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Indonesian Islamic Party Reaps Rewards of Goodwill

Extensive Relief Work in Aceh Wins Sympathy -- and Votes

By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 14, 2005; Page A13

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia -- An Islamic cleric and political organizer, Azmi Fajri Usman, pulled up at a camp of about 200 tsunami survivors stranded in a city park.

"Asalaam alaikum!" Peace be with you, he said, hopping off his motorbike and approaching a few of the survivors as the sun neared its zenith Wednesday. "Is there anyone here who's organized the place?"


Members of the Prosperous Justice Party, which has the most civilian relief volunteers in Indonesia, unload goods for refugees. The party says it is committed to humanitarian aid and that its relief work is not political. (Binsar Bakkara -- AP)

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"There's no organizer here," harrumphed a man wearing a black T-shirt and a surgical mask to filter the stench of decomposing bodies. "We have nothing here. There's not a single pack of noodles."

Usman, a volunteer coordinator from the Islamic-based Prosperous Justice Party, was still encountering people who needed aid nearly three weeks after a Dec. 26 undersea earthquake triggered a tsunami that killed nearly 160,000 people in 11 countries, 110,000 of them in Indonesia.

"This place is just neglected," said Usman, 26, a thickset man who waddled about with boundless energy. "They see all the relief trucks passing by and all they can do is watch."

Humanitarian work is a prime component of the Prosperous Justice Party program, which also provided relief during floods and landslides in Jakarta and after an earthquake last year in Papua province in eastern Indonesia. Although members do not campaign overtly as they deliver aid and insist their relief work is not political, they know they are winning sympathy and often votes.

The symbolism is potent and practical: Indonesians helping Indonesians, Muslims helping Muslims. Here in Aceh, the hardest-hit province, a majority of residents are Muslim and provincial officials are implementing sharia, or Islamic law.

The party has filled a perceptible void here and in other parts of the country. The civilian government does not have an equivalent program and says it intends to manage voluntary organizations rather than implementing relief operations.

The Prosperous Justice Party, known as PKS, began as the obscure Justice Party in 1998 with students and urban intellectuals as its base. It has since grown to include 3 million members and recently won city council elections in Jakarta and Banda Aceh. Some party members dream of securing the presidency in 2009 and making Indonesia more of an Islamic state.

The party, whose members are ubiquitous in tan vests emblazoned with the party logo of two crescent moons and a stalk of rice, has fielded the largest group among a total of about 8,000 civilian relief volunteers -- 800 to 1,000 party members are on the ground at all times. They were among the first volunteers, having set up a crisis command center on Dec. 27. On Dec. 28, they began distributing food, water, medicine and blankets.

They can be seen passing out clothes and boxes of food, cleaning hospitals and schools and gathering together orphans to be sheltered at Islamic boarding schools.

"Our motto is 'Clean and Concerned,' " said the party's president, Tifatul Sembiring. "Relief work is one way we show our concern."

Part politician, part social worker, Usman, who was recently elected to the Banda Aceh council, is among about 2,000 party volunteers from across Indonesia who have traveled to the archipelago's far northwest corner to help survivors of the disaster.

At the cultural center pavilion in the city center, a young boy in a red Batman shirt ran to Usman and embraced him. Usman, a native Acehnese, once had a radio talk show on Islam and was known as the "funky cleric" for his hip lessons geared toward teenagers. He recognized the child as one of his pupils in a Koranic study class.

One woman said she had to beg Indonesian soldiers for a package of instant noodles. One man said he needed a tent. Another man pointed to his 10-year-old son and said the boy had survived 10 hours in the water after the tsunami and needed medical attention. His wife and 17-year-old son were dead, he added.

Usman radioed for help. Within 10 minutes, a black Mitsubishi truck flying the PKS flag arrived. In it were party members bolstered by volunteers from another Islamic civic group, al-Islam, who said they had joined forces to be more effective. Al-Islam had trucks -- the Mitsubishi was theirs -- but not enough volunteers. So they offered their services to the party because they believe the PKS is not corrupt, according to Inen Ardi, an al-Islam coordinator.

Soon, the volunteers were unloading cartons of eggs, sacks of rice and separately labeled bags of clothing for men, women and children.

"The most important thing is to be flexible," Usman told Ardi, who had concerns about how he would help 200 people so quickly. "Don't be uptight about rules."

"Yeah, but then we need more people," Ardi said.

"Okay, I'll send more people," Usman said, pulling his radio out of his pocket.

Usman and the party strive to portray a moderate image. Though party leaders would like to see sharia adopted, they do not push it in political campaigns, preferring to prepare the cultural ground first. But on posters, and in casual conversation, they reveal suspicion of Christian activists.

One flier posted on school walls around town warns Acehnese not to hand orphans to "infidels," that is, "Christians and missionaries," who would take the children away and convert them.

"The problem is the infidels who are trying to proselytize," Usman said. "We would want to see Christian missionaries leave. We want humanitarian aid workers who are sincere."

Religious charities who stick to aid work are welcome, Usman said. "What makes Acehnese angry is when religious interests get involved."

Usman, who married a medical school student three months ago, said he joined the Prosperous Justice Party because he saw it as "devoted not only to God but also to people." He said its members were religious and intelligent. The Acehnese are being tested by God, Usman said. They have suffered long, first under Dutch colonial dominion and more recently because of the military-rebel conflict. Now, the natural disaster.

"The tsunami is a test from God to bring them back to Islamic teaching," he said, adding that a return to Islamic precepts could help erase deep problems in the province.

Usman said if the Prosperous Justice Party fed the people and gave them good schools, "then there will be no such thing as a separatist movement" in Aceh.

"Inshallah," he said, God willing. After a few moments, he excused himself to pray.

Special correspondent Yayu Yuniar contributed to this report.


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