PBS Frontline/World: 'Indonesia: After the Wave'

Orlando de Guzman
Orlando de Guzman, producer of Frontline/World's "Indonesia: After the Wave." (Courtesy of PBS Frontline/World)

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Orlando de Guzman
Correspondent
Wednesday, June 27, 2007; 11:00 AM

Frontline/World correspondent Orlando de Guzman was online Wednesday, June 27 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss his film "Indonesia: After the Wave," which returns to the devastated territory of Aceh, measuring its recovery from the Dec. 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami -- and checking whether a post-disaster peace agreement between the government and former rebels is holding.

" Indonesia: After the Wave" aired Tuesday, June 26, at 9 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings).

The transcript follows.

De Guzman has lived and reported from Southeast Asia since 2000. He has covered the separatist Islamic movement in his own country, the Philippines, and the emerging insurgency in Iraq in 2003.

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Freising, Germany: Is it true that the GAM fought for independence or autonomy because of more stringent Islamic beliefs than the Indonesian government? When exactly did the Indonesian government grant Aceh the right to uphold Sharia Law?

I've read that fundamentalist Islam is becoming more pronounced in Jakarta and other parts of Indonesia. Are these outside influences a factor in the Acehnese people's decision to enforce Sharia Law?

Orlando de Guzman: No. Sharia law was never on GAM's agenda. There are many factors involved in the 30-year conflict in Aceh, and the imposition of Sharia law was never one of them. After the 9/11 in the US, there was a dangerous tendency by uninformed journalists/editors to refer to GAM as "Islamic Rebels", or even to look for that Islamic radical angle in Aceh.

If I'm right, the Indonesian government granted Sharia law to Aceh in 2003. It was given to Acehenese because they thought it would quell the rebellion. This came from Jakarta's outdated thinking that Acehenese were radical Muslims who wanted a separate Islamic state -- a stereotype forged several decades ago during the Darul Islam rebellion, which the Acehnese joined with great fervor.

Fundamentalist Islam is becoming more pronounced around Jakarta and some other cities. But its interesting that it has been a rather urban phenomenon. I think one of the major factors in the rise of more conservative Islam in Aceh is Aceh's lack of moderating voices in its Ulama. In fact, it doesn't have much of an Ulama to speak of... It doesn't have the moderating voices of Nadhatul Ulama or Muhammadiyah like you have in Java.

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Toledo, Ohio: A lot of money was donated after the disaster. Did the funds actually serve the needs of the people, or did much of it get lost in bureaucracy, etc.?

Orlando de Guzman: Something like 9 billion dollars has been earmarked for post-tsunami reconstruction. I think that if you went to Aceh today you would be convinced that the funds are reaching the people. There have been delays, false starts, and a number of corruption charges ... but by and large I believe that the aid groups and the Indonesian government know that they are under tremendous amount of scrutiny. That's not to say that there's not been a lot of waste.

The Bureau of Reconstruction and Rehabilitation, a new Indonesian government agency established to oversee the delivery of aid, has come under a lot of criticism for being bloated and overstaffed. It has something like over 1,000 employees. There was a big scandal in Aceh when one of the local newspapers published the salaries of all the employees -- the paper wanted more transparency in how the BRR did its work.

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washingtonpost.com: The conflict between investigation of past crimes and maintaining current stability was highlighted by your show, contrasting the governor and military commander of the province with some of the villagers. Do you view the stability issue as a legitimate concern? How frail is the government's truce with the GAM?

Orlando de Guzman: I believe that the stability issue is a very legitimate concern. Aceh seems very peaceful now, but the longer I stay there the more convinced I am that there are very dangerous currents going on that could one day lead to an outbreak of fighting. The Indonesian government and GAM are sticking to the terms of the MOU (the peace agreement), but both sides have been very careful no give no more and take no less. Aceh has been under military control for many many years. It is healing from a terrible 30 year war. And there is a vast reservoir of painful memories and trauma.

I can't say exactly how frail the peace agreement is, but both sides -- the military and GAM -- are certainly look at each other very suspiciously. The political institutions in Aceh are still very weak, and GAM is trying to work out a major split within its own organization.

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washingtonpost.com: What kinds of controls are there on aid money to ensure they aren't funneled into arms or other support for paramilitary or militia groups, as has been a problem elsewhere?

Orlando de Guzman: I am not privy to exactly how international NGOs make sure their funds don't get funneled into arms or support for military or rebel groups. A few private security officers working for major international NGOs have told me that GAM, perhaps remnants of GAM, have been extorting some aid groups in order to allow projects to go ahead in their areas of control. There is a big silence about this, because the aid groups do not wish to compromise their projects. I'm not sure how they work it out, but I am sure this is not a problem unique to Aceh.

