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Once Again Indonesia Failed Its Quake Victims


A devastating earthquake of 6.3 magnitude hit central Java on May 27, killing more than 5,800 people, leaving 420,000 homeless. This is just the latest terrible disaster that has hit this enormous archipelago – home to almost 250 million people. Many Indonesians are beginning to believe that their country is doomed, punished by god. The reality is much more prosaic: the pro-business state with almost no social conscience is continuously failing to implement preventive measures which could save lives in times of disaster, as well as educate citizens and improve infrastructure.

What would you do during a powerful earthquake in Japan or Chile, two countries periodically shaken by mighty temblors? Chances are that you would behave in accordance with what you learned during the countless drills at school or at your office or what you saw on television. If electricity were knocked out and the tragedy happened in the middle of the night, you would orderly evacuate your building or your house, either following emergency signs or taking earlier memorized escape routes.

Chances are that you would survive. As you made your escape you would have no doubts that emergency teams were heading your way, that the injured were being treated in hospitals and that there were thousands of people taking immediate action, people trained to deal with emergencies, determined to save your life.

When the devastating quake of 7.9 on the Richter scale hit northern Chile last year, tens of military transport planes took off, almost immediately, from various airports of the country heading towards the disaster area. A temporary landing strip had been established in the desert in a matter of hours. One day later medical points and food distribution centers were all functioning and victims were housed in tents. Two days after the quake, most of the victims were placed in prefabricated houses, equipped with toilets, showers and kitchens. Despite the magnitude of the trembler, only 11 people died.

Socialist President Ricardo Lagos cut short his European trip, flew to the disaster area and right from the beginning made clear that the victims would be well taken care of: “The major costs will not be your responsibility. Is that clear? And I want everyone to know that. You will not be paying for these repairs, because there are people here who are responsible for this.”

Both Chile and Japan are periodicaly shaken by powerful quakes. In both countries, massive investment in infrastructure (construction companies in Chile are forced to spend up to 20% to 30% more than in other countries to ensure that buildings can withstand severe earthquakes) is complimented by comprehensive educational efforts which prepare citizens from an early age for various natural calamities. Needless to say, these efforts save thousands of lives every year.

Pro-business to the extreme, the Indonesian state shows no interest in creating and implementing public programs. Education is under-funded while the construction and development of cities is abandoned to the private sector. Corruption is omnipresent; those few existing regulations addressing the quality of construction are rarely enforced, because of graft and self-interest.

Indonesian disasters are often on an epic scale. The country suffers from tsunamis, landslides, earthquakes and epidemics with the latest addition being the deadly bird flu. But that’s not all: the country’s airplanes are sliding off the runways, the roofs of trains are collapsing under the weight of desperate passengers who can not afford to buy tickets and sit inside the carriage. Some bridges break in the middle even before they are officially opened.

Development Minister Paskah Suzetta now claims that the damage caused by the quake last month was far more serious than initially estimated: 29.2 trillion rupiah or 3.1 billion dollars. The National Disaster Coordinating Agency said more than 158,000 houses had been totally destroyed and over 183,000 seriously damaged.

The Indonesian government doesn’t even pretend that it can, or is willing to, help the victims of the tragedy. In the initial stage of relief it offered each victim 9.5 dollars a month in support. The government was waiting in anticipation of the outcome of the meeting with the largest group of Western donors, the World Bank-chaired Consultative Group on Indonesia (CGI) which will be focusing on the recent earthquake in Central Java, but also on tsunami-hit Aceh and the fight against bird flu.

But even the World Bank – otherwise sympathetic with Indonesia because it is considered to be a good implementer of pro-market dogma – is now voicing some serious concerns. The World Bank’s governance expert, Joel Hellman recently made a statement concerning the situation in Central Java:

“It was a natural disaster compounded by man-made mistakes of not enforcing housing and building standards in the area…. It’s largely a crisis about housing and livelihood.…”

As was the case in Aceh, most people died because of their social conditions. Central Java is a historical and cultural heartland of Indonesia, with the ancient Javanese capital Yogyakarta and some of the greatest treasures of Hindu and Buddhist architecture, notably Borubudur and Prambanan, both on the UNESCO list of cultural World Heritage Sites.

