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INDONESIA: NATURAL DISASTERS OR MASS MURDER?


Another day, another unnecessary loss of lives: 16 people killed and 16 still missing in floods and landslides on a small island Tahuna off Indonesia’s Sulawesi.

At an alarming rate, Indonesia is replacing Bangladesh and India as the most disaster-prone nation on earth. Whenever the word Indonesia appears on the list of headlines on Yahoo news, chances are that another enormous and unnecessary tragedy occurred on one of the islands of this sprawling archipelago.

Airplanes are disappearing or sliding off the runways, ferries are sinking or simply decomposing on the high seas, trains crash or get derailed at average rate of one per week, illegal passengers falling through the rusty roofs. Illegal garbage dumps bury under its stinking content desperate communities of scavengers. Landslides are taking carton-like houses to the ravines; earthquakes and tidal waves are destroying coastal cities and villages. Forest fires from Sumatra are choking huge area of Southeast Asia.

The scope of disasters is unprecedented and it is absurd to discount them simply as nation’s bad luck or as the wrath of gods or the nature. Corruption, incompetence and simple indifference of ruling elites and government officials are mostly to blame. It is poverty, lack of public projects and kleptomania that kills hundreds of thousands of desperate Indonesian men, women and children.

Since 1965 US-sponsored military coup that deposed Sukarno, installing a military regime of staunch anti-communist and corrupt pro-market dictator Suharto, Indonesia escapes serious scrutiny by the western media and governments. After Suharto stepped down in 1998, it is being hailed by mass media as emerging and increasingly tolerant democracy.

Some of these disasters are man-made; almost all of them are preventable. At closer scrutiny it becomes obvious that people die due to almost non-existent prevention, lack of education (Indonesia has the third lowest spending on education as percentage of its GDP, after Equatorial Guinea and Ecuador) and savage pro-market economic system which allows enrichment of very few at the expense of the majority which lives under 2 dollars a day. Conclusions can be terrifying casting light on the way the present-day Indonesian society functions. However, to avoid this exposure would doubtlessly lead to further loss of precious lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

Indonesia is profit-driven to the extreme. It is also one of the most corrupt nations on the face of the earth. And there seems to be no immediate profit to be made from implementing preventive measures. Dams and anti-tsunami walls are almost everywhere considered to be public works and exactly this word – public – had almost disappeared from the lexicon of those who make decisions in Indonesia. Short-term profit for particular group of individuals is given much higher priority than long-term gains for the entire nation. Moral collapse of the nation is reflected in the scale of values: corrupt but rich individuals command incomparably higher respect than those who are honest but poor.

Ferries are sinking not “because of high winds and waves”; they sink because they are overcrowded and badly maintained, or more precisely because they are allowed to be overcrowded and badly maintained. Everything is for sale, even the safety of thousands of passengers. Companies care only about their profits, while government inspectors are mainly interested in bribes. Recent well publicized sinking of Senopati Nusantara killed hundreds of people, but it was just one of hundreds of maritime disasters that occur in Indonesia each year. While there are no exact statistics available (for predictable reasons, Indonesian government makes sure to avoid publishing comprehensive comparative statistics), some maritime routes lose 3 or more vessels a year.

Indonesian airline industry has one of the worst safety records in the world. Since 1997, at least 666 people died in 8 major separate airplane crashes in Indonesia. Some of the pilots are so badly trained that planes often skip off the runway, miss runway altogether or land in the middle of it. Maintenance is another issue: flaps often don’t function properly, wheels cannot get in after take-off, seldom changed tires have tendency to blow up upon touch down. It is a mystery how do some airplanes – particularly old Boeings 737s flown by almost all Indonesian airlines – make it through the inspections.

After consulting with local civil aviation officials (who obviously do not want to be identified), your correspondent learned that the navigation systems at several major Indonesian airports are in disastrous state, particularly those at Makassar in Sulawesi and Medan in Sumatra.

On average, there is one deadly train accident every six days in Indonesia, many caused by the lack of gates at its 8.000 level crossings. In comparison Malaysia had no fatal accident for 13 years up to 2005 (last year for which statistics are available).

Despite the fact that Indonesia has relatively small number of cars per capita, its roads are the “most used” of any networks in the world (second only to Hong Kong which is not a country): 5.7 million vehicle-km per year of road network (2003, The Economist World in Figures, 2007 Edition). Despite this epic congestion and generally slow pace of traffic, 80 plus people die on average every day on Indonesian road, mostly due to the terrible state of the infrastructure and poor law-enforcement, according to The Financial Times.

Earthquakes alone do not kill people. Poor construction of houses and buildings are the culprits, together with the lack of preventive measures and preventive education. It is well known fact that Indonesia is prone to natural disasters; that it is located on so called ring of fire. But the poor can count on no massive public housing projects (like those in neighboring Malaysia), which could withstand earthquakes. Almost each family is on its own: it has to design and build its own dwelling. Major earthquakes kill hundreds, sometimes thousands of people, leaving hundreds of thousand homeless. At least 5.800 people died and 36.000 were injured on May 27, 2006 during 6.3-magnitute earthquake which hit central Java near historic city of Yogyakarta. Primitive infrastructure, inadequate medical facilities and corruption in distribution of aid are to blame for unacceptably high number of casualties after each major tremor.