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Orlando de Guzman: When we think of Aceh we mostly think of the tsunami. But in my documentary I wanted to highlight Aceh's other disaster -- the aftermath of its brutal civil war. I think that in the wake of the tsunami there has been this kind of mass amnesia (both among the Acehnese, the government, and international aid groups) over the 30-year war. It's amazing to me to see how quickly people forget. But the pain is very much still there.

A recent study by Harvard University School of Medicine, which was commissioned by the Office of International Migration (IOM), found that something like 85 percent of the people they interviewed were plagued by fears of insecurity and loss. In some villages, almost half the people have experienced running out of a burning building, and equally as many men have experienced torture. The Harvard study is really the first to shed light on this problem in a scientifically sound way.

A psychosocial needs assessment of communities in 14 conflict-affected districts in Aceh(International Organization for Migration, June 20)

Don't these people's trauma count as well?? 9 billion dollars have been earmarked into post-tsunami reconstruction. So far, about 150 million has gone into post-conflict reconstruction, and most of those funds have been given to former rebels for livelihood projects. There is no great effort to deal with the pain and the loss of ordinary people.

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New York, N.Y.: What your opinion of the governor's go slow approach on redress of grievances? Is it reasonable that he focuses on the economy given the tensions and pain you have witnessed?

Orlando de Guzman: Yes, I believe it is reasonable. But I also feel that something has to be done quickly to address the long-term pain and suffering of those who've survived the conflict. If there is anything that could upset the governor's grand economic plans for Aceh, it is the poisonous memories of the conflict and the sense of impunity and hopelessness that has taken root in this society.

So much has been focused on the tsunami, but I think now is the time to pay attention to the more complicated man-made tragedy in Aceh.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: If there was to be another natural disaster, how do you think the past experiences might guide how well the two warring sides would make agreements on future disaster relief?

Orlando de Guzman: I do hope there is not another natural disaster. Indonesia has suffered too many of them the past few years! The price paid for peace in Aceh -- the death of 170,000 people -- is just too high. But I worry that as the memory of the tsunami begins to fade away, officials and leaders will return to old habits. When I interviewed the military general who was in charge of counter-insurgency operations in Aceh for the documentary, I asked him specifically if it was the tsunami that brought the peace. (You may read the extended interview and watch the video at http://www.pbs.org/frontlineworld/) The general said that it was a "tool" to bring the two sides together, but it still remains to be seen if it is the main reason for the peace.

I think that major natural disasters can put our own human follies into perspective, but how stubborn are we, and what are the limits of our abilities to change?

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washingtonpost.com: How are reconstruction efforts going in Aceh? And are the economic initiatives undertaken by the new governor having a tangible impact on the average villager?

Orlando de Guzman: I think the economic intiatives undertaken by the governor hasn't reached the average villager. Remember, he has only been in office since February of this year. In the villages, the Aceh I see is still very much the Aceh I saw several years ago. People are still plagued with poverty and the governor has a lot of work cut out for him. But I think its unrealistic to expect one man to turn Aceh around. I remember reading a quote from the governor recently, when he said "I never promised to take the Acehnese to heaven. I just want to take them out of hell."

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Silver Spring, Md.: One of my coworkers was involved in environmental assessments post-tsunami in Aceh, focusing on reef communities. Did you see any evidence of environmental or natural resource recovery in your return visit? Any idea how the reefs are doing- and the artesanal fisheries that depend on them?

Orlando de Guzman: I was a marine biology major a long time ago, but have since turned my attention to journalism. So my knowledge marine life is rather limited at this point. I believe there was a study recently about coral damage because of sea-floor upheaval during the earthquake and tsunami, and it showed massive damage to coral life.

The more evident damage I've seen is to the forests. The reconstruction from the tsunami has driven a very high demand for timber. The NGOs have been very good about sourcing 'green' wood and even importing wood from Canada to build homes there, but the demand is so high that forests are still being cut down. Illegal logging has been one of the big agendas of the governor, and a logging ban is in place in Aceh at the moment.

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Orlando de Guzman: Thank you very much for all your thoughtful questions. Aceh is a long way away, and I am happy that people here are paying attention to the events there. My biggest thanks is to all the Acehnese who have helped me over the years and have opened up their hearts to an outsider like me, sometimes at great risk to their own health and safety. Every time I return to Aceh I always see new challenges, but I also see hope. That hope lies in the resilience of the Acehnese, who always seem to shine come hell or high water.

Thank you.

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