But it is also one of the most over-populated areas in Java (which is the most over-populated island on earth). Most Indonesians live in the countryside, and the countryside of Central Java is particularly poor and under-developed, surviving on subsistence farming, vulnerable to droughts and often suffering from mostly unreported famines. Many villages have no access to drinking water and electricity; housing construction is unregulated and infrastructure desperately under-developed. Unemployment is high, and the area exports to the rest of the country hundreds of thousands of unqualified workers and domestic servants.

Yatmi, a domestic worker in East Jakarta, lost several relatives in the earthquake: “My family comes from Gunung Kidul village in Central Java,” she explains. “My grandfather and my uncle were instantly killed. My parents survived, but their home was flattened and they have to live in a tent. Some of them are sick, because of the lack of sanitation. They got no compensation from the government. I don’t want to go there: I can offer no help. Better if I stay here and try to send some money.”

Yatmi’s friend, Rosma, has similar stories to tell. Surprisingly, almost none of the victims feel anger towards the government. People have learned not to expect anything from their leaders and from the system. They try to survive on their own. The poor will now try to cut down what is left of the forests in Central Java in order to rebuild their dwellings and to increase the size of their arable land. That will, in turn, lead to erosion and landslides during the rainy season in which further thousands of people will die.

After the 6.3 magnitude temblor, some of the villages, towns and smaller cities were literally leveled with the ground, including Bantul – a sizable city south of Yogyakarta. Bad roads and lack of airfields led to the second stage of the disaster: help couldn’t arrive in time to save human lives; thousands of people died from injuries, lack of food and drinking water, and from untreated infections. Some reports indicated that the mortality rate in overwhelmed local hospitals right after the quake was up to 400 people a day.

Indonesia has one of the least developed infrastructures of any large country on earth. Railroads have not been upgraded since the Dutch colonial rule; roads are dangerous and in total disrepair; airports and airstrips are insufficient and far between. Only 20 to 30 percent of the urban population has access to running water while the tents of thousands of villages are not connected to the electricity grid. The situation in most of the public hospitals is catastrophic.

It is a well known fact that Indonesia is located on what is known as the “Ring of Fire,” a part of the world prone to earthquakes, volcano eruptions and tsunamis. Despite the scientific evidence and never ending chain of natural calamities, the Indonesian government did not put in place any set of sound measures which could prevent massive loss of life.

There is little interest in creating any “public” programs in this extremely pro-business state. Public works and policies, as long as they don’t generate direct profits, are rarely discussed and almost never implemented. To complicate the situation even further, the Indonesian military with its tremendous manpower has no special units capable of fast and decisive relief operations in disaster stricken areas. As was the case after the tsunami in Aceh, most of the effective relief operations were conducted by foreign rescue and medical teams.

After the devastating tsunami in Aceh, Indonesian president Yudhoyono encouraged his citizens to pray, putting God firmly in charge of rescue operations. This strategy obviously did not work. Tens of thousands of people died in the aftermath of the tsunami, victims of the scandalously inefficient actions of both the government and the military. Donated food and water were robbed and sold by the soldiers. Instead of experts, religious fanatics – political supporters of Vice-President Jusuf Kalla – were flown to devastated areas.

It seemed that Yudhoyono learned his lesson. Right after the earthquake in Central Java he flew to Yogyakarta, visiting victims and assessing the scale of the disaster. But even his good will could not move the rusty and paralyzed wheels of the Indonesian state and the military. It has become obvious that unless there is some profound change in the structure of the Indonesian state and social policies, tens of thousands of innocent, mainly poor citizens will die every year under the rubble of their flattened homes.

Even in the rich countries like Japan, natural disasters can cause huge losses and suffering. The 7.2 magnitude Kobe quake on January 17, 1995 took 5,100 human lives. But then, the heads of government officials and of those from the public sector rolled. The Kobe quake was not considered by the majority of the Japanese public simply as a “devastating natural disaster”; it was seen as a failure on the part of the government and society as a whole. Since then, wide-ranging new preventive measures have been implemented.

Indonesian citizens have to begin asking some very uncomfortable questions. The state, at least in theory, should be there to serve and to protect them. It seems instead that the great majority of Indonesians live in order to serve an extremely small minority of economic, political and religious elites. Not only do the elites feel no compassion for the suffering of their subjects, they manage to make a profit even when disaster strikes.

ANDRE VLTCHEK: novelist and journalist, co-founder of Mainstay Press – www.mainstaypress.org – a new publishing house for political fiction. He can be reached at [email protected]

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