Illegal logging and deforestation are the main reasons for the landslides. It is well known who is responsible for the forest fires in Sumatra and elsewhere, but officials are reluctant to make arrests, as those responsible for de-forestation are often rich and well connected in the country where even justice is for sale. There are countless solutions to this problem, including law-enforcement, inspections and attempt to provide alternative means for livelihood to those communities that are so desperate that they are literally forced to participate in digging their own graves by destroying environment that is in return annihilating entire communities. But almost nothing is done, as illegal logging is huge and lucrative business that can grease hundreds of willing palms.

Last month, dozens of people were killed in landslides and flush floods in north of Sumatra Island, which forced some 400.000 people to flee their homes. In June 2006, floods and landslides triggered by heavy rains killed more than 200 people in south Sulawesi province.

Tidal wave, known as tsunami, killed more than 126.000 people in Aceh province in December 2004. Not only was response of Indonesian government and military forces inexcusably slow and inadequate, large part of massive foreign aid disappeared in corruption. Instead of helping victims, many members of Indonesian military were extorting bribes from relief agencies and destroying precious supplies or drinking water and food in case that bribes were not paid. In a scandalous land-grab sponsored by the government, many victims were prevented from returning to their own land while children were forcefully separated from their parents (who lost birth certificates during the tragedy) and “adopted” by religious organizations; some falling victims to human trafficking. More than two years after this devastating tragedy, hundreds of thousands are living in temporary housing.

Many victims of yet another tsunami, which hit the coast of southern Java in July 17, 2006, are still waiting for any substantial help. At official count, 600 people died, but the real number was almost certainly much higher. Indonesian officials received early warning from Japan but refused to act, later claiming that there was not much they could do, as the area was not equipped with the sirens or loudspeakers.

Indonesia often suffers from some man-made disasters beyond any comprehension and comparison. Recent “mud flood” inundated entire villages right outside Surabaya. It occurred due to inadequate safety procedures of a gas exploration company (co-owned by one of the cabinet ministers). This “accident” displaced more than 10.000 people, covering over 1.000 acres of land with hot mud, destroying the only motorway of Surabaya as well as the major railway line. Garbage buried entire communities of poor scavengers at illegal dumping site outside Bandung. There are many more cases of similar nature, but complete list would require too much space – probably entire book dedicated to the subject.

The question is when will Indonesian people say that enough is enough and when will they demand accountability and justice, exact statistics and concrete blueprint for solutions? In almost any other country, two recent disasters – grizzly sinking of Senopati Nusantara and “disappearance” of Adam Air Boeing 737 with 102 people on board – would be more than enough to force cabinet ministers to resign. In Indonesia, these tragedies are seen (or presented) as yet another misfortune without holding anyone responsible or accountable.

Indonesian press and mass media are reporting each and every disaster in details. But they are failing to establish that what is happening there is extraordinary and intolerable, that there is probably no other major country in the world that is experiencing such unnecessary and devastating loss of human lives due to disasters that are either man-made or easily preventable. To link enormous number of lost human lives in countless disasters with corruption and socio-economic system is determinately discouraged. Jakarta Post, leading daily newspaper in Indonesia, recently suppressed this commentary, refusing to publish it on its pages.

Since December 2004, Indonesia has lost around 200 thousand people in various disasters, not counting car accidents and military conflicts ranging all over its archipelago. That’s more than Iraq lost in the same period of time, more than Sri Lanka or Peru lost during their long civil wars. Indeed, many Indonesians are experiencing life, which is as dangerous and hazardous as that in the war-torn parts of the world. Most of them don’t realize it, as comparative statistics are not available or are suppressed.

Indonesia is poor, but it is still in the position to protect some of its most vulnerable citizens. The main problem is that there is no political will. There is plenty of concrete and bricks to build dams and walls against tsunamis, to reinforce the hills around the towns, which are in danger of being buried by the landslides. One just has to look around Jakarta where dozens of unnecessary new shopping malls are growing in several locations, where kitschy palaces of corrupt officials cover acres of land.

Unwillingness to deal with the problems has roots mostly in corruption. Local companies and officials developed unique ability to make profits from everything, even from disasters and from the suffering of millions of fellow citizens. In simplified terms, corruption is stealing from the public. But when the toll has to be calculated in hundreds of thousands of lost human lives, it becomes mass murder.

Andre Vltchek: novelist, journalist and filmmaker, co-founder of Mainstay Press (www.mainstaypress.org), senior Fellow at Oakland Institute (www.oaklandinstitute.org). He presently resides and works in Southeast Asia and South Pacific and can be reached at: [email protected]

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