidemics in Aceh, which health experts had feared.
"The president, since day one, instructed that we do our best to see that all resources are mobilized and nothing be spared," Mallarangeng said. "We have done tremendously. Of course we could do better."
Analysts repeatedly said Yudhoyono should have followed the example of former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who galvanized New Yorkers after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, or of Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose media-savvy response to the tsunami helped him win an overwhelming reelection victory earlier this month.
But those two names are unknown to most Indonesians, who remain largely supportive of Yudhoyono's performance.
According to the Indonesian Survey Institute, about 80 percent of Indonesians polled in January said that they were satisfied with his handling of the Aceh crisis; preliminary results in February show a similar level of approval.
Muhammad Qodari, the institute's deputy director, attributed these high ratings to Yudhoyono's visibility on the issue, in particular his early visits to the province. "The president gets a lot of media on Aceh," Qodari said.
The public response to his handling of the tsunami has been so favorable that Qodari said it had compensated for disapproval of Yudhoyono's economic policies, in particular his proposal for sharply higher fuel prices. The issue of government fuel subsidies has loomed large since Yudhoyono was elected in a landslide victory in August. After steep increases last year in global oil prices, his economic advisers urged him to slash price supports in an effort to save the government budget more than $5 billion.
While the price hike could still provoke widespread protests in April, when they will probably take effect, Yudhoyono's handling of the issue will no longer define his presidency, according to Bambang Harymurti, chief editor of Koran Tempo newspaper.
Foreign diplomats who follow recovery efforts offered generally positive reviews of the president's performance.
In the days after the disaster, Yudhoyono quickly belied his reputation for indecisiveness by inviting foreign military forces, including about 8,000 U.S. troops, to participate in emergency relief efforts in Aceh, diplomats noted. The invitation was extended despite long-standing Indonesian fears of foreign interference in the restive province, where government forces are battling separatist rebels.
Yudhoyono also moved swiftly to adopt a Singaporean proposal for an emergency tsunami conference. The meeting, which was held in Jakarta less than two weeks after the disaster, drew 26 countries and international organizations pledging about $4 billion for tsunami relief efforts.
"The tsunami has also given way to a new phenomenon in international affairs," Yudhoyono said during his speech in Singapore on Feb. 16. "It generated a tremendous amount of global goodwill and solidarity on a scale that is unprecedented."
He won praise from foreign diplomats for using the global spotlight to convene an "infrastructure summit" last month at which he and his ministers sought to attract foreign investment for ports, roads, power plants and other projects across the country.
The president also took advantage of the heightened international interest in Aceh to press forward with negotiations over a peace deal with the separatist Free Aceh Movement. The Indonesian government, which had been pursuing secret contacts with rebels under the direction of Vice President Jusuf Kalla even before the disaster, opened formal talks with them in Helsinki, Finland, late last month. The latest round of negotiations concluded Monday.